Here are 20 tips the newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat might find useful when wining and dining in a restaurant in France. Some of them will also apply if you’re invited to dinner at the home of those French friends of yours.
1. For many Anglos (and Americanos), eating a meal in a restaurant, wherever it may be, is like trying to run a four minute mile. Perhaps it’s the fast-food syndrome. Just remember that when you eat in a French restaurant there’s no hurry – so relax and enjoy it. And even if you do sometimes have to wait a bit between courses (there are, of course, limits), don’t cast incriminating looks at your watch. And for Heaven’s sake don’t, I repeat don’t threaten to walk out!
2. Even though you did mistake the main course for a second starter in that three Michelin star restaurant, don’t ask the waiter for more. It’s not the done thing. Remember, French gastronomical cooking favours quality, freshness and refined presentation rather than quantity. I mean, you can always fill up with bread (it should come in limitless supplies). And you can also draw consolation from the fact that the cheese and dessert courses are to come.
3. If you decide to go for the steak you’ll be asked, of course, how you’d like it. There are four degrees of cooking: bleu (extra rare, i.e. cooked on a candle); saignant (rare); à point (medium), and bien cuit (well done). Be aware that very few French people ask for their steak well done. It could come with a consistency very similar to shoe leather. Even though many Anglos tend to feel faint at the slightest trace of blood, my advice would be to steer a middle course, so ask for it ‘à point.’ Or you could choose the fish.
4. If you order lamb chops in an English restaurant these would normally be cooked right through (and served with the ubiquitous mint sauce). Be aware that in some French restaurants they’re automatically served rare. In others you have the same options as with steak, but the word saignant is often replaced by rose (pink). With roast beef you’ve got no choice. It automatically comes red in the middle.
5. Even though in Anglo-Saxon land bread without butter is only deemed fit to be thrown out for the sparrows, this is not the case in France where unbuttered bread is the rule. The only exception is at breakfast time when it can be liberally buttered and jammed.
6. The above applies especially to cheese. For the French the only possible accompaniment to cheese is plain bread. And don’t ask for cream crackers or cheese biscuits. They won’t know what you mean.
7. Be warned that le French Dunk (the common French habit of using a piece of bread to soak up that delicious marchand de vin sauce in much the same way as a mop is employed to clean the kitchen floor) is frowned upon in the best of circles – though apparently French eating etiquette allows it when bread is impaled on fork. Personally, I find the French have a more liberal interpretation of what constitutes good table manners – especially when it comes to normally accepted rules on how you should use your knife and fork. But there again my Mum was a stickler for that sort of thing, and most of it remains. Remember, it was the French who invented the pleasures of eating and the English who decided the rules.
8. Don’t order a large cup of coffee (as some Americans do) to drink with your meal. The same goes for Coca Cola (Americans again). Beer also tends to be not quite right. Go either for mineral water which can be plate (still) or pétillante (sparkling). Or, far better, order some wine. In many cases you can order an inexpensive pichet (jug) of their house wine.
9. Don’t think you can have cheese at any time during a meal (Americans again). And if you can help yourself to the cheese board (in many restaurants the waiter will serve you), don’t leave it looking as if it’s been hit by an Exocet missile. So don’t hack your portion. And don’t cut the best piece for yourself.
10. In France it’s considered the height of bad manners to cut the lettuce in your salad using your knife and fork. If the leaf’s too big use them to fold it up into a mouth-friendly parcel.
11. Even though you’re absolutely ravenous and would like to pick the bone clean, resist the temptation to pick that chicken leg up. It could be a messy business. It’s certainly less practical but it’s considered better manners to dismember it using your knife and fork. If you’re meant to use your fingers a special finger bowl will be provided.
12. Don’t ask for ketchup to put on your French fries. Even though things are changing in restaurants of any pretension the waiter might not be able to conceal his horror. The same goes for brown and other bottled sauces and condiments.
13. The French are rightly proud of their cuisine, so treat it with the respect they’re convinced it deserves. When you’re served that foie gras keep well off the subject of force feeding (or animal cruelty in general). Oh yes, and don’t spread it on your toast. It’s not Marmite.
14. It’s the custom in France to let women order first in a restaurant.
15. If you can’t quite finish off that tender entrecôte steak, it might be a good idea to think twice before asking for a doggie bag so that Rover (or his owner) can partake of (or continue) the feast at home. Even though things are now changing, it’s still not really the done thing in many French restaurants, so you might get strange looks.
16. When the waiter pours some wine for you to taste it’s not really to see if you like it. It’s to make sure it’s not corked. This gives it a distinct, wet cardboard smell. So instead of actually tasting it you can just swirl it around in your glass, get your nose in there and give it a sniff. The same test can be made to make sure it hasn’t turned into vinegar. Cheaper wine comes more and more with a screw top – so it’s a bit pointless nosing it as it just can’t be corked.
17. Be suspicious if that pichet of red wine you ordered is served chilled. This is the usual way to hide the harsh taste of low quality wine.
18. Often in cheaper restaurants knives and fork are not replaced. So when you’ve finished eating your entrée leave them by the side of your empty plate. If you don’t the waiter will do it for you. You can wipe your knife on a piece of bread.
19. As a child, when I’d finished eating my Mum always insisted on me putting knife and fork together on my plate in a half past six configuration. In a restaurant, she said, this acts as a sign to the waiter that he can take your plate away. In France the position tends to be twenty past four (though it’s not often observed).
20. Oh yes. I almost forgot. Don’t put your hands on your knees under the table when you’re not eating. For some inexplicable reason (perhaps some Frenchmen have wandering palms), it’s considered not the done thing. Rest both forearms gently on the table so that they’re clearly visible to all.