Eating at a Restaurant in France – 20 Golden Tips

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Gastronomic restaurant Eating at a Restaurant in France   20 Golden TipsHere 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.

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Cafés, Bistrots, Bars and Brasseries – 18 Useful Tips

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The newly-landed Anglophone expat might find the following tips of help when it comes to having a drink or a bite to eat in a café, a bistrot, a brasserie or a bar:

1. Unlike an English pub you don’t even need to ask yourself whether the café will be open. French cafés stay open all day long. Opening hours can, however, vary according to the region in which they’re located and can also depend on the time of year. In Paris and large towns it can be as early as six o’clock in the morning to the early hours of the next (and sometimes all night). In smaller provincial towns they tend to open a bit later and close a little earlier (say 11 o’clock), and are sometimes closed one day a week.

2. In France you don’t go up to the bar, order your drink, pay for it and then take it with you and sit down. There’s always someone to serve you. So you’re not required to do anything more complicated than choose a table, either inside or out, and sit yourself down. Normally someone will quickly come and take your order – though in a busy café you might have to wait. If you choose a table on an empty terrace you might have to pop inside and let them know you’re there – even though they usually check from time to time.

3. If you’re alone and want to see the barman in action (French barmen often have a certain je ne sais quoi) or even have a chat, you can, of course, sit yourself down on a stool at the bar. And sometimes there’s an added bonus – it’s a bit cheaper!

4. Cafés, bistrots, brasseries and bars (and also restaurants) are legally obliged to display their official price-list where it can easily be seen. So if you think they’re trying to fleece you, you can always check.

5. If you order a beer it can be either a 25cl or 33cl bottle, or ‘une demi-pression’, or simply ‘un demi’ (literally a half of draught). Strangely, ‘un demi’ doesn’t really mean a half, but a quarter of a litre (25cl). In addition, there’s a line on the glass it’s served in to guide you. So don’t go away with the impression you’ve been under-measured.

6. The French have only the vaguest of notions on how to make a nice ‘cuppa’ so, if you’re British, you’ll probably be sorely disappointed if you order one in a café. Be prepared for just a tea bag dangled in a cup of tepid water.

7. If you order your tea à l’anglaise (i.e. in a teapot with milk) your milk could come pre-heated in a small jug. So if you want something a little nearer the real McCoy you’ll have to specify ‘avec du lait froid, s’il vous plaît!’ when you order. If you want my advice I wouldn’t bother. It’s much simpler to order a beer if you’re a man.  And the wife can always have a ‘une tisane’ (a herb tea) if she wants something warm.

8. If the service is included you’ll find the words ‘service compris’ indicated on your receipt. If it’s ‘service non compris’, or there’s no receipt forthcoming, and you found the service pleasant and efficient, you might consider leaving a tip. Don’t give more than 10% of the total amount.

9. In a French drinking establishment you’re not usually required to pay immediately after being served. In the larger type especially, a receipt may be placed on your table when your drinks are served. You can pay just before leaving. However, it might be more practical and less confusing to pay when he serves you – especially if two or three of you each buy a round. If not you’ll have to catch his eye and call him over. He’ll make a tear in the receipt to show you’ve paid.

10. Though you may come across examples proving the opposite, as a general rule the French tend to value person to person politeness (though this can go by the (dash)board when they get a steering wheel in their hands). So give a cheery ‘bonjour’ when he or she comes to serve you. And don’t be afraid of saying ‘au revoir’ when you leave.

11. Some waiters (especially the Parisian version) can be extremely touchy, even ill-mannered.  So you won’t get off to a good start if you shout ‘garçon’ when you want to attract his attention. It could be considered demeaning and cause him to go into a huff. It’s better to use ‘monsieur’ or ‘madame’, or simply ‘s’il vous plaît’.

12. You must order something when you sit at a table. When you’ve drunk up (even if it’s just a cup of coffee) you’re under no obligation to re-order. And nobody minds (within reason) how long you stay.

13. If it’s around midday and they’re putting table clothes on some of the tables, don’t plonk yourself down there if all you want is a drink. They’re getting ready for lunch. So try to find another.

14. In most cafés you can order a croissant or pain au chocolat to munch with your breakfast café au lait. In the very rare cases they don’t have any (it could happen in a small village café) you could nip off and buy some at the nearest baker’s shop (or they might even offer to do so). Usually, they won”t mind if you consume them with your coffee – though it’s probably better to ask if it’ll be all right.

15. Be aware that under normal circumstances café toilets are not intended for public use – so you’ll be pushing your luck if you treat them in this way. If you want to use them you’ll be expected to buy something to drink. If you’re really bursting you could go to the bar, order something and then inform them you’ll be back, but right now you’re off to’ les toilettes’.

16. If you’re suddenly hit by a bout of acute homesickness you might be tempted to have a drink in one of the many English (or Irish) pubs scattered throughout regions of high-tourist frequentation. Personally I’ve found that, though great pains may have been take to reproduce the real thing (even down to the landlord and bar staff), by some strange phenomenon (it’s the same with tea) I’ve never really been able to fathom, it’s just not quite that. As one Irishman once pointed out to me, ‘Guinness never tastes like Guinness outside Dublin!’

17. Even though a woman could venture alone into a Parisian or large town-centre café (especially if she sits on the terrace), without anybody batting an eyelid, I wouldn’t advise her to do so in a small town or village establishment. These tend to be male oriented and her lone presence might give rise to misinterpretation, if you see what I mean. Mind you, it’s pretty much the same with an English pub. Even though this may have my feminist readers up in arms, I’m afraid it’s harsh reality.

18. Please note that a ‘salon de thé’ (sometimes the English term ‘Tea Room’ is used) is a small café (similar to the English unlicensed one), specializing in cakes, pastries, ice-cream, and serving only hot and cold non-alcoholic drinks to a mainly feminine clientèle. You’ll often find a salon de thé in some of the larger cake shops whose opening hours they more or less follow. So if you want to rest those aching feet and enjoy a refreshment during that Saturday shopping spree they’re really just the thing.

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Cafés, Bistrots, Bars and Brasseries

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The newly-landed Anglophone expat might be interested to learn that in the France of today the distinction between ‘café’, ‘bistrot’, ‘bar’ and ‘brasserie’ (and even sometimes restaurant) is becoming increasingly blurred, and in many cases these words can be used to mean more or less the same thing.

The Café

Terrasse de café Cafés, Bistrots, Bars and Brasseries  The size of the French café is extremely variable and can range from the large Parisian café-restaurant, employing several kitchen, service and bar staff, to the small village one, usually owned and run by a local (unlike the frequently brewery-owned British ‘tied’ pub run by a manager having no previous connections with the village) who is head cook, bottle-washer and waiter (or waitress) all rolled into one. And in many cases – especially in the provinces – cafés are frequently the headquarters for a local association or sporting club. One thing all French cafés have without exception, however, is some kind of terrace – the larger ones being capable of accommodating scores, while in small villages they are often limited to just a couple of tables with chairs on the pavement outside. Most French cafés are licensed to open without interruption from early morning until late at night, and serve a wide range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, both hot and cold. And you can always get something to eat. They will serve you with at least a café au lait and croissants for breakfast, and at any other time of day you can get a snack (at minimum a choice of sandwiches). And even in small towns this can be a more elaborate hot or cold dish and, when there’s a demand, some serve a full plat du jour (usually at lunchtime), eaten inside the café, on the terrace in summer, or in the small restaurant which is sometimes attached. They all provide a place where shoppers, strollers or tourists can have a bite to eat, slake their thirst or relax on the terrace and simply watch the world go by, and where regulars can meet to share gossip and a joke over an apéro or two. A small-town or village café is, therefore, an ideal place for the expat to meet and make friends with the locals. There may be a certain amount of suspicion at first, but they’ll gradually acknowledge your presence and begin to warm to you. You’ll have to be patient, however, as this can take time.

Bar tabac Cafés, Bistrots, Bars and Brasseries  Sometimes a café is a bar-tabac: the premises include a small tobacconist’s and newsagents shop which, like the café, is open all day long, and where you can buy sweets, chocolate, postcards, stamps and nick-nacks of all kinds. Some are even licensed to sell scratch cards and National Lottery tickets. And the larger ones are sometimes PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) licensed. The PMU is a sort of State-controlled betting organization, mainly centred on horse-racing.

The Bistrot

Bistrot Cafés, Bistrots, Bars and Brasseries  Though the word is more or less interchangeable with café (especially when it’s not very big), a bistrot is a small, informal type of restaurant (originating in Paris but now common in  the provinces) serving drinks but, above all, moderately-priced home cooking in a relatively modest setting, and available at most times of the day.

The Bar

Bar Cafés, Bistrots, Bars and Brasseries  In the past the bar was a place (often located in a railway station, hôtel, airport or even on a train) where you could have a quick drink, either standing up or seated on a stool at the counter from where it was possible to observe the barman at work, or even engage him in conversation. Nowadays a bar usually has a terrace of some description – even when it’s located inside.  And you can usually get some kind of snack there, too.

The Brasserie

Brasserie Cafés, Bistrots, Bars and Brasseries  Larger than a bistrot and mostly located in large towns, a brasserie was originally a place where beer was brewed and consumed (the word also means ‘brewery’). An increasing number are now owned by chain companies. Though you can get all types of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages, many brasseries still pride themselves on offering a good selection of draught and bottled beers. Their main speciality, however, is food. At one extreme some just serve basic, single dishes (onion soup, cooked meat assortments, seafood, Sauerkraut, etc.) at any time of the day, while the more upmarket brasseries – especially in Paris – can provide quite elaborate, extensive, full-course (and relatively expensive) meals. And in certain cases they can serve both. Advance booking, however, is not normally required.

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A Nation of Cheats?

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As I’ve had numerous occasions to observe during my more than 40 years of co-habitation with the French, the average Gallic’s conviction that rules are necessary – as long as they’re for others – has generated treasures of resourcefulness and daring in devising ways of getting round them. Nowhere is this more evident than with the common queue.

French queue A Nation of Cheats?While the Anglo-Saxon approach to queuing reposes exclusively on a notion of orderly, single-file alignment in strict conformity with the rule of ‘first come first served’ – the slightest deviation from which will unleash unbounded fury – not only do the French tend towards a more roundabout conception of linearity but show a marked inclination to favour the principle of ‘every man for himself’. Why only the other day I was waiting patiently in a long supermarket queue when the cash desk next to us opened up. Without so much as a by-your-leave those who had joined our line well after me rushed gratefully into the breach. I’ve also witnessed supermarket customers stick the price tag issued by the fruit and vegetable weighing machine onto their plastic bag before surreptitiously adding a couple of bananas or tomatoes more. And people jumping over a Métro station tourniquet rather than pay the price of a ticket are a fairly common sight. Moreover, a third of those aged between 18 and 65 questioned in a recent survey admitted that at some time in their lives they had stolen at least one article of less than 20 euros in value. And not only does undeclared work and fiddling the national health, family allowance or unemployment benefit system cost the country billions, but tax evasion seems to be a national sport.

Jerome Cahuzac A Nation of Cheats?Mind you, how else do you expect the engine room crew to behave when the captain and his officers at the helm of State fail to set an example? For somewhere I can’t help thinking that holding public office in France gives some high flyers the idea that they’re 10 000 metres above the law. Take, for example, the case of Jérôme Cahuzac. Now Jérôme Cahuzac, a former reputed surgeon, was until two years ago the brilliant Socialist Budget Minister entrusted by Monsieur le Président with the arduous task of fighting tax fraud. The problem was that, after promising a merciless clampdown on those of his concitoyens who held secret tax haven bank accounts, he was finally obliged to confess (after weeks of vehement public denial) that he himself had salted away an estimated 600 000 euros in a Swiss bank account; he’d even reportedly tried to invest around 15 million euros (£12.7 million) in a Swiss fund in 2009. It goes without saying that not only was he obliged to resign his government position but also that of député (though he was extremely reluctant to do so), and is now being investigated for tax fraud.

Thomas Thevenoud A Nation of Cheats?And, as if that wasn’t enough, it was revealed more recently that when it came to not paying bills Thomas Thévenoud, a former Secretary of State in the present Socialist Government had no equal. Not only had he not bothered to pay his local taxes but he was late in declaring his taxable income for 2012 and 2014; and he’d even ‘forgotten’ to make a tax return in 2013! Mind you, he was finally obliged to settle a total amount of 41.475 euros to the French Inland revenue this year, including some 12.000 euros in penalty fines.

But this was far from being all. He’d also failed to pay a number of parking fines over the years, and seems to have been convinced that the electricity and water he used came absolutely free. And after hearing all this we can’t really blame a former landlord who revealed that his former lodger hadn’t though it necessary to pay his rent for the last three years. And then there was a physiotherapist who declared that the same highly-placed politician had been reluctant to pay for his two daughters’ physiotherapy sessions back in 2007. Apparently it took two years, several reminder letters, and a visit from a bailiff to remind him that he hadn’t settled the bill. And if that wasn’t enough, Monsieur Thévenoud also omitted to inform the appropriate authorities that he’d been the director of a wholesale wine company in 2010 – though admittedly it only lasted a month. Mind you, I suppose you’ve got to hand it to him somewhere. For in his defence our former Secretary of State (he’s still a député, though now disowned by his Socialist brothers) was imaginative enough to have put all these omissions down to what he described as a chronic case of ‘phobie administrative’. I’ve heard of claustrophobia, arachnophobia, agoraphobia and even acrophobia, but I’ve got to confess that ‘administration phobia is a new one on me.

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