Lost in Restaurant Translation: 8 Do’s & Don’ts of Eating in France

Busy Bistro

Congratulations!  You jumped through hoops, got the Paris restaurant reservations “everyone” has been raving about and your expectations are high.

Sadly though, too many diners are leaving unnecessarily frustrated, wondering why in the hell they bothered to set the alarm at 3 am to call exactly one month before the reservation or had to stand in line for 2 hours, just to get a miserable over-hyped table.

Why? It goes something like this…

You arrive early for your hard-earned table, but they refuse to seat you. When they do, the server leaves you with a menu and disappears. You don’t read French and the server won’t translate the menu, so they take it to another table and disappear again. Your water glasses are empty, no-one offers the wine list, there is no bread and butter on the table – and you are starving.

Finally, when you raise your silverware to eat, your elbows are touching the couple at the next table. When you apologize, they are relieved to be sitting next to someone speaking English and want to be your new BFF. You’re nodding politely hoping they get the hint when your plate arrives – only to realize you’ve ordered veal glands. Groan.

At the end of the meal, you’re waiting 30 minutes for the servers to just take the plates and bring the check so you can get, out of, there. Then you learn they don’t take American Express and you can’t leave a tip on your credit card. Cash tips only, but you just spent your last 20€ on the taxi.

Frustrating non? You might be surprised to know that everything I described (except for your rude neighbors) is right on target … if you are in a bistro. If you are in a restaurant, it’d be completely unacceptable. So what’s the difference?

Since there are many cultural misunderstandings that can make or break a great dining experience – I interviewed restaurant staff, clients & Facebook fans to create this list of EIGHT dining DO’S and DON’TS in hopes that it helps improve restaurant relations, makes you a GREAT customer and explain the situation above, one detail at a time.

Thank you to everyone who contributed. Additional suggestions? Let’s hear ‘em…!

#1

If you want an experience that matches your expectations, DO your research first so that you know what a restaurant offers. DON’T just go by someone else’s “My favorite restaurant is…” or a “best of” Paris list. If someone recommends a particular restaurant, ask for specifics of why. I overheard some ladies next to me in Taillevent saying, “I just love cute little bistros like this, don’t you?” Those aren’t the kind of ladies your wallet wants making suggestions for bistros, especially when the bill comes to 400€ a person without wine. If you DO enlist the help of friends or a concierge, DON’T expect them to be mind readers, DO give them some guidance so they can make targeted suggestions. If you don’t have an idea of what you want in a restaurant, they won’t either.

For example, a couple recently had dinner at Chez L’Ami Jean because so many people recommended it. It ended up they “hated” it because they had wanted an intimate quiet place, but at CLJ, the tables were too close together; the service was non-existent and the portions gigantic. But this is exactly what Chez L’Ami Jean is known for. I love Chef Stephane Jego, but his screaming out from the kitchen isn’t exactly foreplay. An excited couple from Brooklyn said, “We don’t want to eat where all the New Yorkers go, so we made reservations at Frenchie, Septime and Spring!” Uh…

DO understand the difference between a bistro & restaurant; they are completely different business models. A bistro may be casual, but it is not a relaxed dining experience. Bistros are busy, cramped, great for groups of convivial friends & only a few servers are taking care of an entire room such as Chez L’Ami Jean. You will have to ask for everything you need outside the food courses, because they are too busy getting orders in & out of the kitchen to see that you need more water. If you need something, ASK. A restaurant however, has room between tables with a dedicated server who should be anticipating your every need – much better suited to that couple above looking for intimate dining.

If you DON’T want what a particular bistro or restaurant has to offer, DON’T expect the place to change to suit your needs when you arrive. If multiple reviews say a place is for carnivores… DON’T custom order a veggie plate. DO go to a vegetarian place instead, that is if you can find one in France.

#2

DO be on time but DON’T arrive before the reservation & expect to be seated. They are getting the restaurant ready for you and then eating their staff meal together just before opening. If you are early, take a walk and explore the neighborhood. If you are late, especially for the first seating, you’re putting the kitchen and the next seating in an unfair time crunch.

If you are in a busy or tiny eatery, DO be proactive and go to the bathroom first before being seated. Odds are that your neighbors will most likely have to stop eating & hold down wine glasses just to move the tables apart so you can be seated. They will not be thrilled to do it again 30 seconds after you sit down and realize you need to “go.”

#3

In France, there is a certain order & cadence to a meal that cannot be altered – this is biggest learning curve in general.

Know that the French DO slow down & enjoy each other’s company … their experience is about enjoying who is around their table just as much as the actual meal on their table.

DO understand that the French DON’T dine out just to have something to eat & leave quickly. So DO expect your meal to take time. DON’T treat the meal as something to be hurried. A couple told me that they went to a restaurant and, “We knew we were breaking the etiquette, but we were too tired to eat a full meal on our first night, so we ordered just appetizers and can you believe they told us to leave?” Why yes, I can.

DO know the “rhythm” of a meal and DON’T ask them to rearrange it: entrée/starter, plat/main, cheese and/or dessert, coffee and the bill.

DON’T be a menu hog & hold your server hostage by asking them to translate the entire menu. There isn’t enough time to do this for each table and unfair to the other diners. You may be frustrated that they won’t translate the menu, but they are frustrated you expect them to be French teachers.

When I first came to Paris, I was attempting to translate each and every word on a chalkboard menu to make a perfect decision. The owner came over and said, “Madame, the other customers and the kitchen do not have time for your French lesson today!”  At the time I thought he was a total jerk. Today, he and I are still laughing about it.

DO learn some key French food & wine vocabulary before you arrive, including what you know you DON’T eat. Sitting at the table is not the time to learn you don’t like veal glands. Just try sending back a full plate of food because you don’t like what you didn’t know you ordered.

DO learn more than “boeuf/beef” or “poulet/chicken”- because you won’t see it written this way on a menu as there are several cuts of beef, several different varieties of poulet/chicken, etc. You don’t need to learn every French menu item but make it easier on yourself and DO learn at least the French equivalents of your favorites.

Once you see the menu, DO start making decisions quickly so you can order all the courses at once when the server arrives, then you can relax and enjoy each others company throughout the meal. If you don’t, it could be awhile before they have the time to come back to you. Think in advance of what you need during your meal, so when you have their attention you can tell them you need x, y and z.

DON’T custom order the menu (Asking to “share” courses, split meals, appetizers in place of main courses, vegetables instead of fries, dressing on the side, etc.) If it is a set menu or prix fixe, the menu is what it is. Small kitchens are just not set up to custom order each customer’s choices. Incredibly, a couple asked to share the wine pairing menu at Restaurant Spring. That makes a half of a half of a glass per person. Seriously?

If you DON’T see an item you’re craving on the menu, DON’T ask for it. Some girls at a bistrot wanted omelettes because they thought they were typical on menus. They were indignant that the kitchen couldn’t just “whip up three eggs.” Let’s see, if every table could custom order an omelette at 3 eggs a table, that’s TEN CASES of extra eggs the kitchen would need on hand. The chef orders food by the day honey, not the week.

Allergic to something? If you are eating in a restaurant, DO tell them in advance when you make your reservation so they have time to prepare. If you are in a busy bistro, you should learn the French equivalent of your allergy – but DON’T expect them to cook anything special off of the cuff just for you. The kitchen can only direct you to items free of your specific challenge.

DON’T expect bread on the table as soon as you sit down & DON’T expect bread plates. In France it is not a separate course to fill up on before dinner. It is served in a basket WITH the first course as an accompaniment throughout the meal to wipe up a great sauce. Take the bread slice out of the basket and place it directly on the table next to your plate. If you are dining in a fancy restaurant, you will not only have a separate plate for bread – but at a place like Guy Savoy, you’ll even have your own bread sommelier.

DON’T expect butter with bread. More places are serving it, but it is not a given. I asked a chef friend once why butter is never served with bread during a meal and her answer was, “Because it isn’t breakfast!” Voila… welcome to France.

DO tell them how you want your meat cooked. If you are picky and have to have your meat cooked well done, DO ask for it – but if they balk, DON’T fight them, just choose something else. If it isn’t cooked the way you ordered it, politely send it back. Bistrot Paul Bert has three choices for red meat: rare, medium and well done mal cuit (badly cooked!)

DO “signal” the server that you are finished eating by placing the silverware side by side & face-up on the plate. They will not take your plates until this signal tells them to.

#4

If you DON’T want to pay for bottled water, DO order a carafe of tap water – completely safe to drink. The good news is that a lot of places are now increasingly offering in-house filtered bottled water (both fizzy and flat).

DO know that French wine lists are organized by regions… not by Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc. DO learn their equivalents:

Like Chardonnay? DO order Burgundy.

Like Sauvignon Blanc? Loire Valley.

Like Pinot Noir? Burgundy, Loire, Champagne or Alsace.

Cabernet? Bordeaux.

Big Blends?  Cotes du Rhone.

But Rosé? Aperitif or by the swimming pool OK, but NEVER for dinner, like, ever.  Some ladies told they sommelier they wanted wine, and when he asked if they wanted red or white, they said, “Rosé.” It was lost on them when he joked, “But I thought you wanted wine?”

DON’T reach over your neighbors to get the wine bottle to pour your own water or wine unless the bottle is already on your table.

DO expect coffee served as Espresso without milk AFTER dessert. Decaf OK, but with milk? Now you’re really pushing it.

#5

DO know that a restaurant is the extension of the chef or the owners house. I’ve seen the same people behave like complete idiots in restaurants and then go to someone’s house the next night for dinner and act like they are in church. Either way, someone else is doing the shopping, cooking & washing up, so show the same respect people.

DO know that servers are a respected part of the restaurant “family” (some having worked there for years) and they will be vigorously protected as such by the chef and owner.

DON’T get your server’s attention by gesturing like a wild animal the minute you need something, they are prioritizing more than one table at a time. If they look busy, they are.

DO get their attention with a firm “Monsieur” or “Madame”… making eye contact is not in the culture overall, so you could die waiting for them to see your impatient glare.

DON’T hold them hostage from other customers by engaging in non-restaurant related conversation. They have work to do and don’t have time to answer personal questions about their lives or give insight into French culture. I know you’re curious how much the average rent is or how much people pay in taxes, but please, keep your financial curiosity to yourselves?

#6

DO understand that the French DON’T treat a meal like a social happy hour – out to make friends with total strangers at the next table. The minute they sit down, imaginary walls go up around their table to keep their meal private and you should do the same.

DON’T try to make your neighbors your new BFF or a tourism information employee. Leave them alone to enjoy their meal.

Recently, I saw a couple (obviously bored after traveling together & eager for different company) lean over to another table to say, “We’re sorry to bother you, but did we overhear that you are from Chicago?” If you start an introductory phrase with “sorry to bother you”… you just did.

DO keep your voices down. To the gals next to us who inadvertently told the entire restaurant they had to use shampoo to wash their private parts because the luggage got lost and the hostel didn’t have soap, thank you.

DO leave the babies & kids at home for dinner no matter how “well-behaved” or adorable your kids are. For the French, eating dinner in a restaurant is for adult company, period. I laughed out loud when a chef recently said that a baby at the dinner table is about as inappropriate as when Kelsey Grammer took his to the Playboy Mansion.

DO take photos of YOUR food quickly, DON’T take photos of others eating theirs and post it to Facebook.

#7

DON’T act like an ass when things don’t go the way you think they should. If you DO act like an ass or a snob, you are giving absolute permission to be treated like one.

#8

DO ask for the bill when you are ready for it, they won’t interrupt your meal to bring it to you. Even if you are holding up the next seating, they will tell you are doing so, as a hint to then ask for the bill so that you can pay & leave.

DON’T hand cash or credit cards directly to the server. Put your credit card or cash on top of the bill and wait for them to come to the table. Waving it at them like you’re helping a Boeing 747 into Gate 32 at JFK, won’t get you out any quicker; they’ll see it and get to you when they’ve finished helping the tables ahead of you.

Please DON’T take it as an anti-American gesture that American Express isn’t widely accepted. AE charges astronomical fees and these small restaurants just cannot afford to accept it.

DON’T expect to see a place to add tips to your credit card unless you are in a very expensive restaurant. Tips are always in cash. DO think ahead to make certain to have enough cash for a tip and taxi home.

DON’T leave small coin change as a tip unless you are in a coffee shop. It is insulting.

Forget all the conflicting tipping information out there. DO leave a 10% tip in cash on the table before leaving if you enjoyed the overall experience, because the team shares what you leave.

If you DO or DONT have a great experience, say something to the server, chef, owner or manager. DON’T go home and write a hurtful review – at least give them a chance to hear in person how you feel, good or bad.

DON’T linger, try to leave the table & restaurant within a few minutes after having paid the bill.

DO thank the staff you see on the way out if you enjoyed it!