A note from David Jaggard: France is now in its sixth week of confinement. All eyes are on the research community as the population awaits news of the one scientific breakthrough that we’ve all been hoping, longing and praying for: the development of a method for eating dinner through a mask so the restaurants can reopen. And when they do, this article, originally posted on July 28, 2015, will be just as informative as it was back then.
France is justly famous for the quality of its cuisine. But for many foreign visitors, especially my fellow Americans, a meal at a French restaurant is cause for trepidation: they’re afraid of violating some aspect of local procedure or politesse and invoking their waiter’s scorn. For these people, there are three possible solutions: drink so much wine that you don’t care, leave such a huge tip that the waiter doesn’t care, or read this article. I recommend all three.
French dining rituals are not that much different from those in other countries. However, there are a few customs and conventions that every traveler needs to know. Like for instance, in France it’s considered good form to mail a check for €100 to any journalist whose etiquette advice you read.
And that’s not all. For this reason I have decided to compile:
The C’est Ironique French Restaurant Diner’s Guide
The differences start as soon as you walk through the door. Many restaurants in France pack in the customers — literally: in most traditional places, the tables are placed side-by-side in a long unbroken row, so close that they have to be pulled out whenever anyone on the inside wants to sit down or get up.
As a result, you will often be seated closer to the stranger at the next table than to your friend or loved one sitting opposite. This is why a Frenchman would never dare propose in a restaurant: a slight mis-aim with the ring and he could end up engaged to the wrong woman.
But even if you just came to front-load your face, rather than plight your troth, such close proximity can be awkward, as I learned one night during my very first week in Paris, when I went with a friend to dinner at a restaurant near Palais Royal. It was early, and when we arrived there was only one other party in the entire restaurant, a couple having an animated conversation.
Presumably for his own convenience, the waiter seated us at the table right next to theirs, so that we were physically brushing shoulders in the middle of a large, otherwise empty dining room. My friend and I found this a bit off-putting, and then a lot off-putting when we realized why our neighbors were so animated: they were in the process of breaking up.
And it wasn’t pretty. Our own attempts at conversation were essentially drowned out by a stream of emotion-charged accusations. We soon learned that the gentleman sitting within dandruff-sharing range from me was immature, bad-tempered and just plain cruel. On the other hand, his table manners were impeccable.
Finally we asked to move. The waiter didn’t like it. Judging from his facial expression, he thought that we were being immature, bad-tempered, just plain cruel and ill-mannered.
But, like the moon, a coin and that guy’s personality, there are two sides to this issue: sometimes being so close to one’s fellow bistro patrons can come with perks.
I’m thinking here of a dinner that took place back in the 1980s. My wife Nancy and I were sitting across from each other in one of those above-described long rows, when, shortly into our meal, the table next to ours was pulled out and a fancily-dressed and bejeweled woman sat down next to me.
I recognized her as a semi-famous Parisian socialite. In keeping with her status and image, she was wearing the empress’s new brassiere and a garment that should have been listed by Guinness that year in the “Low-Cut Dress” category. Seriously, the bottom of her neckline was somewhere between Sydney and Canberra.
I remember that meal vividly: my first course was a wild mushroom potage with fresh tarragon, diced chorizo, marinated red onion and rye bread croutons rubbed with Provençal olive oil. Then I had some kind of meat, I think, for the main dish. I’m not sure if I had dessert or not, but I have a vague recollection of something with melons and raspberries.
So anyway, there you are seated at your table. The waiter will bring you the menu and probably ask if you want an apéritif. You do. And while he or she is getting it, you peruse the dishes.
Note to guys: On the menu, dudes. Not every French meal comes with a side of décolleté.
Note to everyone: In order to avoid having to write out “he/she” for the rest of this article, I’m going to presume henceforth that the waiter is a guy. An open-minded, compassionate, caring kind of guy who is keenly sensitive to issues of gender equality.
Now, then: the usual drill is that you pick a first course, which is called an “entrée” in French, and then a main course, which is called an “entrée” in (American) English. In most places you don’t order dessert until after you’ve finished your entrée and your entrée, but sometimes they take your dessert order in advance.
You don’t have to order dessert unless it’s indicated as part of a menu. Here again, the English language has borrowed a French word and changed its meaning: what we call a “menu” is a “carte” in French, and what the French call a “menu” is a “fixed-price meal with limited choices,” as opposed to “à la carte.” Which, in violation of international protocol, means the same thing in both languages.
A digression is in order here about the scale of doneness for French beef. If you order a steak, the waiter will ask how done you want it.
The choices are: bleu (literally “blue,” which of course means “red,” as in nearly raw), saignant (literally “bloody,” which of course means “bloody,” as in cooked until the inside is just barely warm), à point (literally “at the point,” which for many Americans means “at the point of starting to be cooked”) and bien cuit (literally “well cooked,” which of course means “badly cooked” — it will be unpink all the way through and no longer tender).
A digression from my digression is in order here for the benefit of readers who are starved for actual practical information: think of saignant as medium rare and à point as medium well. And don’t say I never told you anything useful.
So anyway, you’ve placed your order and there you are waiting to be served while enjoying your own and your neighbors’ conversations. When your first course arrives, despite the fact that he went around the table writing down what everyone wants, the waiter will ask, “Who has the salade à l’italienne?” “Who has the pâté à l’ancienne?” “Who has the mélons à l’australienne?” etc.
With few exceptions, French waiters never remember who ordered what. Which is fine — no one expects them to perform feats of short-term memory. If, for whatever reason, this happens to bother you, here’s the solution: call your waiter “Garçon.”
If you do that, I can guarantee that he will remember exactly what you ordered. You won’t get it until you’re about to fall into a hypoglycemic coma, but he’ll remember.
So anyway, there you are with your food in front of you, and the wine, which leads to the next dilemma. Many restaurants put out two glasses for each place setting, one for wine and one for water.
It’s considered a heinous faux pas to use the wrong glass for your wine, but have no fear! It’s easy to know which glass is which if you remember this simple rule:
If only one glass is stemmed, it’s the wine glass, but if both glasses are stemmed and one is shorter with a larger bowl, it’s the water glass, and if it’s taller with a larger bowl it’s the wine glass, unless you ordered white, in which case you should have one glass that’s taller with a smaller bowl, or shorter with the same-sized bowl, but if you don’t, then the other one is the water glass. I mean wine glass.
Most biblical scholars agree that the reception for the Wedding at Cana must have been held at a French restaurant.
So anyway, there you are about to dig in. If he hasn’t done it already, the waiter will also bring over a basket of bread, usually sliced-up baguette plus maybe some hunks of whole wheat.
And here comes my favorite part of French dining finesse: if you want bread, you pluck a piece daintily from the basket (keeping your pinky up) and throw it onto the table.
Really — you just leave it lying there on the tablecloth, shedding crumbs. There are no bread plates in France.
My Uncle Jerry, had he ever left Wisconsin, would have loved this: one less household item to buy, use, wash and store. I can practically hear him saying, “A bread plate?! Whaddaya think ya got a tabletop for?”
So anyway, you eat your meal, and there you are with your starter, main dish and more bread than you intended to eat incorporated into your body mass. At this point you might be offered a cheese course before dessert. The routine here is usually that the waiter brings a platter of various cheeses, and you cut off smallish pieces of the ones you want.
Many Americans have no idea how to cut cheese. [Note to any teenage boys who happen to be reading this: yes, I thought of it too. Hah-hah.] The principles are as follows:
• No matter what its shape, cut each cheese in a wedge that gives you equal parts of the outside and the (softer, gooey, delicious, breath-wrecking) center.
• Don’t agonize over whether you’re supposed to eat the rind or not. Just let your eyes and instincts be your guide: if the rind is cracked, shriveled, pocked with mite holes and covered with mold old enough to have mutated into a previously unidentified species, it’s edible. And probably very tasty.
So anyway, there you are with cheese and dessert packed into the last remaining available cubic centimeter of your stomach. The waiter will then ask if you want coffee or a digestif liqueur. Both are optional, after which there’s something else that isn’t: sooner or later you have to leave.
To accomplish this final phase in the feeding process, you need to know that a French waiter, unlike his American counterparts, will never give you any of the following without being specifically asked:
• His name
• Ice for your water or butter for your bread
• The check
Getting the “addition” is like getting a raise, a second bowl of gruel or a smack on the ass with a fraternity paddle: you have to ask for it.
Note that the tip, or rather service fee, is figured into the prices on the menu. You don’t have to do any math in your head or strew any extra cash on the table, although I personally leave another five percent or so if I liked the meal. French people rarely do this, which is why I’m now known in certain Paris restaurants as “Diamant Jacques Brahdee.”
So anyway, you’ve paid and there you are with your change in your wallet and an entire French meal on its way to your waistline and aorta. Or perhaps only part of a French meal — but if you didn’t eat it all, be aware that restaurants here are not likely to give you a doggy bag (sac chienâtre).
On the other hand, if you have any leftover wine, you can ask for a cork and the waiter will be glad to let you take the rest of the bottle home. (Note: I realize that by now there’s no reason to believe anything I say, but this is actually true.)
This practice is relatively recent — and sensible, because it encourages people to drink less, prevents waste and helps reduce drunk driving. And best of all, when you get the wine home you can pour it into any damn glass you want. For Uncle Jerry, that’s the best part of the whole meal.
Final note (last one, I promise): For genuine fact-based tips on dining in a French restaurant, I recommend this post by French Girl in Seattle.
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.