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What You Need to Know About French Restaurants
The unwritten rules of service
“On a sunny spring day in March, we spontaneously drove to a little coastal town about an hour from Bordeaux. The drive and the exploration of the beautiful place made us hungry and we turned to one of the numerous restaurants. Bustling sunny terraces, food looked great. We just needed choose the prettiest place, or so we thought. We attempted about ten restaurants just to hear sorry, we are “complet”. It was 2-05 pm on the clock. That day I discovered a French Goat Cheese Wrap at a service station McDonald’s.“
We all know French food is delicious, the cuisine is sophisticated and restaurants are elegant. However, when it comes to service there are some unwritten rules to follow.
If this is going to be your first visit to France, maybe my little list of French restaurant essentials will help you to enjoy your dining experience without disappointment. Of course, many points here would not apply to high-end restaurants, but I find them to be very common in everyday life.
Stick to schedule
In France, most restaurants are not open between lunchtime which is from noon to 2 pm and dinner that starts at 7 pm. Some bistro (small quick-service cafe) and brasserie (a large cafe) in busy parts of town will have service continu panels outside, which means you can eat there at any hour.
Keep in mind that most establishments will be closed on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, and for a couple of weeks during holiday periods in January-February and July-August. Check ahead for opening hours and day-off.
Make reservations where possible
Restaurants will have only one seating for dinner, so reservations are preferred. The French really enjoy having long dinners, multiple courses and a bottle of wine. You will never be rushed to finish your meal, and that makes the experience relaxing if you have mastered the rest.
Some high-end gastronomic restaurants in Bordeaux will ask for a credit card deposit to book a table, while most don’t.
If you don’t have a phone plan or don’t trust your French skills, you can use the Fork app to make your reservations. See my list of 5 local restaurants in Bordeaux here.
Ordering can be tricky – Ok, Google..
Once you have arrived, wait to be seated. There is nothing more pleasant than eating on a nice outside terrace enjoying architecture or vineyards, or even people-watching. However, keep in mind that there can be smokers around you. If smoking disturbs you, ask for a table inside.
It is acceptable to have a glass of wine with meals even at lunch. I love the French tradition of long and relaxed lunches. Frankly, it is very rare in France except big cities to find quick lunch options like soup and sandwich to go. This has been changing though, for better or for worse.
Portions are quite small compared to what you may be used to in North America, so it is common to have a full menu for both lunch and dinner. The menu is anywhere between 2 pre-fixed dishes for lunch to 10 dishes for dinner. Entrée-plat-dessert menu is a standard lunch offer consisting of a small appetizer, the main dish of the day and a dessert.
Foie gras is usually served as an appetizer and so are oysters. Both are typical Bordeaux foods. Sweet wines of Sauternes make an excellent combination with foie gras, while oysters are great with Bordeaux whites from Pessac-Leognan or Graves.
A lot of times, the menu is only in French. It is likely that your waiter will provide explanations in English. The specials menu would be handwritten in chalk on a blackboard. This may be a little problematic for those of us who are not great with chalk handwriting in foreign languages.
In fact, in the early days of my life in France, I had a major fiasco. I just pointed at something on the specials board in a small bistro. It turned out that I ordered a grilled veal kidney with blood! If you are like me, please avoid rognons.
French cuisine includes quite many parts of an animal that may be not so common in your country, to say the least. Make yourself a favor and google before ordering local delicacies. I am personally also careful with lamproie, the Lamprey fish.
Fait maison is a good phrase to know. It means that dishes are made in-house and not coming pre-cooked from elsewhere. Normally, it is a good idea to go for something fait maison. One would expect everything to be home-made at a restaurant, however, for example, duck leg, confit de canard, is normally industrially pre-cooked.
In the French style, you would finish your dinner meal with a short espresso coffee and a cheese plate. Cheeses are served as a dessert rather than an appetizer.
L’addition s’il vous plaît
Often you will notice that at the end of the meal people just go to pay at the counter. Of course, this does not apply to high-end restaurants. You can still ask for a bill to be brought to the table, however, it might take longer.
Tipping is not very common at least it is way more modest than in North America. You won’t find a separate line on the check for tips, but you may put some money into a little basket by the cash register. A few coins will be appreciated in a small bistro.
Restaurants here do not separately charge for bread, tap water or service cover. Contrary to Italy, French restaurants and cafes don’t apply a table cover if you are taking a table to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, however, you can’t do that during lunch and dinner time. Once you see tables that have cutlery on them, it is better to ask if just a coffee is ok.
What experiences did you have and what would you advise your fellow travellers? Any memorable dishes?
Enjoy all your meals in fabulous France!
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