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French Language Lessons: Out for Dinner
For many, France is synonymous with cuisine. The French take great pride in their cooking and consequently, so much in French culture revolves around food. Since travelers in France tend to spend quite a bit of time in restaurants, being able to navigate a French menu and order in a restaurant is important. In this lesson, we will provide basic vocabulary for dining in France. For those with dietary restrictions or special needs, we'll include some phrases for expressing these requests. We'll also list information on some regional specialty dishes. You can listen to the lesson.
For more information about French restaurants and a sample menu, read Slow Travel France - Restaurants.
Notes on pronunciation
French words tend to be accented lightly on the last syllable or the last syllable of a group of words. In rare instances for emphasis or where this is not the case, an accented syllable will be indicated by ALL CAPS. Liaisons are indicated by red, italicized initial consonants (e.g. "Puis-je vous aider?" pronounced as "pwee-zhuh voo zeh-day"). See Guide to Transliteration and Detailed Guide to Pronunciation for more information (these pages are coming soon).
Note: In the other Language Lessons, English terms are given first, followed by French terms and then transliterations. In this lesson, that procedure will occasionally be altered. The French terms will sometimes be listed first.
Types of Restaurants
There is quite a range of French eating establishments that serve everything from morning croissants to full, haute cuisine, six-course meals. Hopefully, the following list will be helpful in discerning where each restaurant lies within this range. There is, however, quite a bit of overlap.
* Sometimes spelled with a final t.
Although, like us, the French eat three meals per day, what they eat at each meal differs from what's customary in the US or UK. Generally breakfast is coffee and bread and jam. Contrary to common belief, croissants are not usually eaten daily but rather on more special occasions like weekends. (That said, we encourage you to eat many croissants au beurre whenever you like! After all, it's your vacation!)
Both lunch and dinner can be larger or smaller meals. Traditionally the midday meal was the largest one. Nowadays, there is more variation - some people prefer to eat a smaller lunch and a larger dinner or vice versa. Lunch is served in restaurants usually between 12pm and 2pm. Dinner service usually starts at 7pm, although many French people don't go out for dinner until at least 8pm.
Most French restaurants post menus in their windows. Characteristically they will offer one or more three- or four-course fixed price meals as well as à la carte dishes. Also, daily specials and dishes for which that particular restaurant is known will be listed. A service charge (basic tip) is usually included in the price of prix fixe meals. Sometimes a ¼ liter (pichet) of wine will be thrown into the deal as well.
* Although most servers in French restaurants will understand if you ask to see a menu, in fact, that word is used to describe the set, fixed-price menu. The English word "menu" is best translated as carte.
Formalities Upon Arrival
So you arrive at the restaurant, with or without a reservation, and would like to be seated. After you sit down, you'd like to get the waiter's attention. Contrary to what so many of us have heard, it is considered rude to use the word Garçon! Instead, say s'il vous plaît or "please".
* If pronouncing all of the consonants "t", "r" and "w" together is too difficult, leaving out the "r" will give you a close enough approximation. However, note that toi (twah) is a different word that means "you" informal.
** The French invariably pronounce foreign words as if they were French. It's not a bad idea to learn to pronounce your name as it might be pronounced in France. We are dah-VEED roh-NEES (David Ronis), zhoh-nah-TAH mohr-GAHN (Jonathan Morgan) et stehv koh-EHN (Steve Cohen)!
Usually, servers first ask you what you would like to drink. Common choices are aperitifs, mineral water and wine. Below are some terms that will help you with your beverage order.
* Both pichets and carafes come in ½ and ¼ liter sizes.
** Reminder: in these translations an "a" that is not followed by and "h" is pronounced to rhyme with "cat".
A note about mineral water: often the French are quite particular about their mineral water, regarding the minerals they contain and their individual health benefits. Below are some of the most popular. Perrier and Badoit are sparkling while Vitel and Evian are still.
Often, servers will offer you a drink before your meal. Also, many people like to have an after-dinner drink. Please refer to the Café Talk lesson for a list of common aperitifs and after-dinner drinks.
When your drink order has been taken, it's time to turn to food. A traditional, full French meal might consist of appetizer, soup, fish course, meat course, cheese, dessert and coffee. Nowadays, diners are not expected to eat all of these courses. However, in the spirit of trying something new, you might consider a course in which you normally don't partake – cheese, for instance. Most fixed price menus are three or four courses and usually offer either an appetizer or soup for the first and dispense with the cheese course.
Here is some vocabulary that should be useful when ordering.
* Notice the subtle difference in pronunciation between voudrez (voo-dray) in the question and voudrais (voo-dreh) in the answer.
** A potage is usually a soup that is enriched with one or more of the following: cream, butter, egg, or a flour roux (butter and flour cooked together).
*** Beware that the words for fish (poisson) and drink (boisson) are very similar. If you mix the two up, you might find yourself in an embarrassing situation!
Many travelers have dietary restrictions or preferences. Here are a number of terms that will be helpful should you have any special needs.
* Feminine form in parenthesis. Also note that the indefinite article ("a" in English) is left out of the translated French phrase. Je suis un vegetarien is incorrect.
The following are examples of dishes commonly found on menus. It is, by no means, comprehensive. The gastronomy of France is vast and it's beyond the scope of these lessons to provide a detailed pronouncing dictionary of food terms. We do hope, however, that it will be helpful with the basics. (Note, again, that in this section we've switched the order in which the terms appear: French-English-Transliteration.)
Here are some appetizers you might find on a menu.
* Remember that this is a "hard" g, as in "go".
Poultry & Game
* The last syllable in volaille is basically a diphthong – a combination of two vowels, "ah" and "ee". In this case, the "ah" component receives the emphasis with the "ee" sounded lightly at the end.
In addition to the words for various meats, we're including a few of the organ meats. Europeans eat them with much more frequency than Americans and they are very commonly found on menus. Particularly if you don't like organ meats, you might want to know a few of their names so when they come up, you can avoid them!
The French, in fact most Europeans, tend to cook their beef less than we do in the US and most wouldn't consider eating a steak well-done. Since both this predilection as well as the system for how meat is cooked is different from that in English-speaking countries, it's difficult to accurately translate the terms "rare, medium-rare" etc. Guidebooks and phrasebooks routinely contradict one another on this subject. That said, below is a guide that will hopefully be helpful. Of course, if meat is undercooked, you can always send it back to be cooked a bit more, although you might get a strange look from the waiter! In order to have a steak well-done, it might be necessary to order it très bien cuit.
Sauces and Preparations
Some of the most recognizable elements of French cuisine are its sauces. Here are some of the most well known ones.
One of the most enjoyable things about traveling in France is having the opportunity to sample local specialties. These range from crêpes in Brittany, to cassoulet in the southwest, to bouillabaisse on the Mediterranean coast. Here's a guide to pronouncing the names of some of these dishes.
* Remember that this is a "hard" g, as in "go".
The French take their cheese seriously. And we're glad they do! The variety is astounding – from mild to quite pungent, from hard to oozy soft. Your trip to France is a terrific opportunity to sample a wide array of cheeses. Here are some of them you might see.
The French enjoy desserts of all sorts – creams, pastries, puddings, cakes, tarts and tortes. Here are a few that you might run across.
* Say that 10 times fast! Actually, since it's so difficult to articulate all of the "t"s, the final "t" in tarte is usually omitted, or rather assimilated into the initial "t" of tatin: "tahr tah-ta".
After a meal, it's very common in France to have a cup of coffee. However, the French very seldom drink coffee with milk or cream after a meal. Like the Italians, there's a feeling that milk in coffee does not aid digestion. Most often, they'll just have a simple espresso. That said, don't let local custom dissuade you from enjoying a café au lait after your meal, if the spirit moves you. Decaffeinated coffee isn't an uncommon request in France. Nor is herbal or black tea. For a comprehensive listing of coffee terms, please consult the lesson entitled Café Talk.
Paying the Bill
When you are ready to pay and leave, you are expected to ask for your check. Waiters will almost never bring you the check until you request it. Restaurants in Europe don't expect to "turn over" tables. Once you sit down, the table is usually yours for the evening, or for as long as you like.
You can hear this dialog being spoken.
Download MP3 soundtrack: fr_restaurants.mp3 (340kb)
In the Slow Travel Italian Language Lesson: Going Out For Dinner, we encountered a simple conversation between a husband, wife and waiter at an Italian trattoria. What a coincidence that the same couple has decided to come to France the next year! Now they find themselves at a restaurant in Paris.
The Maître d' shows the couple to their table, gives them menus, leaves them alone. In a couple of minutes a waiter comes to take their order.
The food is served and the couple relax and enjoy their meal. Finally they are ready to leave.
The couple pays the check, which includes a 12% service charge to which they add a few extra euro, and then they leave, stomachs full, and extremely content!
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