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French Language Lessons: Out for Dinner

David Ronis

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.

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
auberge inn oh-behrzh(uh)
bar bar serving drinks and snacks (often synonymous with café) bahr
bistro(t)* can be anything from a pub with snacks to a full restaurant - usually more casual than a restaurant bee-stroh
brasserie casual restaurant staying open continuously throughout the day brahs-ree
café serves coffee, snacks, drinks, simple plates (often synonymous with bar) kah-fay
cafétéria cafeteria (self-serve) style restaurant kah-fay-tay-ree-ah
crêperie restaurant specializing in crêpes krehp-ree
libre-service self-service restaurant lee-bruh-sehr-vees
relais routier literally: truck stop, but often serving much more interesting food than the name might imply ruh-leh roo-tee-ay
restaurant frequently a more formal establishment ruh-stoh-rah

* Sometimes spelled with a final t.

Meals

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.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
breakfast petit déjeuner puh-TEE day-zhuh-nay
lunch déjeuner day-zhuh-nay
dinner dîner dee-nay

Menus

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.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
fixed price prix fixe pree feex
set menu menu* muh-new
the menu la carte* lah kahrt
a la carte (dishes that can be ordered separately - not as part of a set menu) à la carte ah lah kahrt
tasting menu (multi-course sampling menu) le menu dégustation luh muh-new day-gew-stah-syoh
the wine list la carte des vins lah kahrt deh va
the daily special le plat du jour luh plah dew zhoor
the house special la spécialité de la maison lah spay-see-ah-lee-tay duh lah meh-zoh
service (basic tip) included service compris sehr-vees koh-pree
beverage (wine) included (in prix fixe menu price) boisson (vin) compris bwah-soh (va) koh-pree
appetizer entrée ah-tray
main course plat plah
cheese plate assiette de fromage ah-see-eht duh froh-mahzh

* 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".

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
a table une table ewn tabl(uh)
for three people pour trois personnes poor trwah* pehr-sohn
in the dining room dans la salle dah lah sahl
outside dehors duh-OHR
I do not have a reservation je n'ai pas une réservation zhuh nay pah zewn ray-zehr-vah-syoh
I have a reservation j'ai une réservation zhay ewn ray-zehr-vah-syoh
for Cohen pour Cohen** poor koh-ah**
Follow me Suivez-moi swee-vay-mwah
drink boire bwahr
eat manger mah-zhay
please (in order to get waiter's attention) s'il vous plaît seel voo pleh

* 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)!

Beverages

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.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
something to drink quelque chose à boire kehl-kuh shohz ah bwahr
some water de l'eau duh loh
mineral water eau minérale oh mee-nay-rahl
sparkling (with gas) gazeuse
avec gas
gah-zuhz
ah-vehk gahs
non-sparkling (still) naturale
plate
nah-tew-rahl
plaht
a bottle une bouteille ewn boo-tay
a carafe une carafe* ewn kah-rahf
a jug un pichet* uh pee-sheh
a ½ liter un demi-litre uh duh-mee-leetr(uh)
a ¼ liter un quart (litre) uh kahr [leetr(uh)]
a glass un verre uh vehr
red wine vin rouge va** roozh
white wine vin blanc va** blah
rosé wine vin rosé va** roh-zay
champagne champagne shahm-PAH-nyuh
beer bière byehr
(hard) cider cidre seedr(uh)

* 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.

FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
Perrier peh-ree-ay
Badoit bah-dwah
Vittel vee-tehl
Evian ay-vee-ah

Other Beverages

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.

Ordering Food

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.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
a dish un plat uh plah
a napkin une serviette ewn sehr-vee-eht
What do you recommend? Qu'est-ce que vous recommandez? kehs-kuh voo ruh-koh-mah-day
What would you like? Qu'est-ce que vous voudrez?* kehs-kuh voo voo-dray*
I would like Je voudrais* zhuh voo-dreh*
appetizer entrée ah-tray
soup soupe
potage**
soop
poh-tahzh
fish poisson*** pwah-soh
meat viande vee-yahd
cheese fromage froh-mazh
dessert dessert day-sehr
more bread encore du pain ah-kohr dew pa
some water de l'eau duh loh
more wine encore du vin ah-kohr dew va
that's enough ça suffit sah sew-fee

* 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!

Special Requests

Many travelers have dietary restrictions or preferences. Here are a number of terms that will be helpful should you have any special needs.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
I'm a vegetarian Je suis végétarien(ne)* zhuh swee vay-zhay-tah-ree-a (-ehn)*
I'm a diabetic Je suis diabétique zhuh swee dee-ah-bay-teek
I'm allergic to... Je suis allergique à... zhuh swee ah-lehr-zheek ah...
I'm on a diet Je suis au régime zhuh swee zoh ray-zheem
I can't have... Je ne tolère...

Je ne peux pas manger...

zhuh nuh toh-lehr

zhuh nuh puh pah mah-zhay

... any dairy products ... aucun produit laitier oh-kuh proh-dwee leh-tee-ay
... any alcohol ... aucun alcool oh-kuh nahl-koh-ohl
... any seafood ... aucun fruit de mer oh-kuh frwee duh mehr
... any saturated fats ... aucun matière grasse animale oh-kuh mah-tee-ehr grahs ah-nee-mahl
without meat sans viande sah vee-yahd
sugar-free sans sucre sah sewkr(uh)
artificial sweetener sucre artificiel sewkr(uh) ahr-tee-fee-cee-ehl
dairy-free non-laitier noh-leh-tee-ay
without salt sans sel sah sehl
organic biologique bee-oh-loh-zheek

* 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.

Menu Items

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.)

Appetizers

Here are some appetizers you might find on a menu.

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
crudités assorted raw or lightly blanched vegetables usually in a vinaigrette krew-dee-tay
escargots à la bourguignonne snails in the shell with butter and garlic ehs-kahr-goh ah lah boor-gee*-nyohn
pâté ground meats, vegetables and spices formed into a loaf, served cold pah-tay
pâté de foie gras pâté of duck liver pah-tay duh fwah grah

* Remember that this is a "hard" g, as in "go".

Soups

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
consommé clear broth (usually meat) koh-soh-may
soupe à l'oignon French onion soup topped with a large crouton and grated cheese soop ah lwah-nyoh
vichyssoise cold leek and potato soup vee-shee-swahz
velouté a creamy soup vuh-loo-tay

Fish

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
crevettes shrimp kruh-veht
hareng herring ah-rah
huîtres oysters weetr(uh)
lotte monkfish loht
moules mussels mool
saumon salmon soh-moh
thon tuna toh

Poultry & Game

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
canard duck kah-nahr
dinde turkey dad
lapin rabbit lah-pa
pigeon squab pee-zhoh
poulet chicken poo-leh
suprême de volaille chicken breast sew-prehm duh voh-lahy*

* 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.

Meat

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!

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
agneau lamb ah-nyoh
boeuf beef buhf
jambon ham zhah-boh
porc pork pohr
veau veal voh
bifteck beefsteak beef-tehk
steak steak stehk
entrecôte rib steak ah-truh-koht
saucisse sausage soh-sees
rognons kidneys roh-nyoh
cervelle brains (lamb or veal) sehr-vehl
foie liver fwah
ris de veau veal sweetbreads (thymus gland) ree duh voh

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.

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
bleu (literally: blue) very rare bluh
saignant (literally: bloody) rare seh-nyah
à point medium-rare to medium ah pwa
bien cuit (literally: well-cooked) medium (cooked through) or perhaps more... byah kwee

Sauces and Preparations

Some of the most recognizable elements of French cuisine are its sauces. Here are some of the most well known ones.

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
aïoli garlic mayonnaise ah-yoh-lee
béarnaise butter, egg, wine sauce bay-ahr-nehz
beurre blanc butter, shallots, white wine sauce buhr blah
chasseur literally: "hunter" – a sauce made with mushrooms, wine, parsley shah-suhr
fines herbes made with a variety of fresh herbs feen zehrb(uh)
gratin crusty baked dish, frequently made with cheese grah-ta
hollandaise egg yolk, butter, vinegar sauce oh-lah-dehz
meunière a simple lemon and butter sauce usually served with fish muh-nyehr
provençale usually a dish with a sauce of tomatoes, olives, anchovies, garlic proh-vah-sahl

Regional Specialties

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.

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
crêpe very thin pancake krehp
cassoulet country bean stew with meat kah-soo-leh
choucroute garni braised sauerkraut with meats shoo-kroot gahr-nee
bouillabaisse fish stew boo-yah-behs
salade niçoise salad with lettuce, tuna, anchovies, eggs sah-lahd nee-swahz
daube provençal beef stew dohb
cuisses de grenouilles frogs' legs kwees duh gruhn-wee
boeuf bourguignon beef Burgundy-style (braised in wine, mushrooms, onions, etc.) buhf boor-gee*-nyoh

* Remember that this is a "hard" g, as in "go".

Vegetables

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
artichaut artichoke ahr-tee-shoh
les asperges asparagus leh zahs-pehrzh(uh)
champignons mushrooms shahm-pee-nyoh
courgette zucchini koor-zhet
les épinards spinach leh zay-pee-nahr
haricots verts green beans ah-ree-koh vehr
poireau leek pwah-roh
pommes de terre potatoes pohm duh tehr
tomate tomato toh-maht
une salade verte a green salad ewn sah-lahd vehrt

Cheese

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.

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
bleu d'auvergne a sharp, blue cow's cheese from the Auvergne region bluh doh-VEHR-nyuh
brie soft cow's cheese whose flavor ranges from mild to strong bree
camembert like brie but less delicate kah-mahm-behr
chèvre goat cheese shehvr(uh)
pont l'évêque smooth, strong cow's milk cheese poh lay-vehk
port salut mild semi-smooth cheese pohr sah-lew
roquefort soft, pungent, blue sheep's milk cheese rohk-fohr
tomme de savoie mild, nutty cow's milk cheese tohm duh sah-vwah

Desserts

The French enjoy desserts of all sorts – creams, pastries, puddings, cakes, tarts and tortes. Here are a few that you might run across.

FRENCH ENGLISH SAY IT LIKE THIS
bavaroise bavarian cream bah-vahr-wahz
charlotte a molded torte made with lady fingers and cream shahr-loht
crème caramel egg custard with caramel sauce krehm kah-rah-mehl
crêpes suzettes dessert crêpes served with jam, sugar, orange sauce krehp sew-zeht
mousse au chocolat chocolate mousse moos oh shoh-koh-lah
tarte tatin upside-down caramelized apple tart tahrt tah-ta*
crème brûlée creme custard caramelized on top krehm brew-lay
profiteroles cream puffs with chocolate sauce proh-fee-tuh-rohl
sorbet sorbet, sherbet sohr-beh
glace ice cream glahs

* 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".

Coffee

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.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
the check, the bill l'addition lah-dee-syoh
check, please l'addition, s'il vous plaît lah-dee-syoh seel voo pleh
I'd like to pay Je voudrais payer zhuh voo-dreh peh-yay
service charge (tip) included service compris sehr-vees kohm-pree
cash register, cashier caisse kehs

Sample Dialog in a Restaurant

You can hear this dialog being spoken.

Download MP3 soundtrack: fr_restaurants.mp3 (340kb)
Click on the link to play the sound file (it takes a few minutes to download). Right click to download the file to save on your computer.

Dialog

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.

  • Maître d': Bon soir, monsieur-dame. Vous avez une réservation?
  • Husband: Oui. Pour deux personnes à huit heures et demi.
  • Maître d': Quel est le nom?
  • Husband: Cohen.
  • Maître d': Bon, alors. Suivez-moi, s'il vous plaît.

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.

  • Waiter: Bonsoir. Est-ce que vous voudrez quelque chose à boire? Un apéritif?
  • Wife: Non, merci. Une bouteille d'eau minerale avec gas.
  • Husband: Et un demi-litre de vin rouge du pays.
  • Waiter: Bon. Et à manger?
  • Wife: Je voudrais le menu prix-fixe à dix-neuf euros, avec les escargots à la bourguignonne, la sole meunière, une salade verte, et le mousse au chocolat.
  • Husband: Moi, je voudrais la soupe à l'oignon, le cassoulet, une salade verte et la tarte tatin.
  • Waiter: Excellent! Merci bien.

The food is served and the couple relax and enjoy their meal. Finally they are ready to leave.

  • Husband: L'addition, s'il vous plaît.
  • Waiter: Oui.

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!

  • Waiter: Bon soir. Merci.
  • Couple: Bon soir.

David Ronis is a classical singer, actor and translator living in New York City. www.davidronis.com

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