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Restaurant Basics

Pauline Kenny with help from Kevin Widrow

Restaurants in France are similar to what we are used to in North America, but there are some differences that you need to know when traveling in France.

Meal Times

These are the meal times in the countryside. Restaurants in larger cities may have longer hours.

Lunch: Lunch service usually starts between noon and 12:30pm and if you are not seated in a restaurant by 1:30pm, you may not be seated. It is best to be at the restaurant around 1:00pm for lunch.

Dinner: Dinner service usually starts at 7:30pm, but it is customary to eat at 8:00pm. Do not arrive later than 9:00pm for dinner or you may not be seated.

Most restaurants are closed one day per week.

Reservations

It is necessary to make reservations for dinner. Call the restaurant in the morning or the day before to reserve. In the countryside, the good restaurants will be fully booked for dinner and you may not get seated if you arrive without a reservation. Also, it is a courtesy to book ahead, so the restaurant owners can plan accordingly.

In the countryside there is only one sitting for dinner. They are not expecting the table to turn over. The table is yours for the night.

It is not necessary to reserve for lunch, but you might want to if there is a place you are counting on going. Reserve for Sunday lunch which is a popular day for families to eat out.

Being Seated

When arriving at the restaurant, wait at the entrance until someone greets you and they will show you to a table. Always say "bonjour" or "bonsoir" to start the conversation, because in France, when you enter a place of business, it is as if you are entering an extension of their home.

In France, when couples sit down at a table it is customary to let the woman have the better seat. That is, the seat with the best view or the more comfortable chair, if they are different. The man takes the chair that faces the wall; the woman the chair that faces the view or the room. If you do not do this, no one will say anything, but they will think it is odd.

Ordering

Both lunch and dinner can be long, leisurely meals. Most menus in France offer three or four courses:

  • Entree: This is the appetizer course. In North America, we frequently call the main course the "entree", but in France this is the term used for the appetizer course, or the "entrance" to the meal.
  • Plat Principal: This is the main course. Frequently there is a section for fish and for meat. Most main courses are served with some vegetables.
  • Cheese: A small piece of cheese. In Provence, this can be goat cheese drizzled with olive oil.
  • Dessert: Ice cream, cake, fruit tart, or a fruit dish are common choices.
  • Coffee: This is served after dessert and is usually a cafe express (espresso).

Do not feel as if you must order something for each course. You may want a lighter meal; you could order only the main course, with no appetizer or order two appetizers and no main course.

The Set Menu

In Provence, most restaurants offer a selection of set menus. These are not "tourist menus" but are a version of the daily special. They are well priced and allow you a selection of two or three dishes for each course. If you are planning to order a full meal, look over the set menus to see if there is one to suit you.

Substitutions

Never ask for substitutions if ordering from the set menu. Many restaurants are not happy if you ask for any changes or substitutions to any items on the menu.

Kevin told me a story about a friend who ordered a pizza at a restaurant that had a huge pizza menu (20 or more types of pizza, each with different toppings, each with a name), but asked for the onions to be left off the pizza he ordered. An argument ensued with the result that the waiter refused to let him order this way. The view of the restaurant is that they decide what goes well in a dish, and you select the dish you want. This may be an extreme example, but keep it in mind when asking for changes to a dish.

Wine

Restaurants will always have a wine menu and may offer smaller bottles (1/2 liter) or wine by the glass. They may not have inexpensive house wines as you find in restaurants in Italy. Vin de pays is a less expensive wine. AOC wines are the official wines of the regions and are more expensive.

Water

It is customary to order bottled water with the meal, either with gas (gazeuse) or flat (plat or non gazeuse).

Bread

As in Italy, bread is brought to the table after you have ordered and there are no bread plates. Butter is not served with this bread, but restaurant owners tell me that Americans frequently ask for butter. It is not customary to serve olive oil with the bread either, as we do in North America. The bread is eaten with the meal.

Paying for the Meal

As in most European countries, the bill is not presented when you have finished your meal because they do not want you to feel rushed to leave. Instead you must ask for it.

To get the attention of the waiter/waitress say "S'il vous plait" (please). In France, this is the common way of getting the attention of someone in a restaurant. Anything else is considered rude. Say "S'il vous plait, l'addition" to ask for the bill.

It is okay to leave the money for payment on the table, but don't do this if you are eating outside in an area where people are walking by the table (in case someone steals the money from the table).

Tipping

In France service is always included in the prices listed on the menu. You do not need to tip, but it is customary to leave a small amount on the table after paying. One euro per person, or a tip of 5 - 10%, can be left if the service was good. You are not insulting anyone if you leave no tip or a small tip.

Never ask if service is included because it is always included. You may hear someone saying it is not included, but this would only happen in the tourist areas where restaurants are used to North Americans tipping.


Kevin Widrow and his wife Elizabeth run the B&B Mas Perreal in the Luberon, near the village of St. Saturnin les Apt. www.masperreal.com

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