Dining in Paris – A few tips!

The following is from David Lebovitz, a famous pastry chef who lives in Paris and has a wonderful food blog:  www.davidlebovitz.com

Visiting and dining in Paris all boils down to one rule: How You Get Treated is Directly Proportional to the Way that you Behave and Present Yourself. So don’t be afraid to dress a bit better than you would at home and to practice a few words of your high-school French. Believe me, even the feeblest attempt at a little French will take you much further than you can imagine in Paris.

Water

It’s never required that you order a pricey bottle of water. Be like the French and ask for a carafe d’eau. If you want to order a bottle of water, ask for gazeuse (with gas) or plat (flat, without gas). Be sure to specify when you order. Would you go into a restaurant in the United States and tell a waiter “I’ll have a soda”?

Ice is rarely given, although if you’re lucky, you may get a cube. Asking for a lot of ice will generally means an extra cube.

And the tap water in Paris is fine to drink. Just like there is a movement in other places to stop drinking water in plastic bottles, it’s time to cut down on this folly, which is a huge waste of money and resources. In a restaurant in France, if you ask for tap water, they have to give it to you. Sometimes it takes a few times for it to sink in that you’re not buying water, and to get the free stuff, but don’t be bullied. And you know those waiters who you don’t want to think you’re a cheapskate order tap water when they go out to eat, too. (Just like those queens with the perfect stubble and 28″ waists at Gucci who sneer at you because you can’t afford that €385 shirt. I never feel bad because if they didn’t work there, they wouldn’t be wearing a €385 shirt either.)

Never feel intimidated into ordering a bottle of water, either just because you’re in Europe and you think you’re supposed to, or because you’re afraid of French water. Just say “Non” to bottled water, in any language.

Ordering

If you order two appetizers, or a bowl of soup for a main course, the waiter may be taken aback. Don’t take it as an insult; it’s just not done in restaurants (it’s something you could do in a café without raising eyebrows). Proper dining in France is taken seriously, but if you’d rather eat lightly, just explain to the waiter you’ve had so many delicious pastries that day, you need something lighter. That, my friends, they’ll understand.

Meat

Ordering meat rare, or bleu means that you like raw meat, hardly cooked, which is how many French people eat beef. Saignante is close to medium-rare. A point (to the point) is medium, and bien cuit or semelle (shoe leather) is well-done—or as we say in the restaurant business, “at your own risk”. If you like your steak well-done, due to the high quality of the beef, a restaurant that specializes in beef may not allow you to order it that was so don’t be surprised.

Waiters

Don’t assume your waiter is rude just because he doesn’t introduce himself by name and tell you his life story and rush over to refill your water after each sip. Unlike American restaurants with large staffs, restaurants in Paris often only have one or two people serving an entire dining room with no busboys. They are really busy! And when they have to deal with English speakers or people figuring out menus, that slows down their entire process. Don’t think they’re necessarily impolite. Realize that dining in France is important so relax and enjoy your meal.

You are also considered a guest in France when you go to a restaurant, not just a customer. So you should act like you’re in someone’s home, and being demanding or bossy won’t get you very far. If you have a special request, asking nicely and apologizing is your best bet. It’s not being obsequious, it’s normal. Special requests and food allergies seem to be rare in France and they’re simply not used to adjusting menus for special dietary preferences.

Impoliteness

There is a perception the French are rude which is probably because you never come across anyone rude in America. In Paris, it’s imperative to say ‘Bonjour Madame/Monsieur’ when entering a shop or restaurant, and ‘Merci Madame/Monsieur’ when leaving. There is an equally incorrect perception that Americans are impolite since they don’t acknowledge the salesclerks in their shops, which is like being invited into someone’s home and stepping inside without saying hello.

Salad

In French, the word salade on its own means lettuce, as in either a head of lettuce, or by-the-leaf. Usually a meal-sized salad is called something like salade Parisienne and can have all sorts of wonderful things on it. Like the salade œuf mollet, above, with bacon, crisp croûtons, and a warm poached egg.  If you want a green salad, ask for a salade verte, a simple “green” salad.

Bread and Butter

Only in fine dining rooms will you be given a bread plate. Normally you place your bread on the tabletop, not on your plate. Butter is rarely served with bread, but it’s usually okay to ask for it. This may answer your question, “How do the French stay so thin?”

Ordering Mistakes

Once you place your order in a restaurant, I advise not making any changes, which disrupts the flow of things. For some reason, once that ticket is submitted to the kitchen, you’re pretty much committed to what you’ve ordered.

At least once, you will order some unimaginable organ by mistake. When it happens to me I think of it as an instant French lesson. You will also probably get served a steak that’s not cooked exactly the way you expect it, fish will be served with the head on and bones in (taking them out before cooking dries the fish out, they rightly say), and other foibles. If something is obviously wrong, like your ordered a rare steak in a nice restaurant and it comes out gray inside, or the soup or cheese is ice-cold, you should bring it to the attention of the waiter. In lower-priced restaurants and cafés, you should keep your expectations equally modest, though.

Talking vs. Shouting

Americans talk LOUDLY. If you don’t believe it, watch cable television “news” for a few minutes. It’s gotten so that restaurant reviews in the United States now include ‘sound’ ratings to denote the volume in restaurants. Many of us are used to speaking loudly, especially when we get into groups. If you’ve ever tried to have a peaceful dinner next to a table celebrating their annual office party, you know what I’m talking about. In Paris, people will modulate their voices so as not to disturb other diners; keeping your voice down will endear you to the locals much better.

Coffee

Except during the morning hours, each time you order café, you will be served a small cup of dark, espresso-like coffee. If you want coffee with milk, when ordering ask for a café crème, not after they bring it. You may get a funny look if you ask for a café au lait, which is coffee with milk served in a bowl, always at home, for breakfast. Café noisette is an espresso with a touch of milk.

No one will automatically bring milk with coffee. If you don’t understand why, assume it’s the same reason that McDonald’s in the United States don’t serve red wine. If you want milk with your coffee, you need to specify each time to each waiter in each restaurant. There’s no master-file on how each visitor to France takes their coffee. (Although come to think of it, with the famous French bureaucracy and staggering paperwork, perhaps they’d be willing to take that on.)

Tips

After dining, you’ll need to ask for the check when you want it, called ‘l’addition’—it’s considered very impolite to give a guest the check before they’ve asked for it.

Tips are always included in the amount shown on the check. In Paris, it’s fine to round-up in smaller restaurants, such as if the check is 19€, it’s okay to leave 1€ extra if you get very good service, but never required. In general, it’s acceptable to leave up to 5% extra for very attentive service. But some Parisians get upset that Americans leave generous tips, rightfully fearing it will lead to future earnings expectations.

Relax!

If I could tell visitors to Paris one thing that’ll improve their dining experience, it’s to chill out. Yes, you might get some odd sausage instead of the soup you were expecting, or the steak may be cooked a bit more than you’re used to. (And the tables will to too close together, the service may be pokey, and you’ll have to ask at least twice for water.) But dining in France is not meant to be rushed and you don’t travel to experience things to be like back home, do you?

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