Some Asian friends of mine ask me sometimes about restaurant etiquette in France.
Here is the main selection of do’s and dont’s in French restaurants.
- What happens when you arrive
- What you can ask for, or not
- How to hold your glass of wine , champagne or XO
- Pricing and menus
However, the ritual is usually the same.
Upon arrival, wait for a waiter to sit you. He will suggest you a table, but you can prefer another one. You can tell them you prefer that one which is farther from the door or farther from the toilets.
The waiter may not let you go upstairs or downstairs if the room is empty, as they prefer to group all the guests in one main hall, and use the additional rooms if necessary. The waiter usually has to indulge in your request of having this or that table, unless it was booked by some guest.
In most French restaurants, you are not to rush to a table and sit, as the waiter may not notice you arrived and sat down. Besides some tables may be reserved. Let them guide you. You can arrive and ask for a table of x people and advise the waiter you have friends arriving a bit later.
If you booked a table in advance, you better arrive on time, as they can release the booking for someone else, especially if they are very crowded. Some restaurants allow you 30mn allowance if it is a business dinner, but usually within 15mn, it is gone. Call them if you know you are late. Usually a considerate restaurant staff will forecast giving you another table in exchange, but that is not guaranteed.
NB- In cafes , it is different, you may just sit down and the waiter will come to ask for your order. If you want to check the prices first, you can ask for the menu. Quite often, French people do not ask for the price of their beverages before they order. But you can ask for the menu to see what they propose.
The waiter will bring the menus and is supposed to remind you of the Menu of The Day ( Menu du Jour). He is supposed to explain the menu.
In some posh restaurants, it is common to give the ladies a « ladies menu » without price. It can be quite strange if both diners are ladies. It happened to me once when I was having lunch with a female friend of mine. I think they tought she was my mother. Of course, you can request for a menu with prices and also ask for a menu in English. Usually , the waiter will provide you with an English menu if they notice you cannot speak French.
Unlike what I see in US restaurants, French restaurants do not let you taste a dish so you can try and decide to order or not. The waiter will describe the dish and give you some hints about the taste to expect.
In French restaurants, it is possible to send back the dishes if they are not cooked enough, warm enough. This is quite seldom, but can happen.
If you ever find a piece of hair or something abnormal in your plate, they have to replace it.
Once, I remember I was a kid, I was in Granville, a resort on Normandy seashore. I and my parents were having lunch al fresco. They brought me a bisque ( a creamy soup made made with lobster ) and a bird pooed in my plate. The waitress came and used a spoon to scoop the poo ! This is no kidding. My parents said nothing, but afterwards, they realised this was wrong, they should have replaced the plate.
- You can ask for requests such as
– certain level of cooking for beef, foie gras and lamb. Pork and chicken have to be well done.
– to put the sauce ( salad sauce or gravy) or some veggies separately in another bowl or plate.
– some mustard, chili, pepper, salt, spicy oil ( for pizza) , etc.
– an additional spoon or fork to share the dessert with your co-diners or kids.
- You can also ask if they would accept to:
– remove one ingredient, for instance I have a friend who always asks for her steak to be grilled without Provence herbs.
– replace one veggie by another. Many ladies on diet like to have salad or French beans rather than fries. The waiter usually will indicate if any replacement possible. Why not asking for some rice.
Of course, they have to do so without surcharge, or they have to say it before . This is the law in France. All inclusive prices have to be advised before purchase. ( see my previous article on that matter)
In some countries, they serve you towels , butter, or peanuts, and they bill you at the end. I noticed some restaurants do that in Asia and in Portugal. This is a kind of tipping. In the UK, the clearly indicate they will add a percentage for the service fees.
This is not done in France. You pay what you ordered from the menu. The menu indicates that prices are nett and include the service fees ( » service compris« ). But you can still tip if you are satisfied. ( read here my post on tipping)
How to call your waiter ?
Do not shout nor whistle, you have to keep watching and raise your hand. You may say » Please », if he does not see you. Nowadays, nobody use the word » Garçon » ( boy) to call the waiter. Now, people will say » Sir » or » Madame ».
If you are in a hurry, you may go to the cashier to pay the bill, but the tradition is to pay at your table. They usually bring the credit card machine to your table for you to pay. They will ask you if you want to share. They usually bring back the change with some coins, so you can tip them if you want.
- Doggy bags are not a tradition in France, and people may find that weird. Unless you are in an Asian restaurant, this is not done but some restaurants start to be more flexible with Asians.
- However, many restaurants sell takeaway (= » vente a emporter »). Those ones may be more open minded.
Other etiquette advice
- If you ordered a bottle of wine, they will bring the bottle and ask you to taste and approve. You are supposed to check if the wine has no cork taste. Not to decide if you want this wine or not. Unless it is too horrible, you may not negotiate to change. You better ask the waiter to advise before you order. Order by the glass if you are not sure.
- Holding your glass of wine when wine-tasting or dining
You are supposed to hold your wine glass by the cup, not the foot…unless you are shaking it for some tasting.
Professional wine tasting is a special procedure, tasters hold the glasses a bit differently from usual French dining etiquette.
Holding the glass by the foot is not a sign of education unless you are performing a wine tasting exercise.
However cognac ( XO) glass have to be held by the bottom of the cup as it is supposed to warm up. This is valid for all the liquors like porto, sherry, cognac, armagnac ( another nice cousin to Cognac XO).
- Napkins are usually unfolded and spread onto the lap. French restaurants alsways supply napkins.
- Bones and shells have to be put on the side of the plate, never on the table or on the floor ! If you have a problem, ask the waiter to bring an empty bowl.
- Mobile calls should not be received or placed while sitting at the table. You should stand up and go elsewhere if the call lasts more than 1mn.
- Bread is to be broken by hand, French people do not use the knife to cut it off. In French restaurants, they usually do not serve butter with bread.
- You are not supposed to take pictures of your food « all the time », but restaurants and French customers understand tourists are too excited not to make pictures. I did some at Le Jules Verne last year. Remain discreet and do not disturb the next tables.
- Ladies usually sit back to the wall, gentlemen sit back to the street or back to the aisle. See below the configuration at Marais’s Pramil.
- When you eat seafood, sometimes, restaurants provide » rince-doigts » to rinse your hands. These are bowls of water with some lemon product. This is not a drink. Nowadays, many restaurants provide little wet alcohol napkings.
- If a guy enters the restaurant to sell roses, of course, you are not compelled to buy. Do not feel embarrassed to say no , thanks. The same for street musicians, beggars whatever.
- Watch your bag and iPhone if you are al fresco outside, do not leave your valuables on the table. A pickpocket may grab it and run away. Some delinquents specialise in such practice.
- Smoking is allowed only in al fresco areas by French law . Request a smoking table if you intend to smoke. The waiter will sit you outside and he will bring you an ashtray. Etiquette normally requires to smoke after the meal, nowadays. It is considered a bit unclassy to spoil your friends dinner by smoking while they eat. How could they fully enjoy their meal’s savours ? If you cannot help and they do not have al fresco tables, go outside between dishes, get your fix and come back.
- Toothpicks are less and less used in France. You may ask your waiter if he has any. Remain discreet when using them.
- Food safety and governmental rules
Restaurants are supposed to display rates and prices outside and inside their place. They are also supposed to display somewhere the country of origin of their meats. You can of course ask where the meat comes from, or any ingredients you want.