Here’s what you need to know when eating out in Paris

March 1, 2020 • 10:45 am

Yes, it’s a clickbaity HuffPost style title, but what the hell: it’s 6 a.m. and I have an hour until breakfast. So, if you’re coming to Paris and are a novice at dining out in France, I proffer some tips that my dining pal and I put together as a guide. This is not a matter of right or wrong (well, it is for specifying the degree of doneness of meat!), but of getting along and having a good restaurant experience. These tips apply not just to Paris, but widely throughout France.

There are exceptions to all of these “rules”, but in general it’s best to obey them. Note that I usually have my big meal at lunch, and the rules are even more applicable at dinner (for instance, you’d normally always have wine at dinner as well as the full sequence of appetizer, main course, and dessert). At lunch you can skip the wine and have only two courses (see below).

1.) RESERVE, RESERVE, AND RESERVE.  If you’re going to anywhere other than a café, reserve a table. Often a day in advance or even the same morning is sufficient, but don’t just walk into a restaurant and expect to be seated. Walk-ins are a lot less common here than in the U.S. or U.K. Likewise, if you decide not to go, please cancel your reservation as far in advance as possible. Restaurants count on their clientele showing up, and prepare accordingly. Some places will accommodate walk-ins, but it’s not the usual procedure.

2.) GREET THE OWNER OR WAITER WHEN YOU ARRIVE. This is part of the politesse (politeness) that is customary in France. “Bonjour!” will suffice. (Of course mention that you have a reservation and give your name.) And when you leave, say goodbye as well as thank you. This goes for shops as well as restaurants.

3.) DO NOT ORDER A SALAD WITHOUT A MAIN COURSE. If you want a salad, go to a cafe, which will serve lunch salads; but do not expect to get away with that in a restaurant. I’ve seen Americans thrown out of restaurants because they get seated and say they want just a salad. The normal procedure is to order an appetizer (entrée), main course (plat) and dessert, but as French eating habits have become lighter, many people skip the appetizer, or the dessert, at lunch. But you must have a plat and one other dish: appetizer plus main course, or main course plus dessert. You do not have to order wine, especially at lunch, but to me it always improves a meal.

3.) IF YOU DON’T SPEAK FRENCH, FIRST ASK IN FRENCH IF THE WAITER SPEAKS ENGLISH.  In Paris they normally will, but not in every other town, especially those where tourists are less common. (The phrase is “Parlez-vous Anglais?”). It is always polite to ask first, and often the waiter will spot you for an anglophone and speak to you first in English. I always try to speak French and get the French menu instead of an English one if they have both (food just looks more appetizing when it’s written in French than in English!). If you don’t speak French and the waiter doesn’t speak English, don’t worry: you will survive. There may be a menu in English, or you can look around and see what other people are eating and point.

If you struggle with your high-school French, the waiter may lapse into English. Do not be embarrassed: it facilitates ordering.

If the waiter doesn’t speak English, do not repeat yourself or speak louder. These are useless endeavors.

4.) DO NOT CONVERSE LOUDLY IN THE RESTAURANT. The French speak more softly than Americans, and look down upon loud conversation in a restaurant, which disturbs the atmosphere the same way using a cellphone on the bus jangles Americans. It is useful to keep your volume low almost everywhere to conform to local customs.

5.) DO NOT ORDER BEEFSTEAK, LAMB, OR DUCK BREAST WELL DONE. Often the chef will refuse to cook it that way, as the French properly consider that a well-done steak (or lamb) is ruined. You can get your steak almost raw with a slight sear (bleu), quite rare (saignant: the way I order mine), à point (medium rare), and bien cuit (well done). Stay away from the last one. Lamb and duck breast are served “rosé” (pink) unless you specify otherwise, but try not to specify otherwise. I’ve put a photo of a properly cooked duck breast below. Try it (or lamb) pink even if you’re not used to it. They taste a lot better.

It goes without saying to avoid asking for ketchup, even with fries. It just isn’t done, and you may wind up with your bum on the pavement. (Note, this rule may not apply in McDonald’s, but I don’t know.)

UPDATE: 5a.) TIPPING IS OPTIONAL. Service charges are included in the bill; it’s as if you were dining in America and the bill was 15% higher for service. Therefore, it’s not necessary for you to leave a tip. I nearly always leave a few euros (say, 5% of the bill), but this time I’ve observed quite a few French people leaving the table, and they very often don’t leave a tip. (They haven’t done this on the credit-card machine, as that’s not possible here.) If you don’t have a few euros in cash, you needn’t feel guilty about not leaving a tip.

Some other tips: You don’t need to order expensive wine in a restaurant. The house wine is often quite good and much cheaper. Increasingly, restaurants offer wine by the glass. If you don’t want to pay for water like Evian or Perrier (Perrier isn’t often drunk with meals), tap water is preferable and also free. Just ask for une carafe d’eau (a carafe of water). Make sure you say “please” when making a request (s’il vous plaît”) and make liberal use of “thank you” (merci).

The cheese course used to be obligatory between the main course and dessert, but is becoming less common as the French strive to eat healthier. I still love a good cheese course but don’t often have room for it.

In most but not all places it’s frowned on to split main courses. And the French do not like it when Americans ask for separate checks. The custom in France is for the host, or whoever invites the other person out, to pay for the meal.

The French do not hustle you out of restaurants: when you reserve a table for lunch or dinner, you have it the whole time, even for three or more hours. If they are a proper restaurant, they will not bring you the check until you ask for it. So you must request the bill (“L’addition, s’il vous plaît.”) It is up to you to end your meal. Dining in France is not just a food experience, but entertainment as well. Take your time, look around, chat with your neighbors, and sip your wine. (One bottle = two servings.)

Finally, the menu (fixed-price meal) is often a great bargain at lunch, with two or three courses that are often much cheaper than ordering separately from the regular menu (à la carte). Your selections may be limited, but they are often specialities and worth ordering

Here’s a properly cooked duck breast (magret de canard).

As Julia said, “Bon appétit!”

42 thoughts on “Here’s what you need to know when eating out in Paris

  1. I can wholeheartedly agree with your recommendations, all of them.
    You can ask for “la douloureuse” instead of “l’addition”, it is not frowned upon.
    Also note that in many restaurants the service fee (generally 19%) is included in the bill.
    As far as the house wine goes: there is this notion that a good restaurant has a good house wine, a kind of badge. It is very much acceptable to order the house wine indeed.

    1. I’m a bit shocked that Jerry feels it necessary to say “hello”, “please”, and “thank you”. I would have thought those normal politenesses that everyone observed. C’est la vie!

      1. Sometimes people hesitate to say those things in a language they don’t know well. Also, it is fairly unusual to talk to the owner or manager at American restaurants unless one wants to register a major complaint.

        1. I was assuming the owner was doing things like greeting people etc. like they often do in some establishments. I wouldn’t expect to summon him/her, especially if they don’t normally interact with guests.

      2. PLEASE NOTE:
        This comment is not in any way meant as an insult to Jerry!!!

        He Skyped me yesterday before he’d had breakfast, before he’d even had a shower, because he thought it was. It’s not the first time this has happened. I.e. A cultural misunderstanding despite the fact our cultures are very similar and we were both brought up with English as our first language.

        I apologize unreservedly for giving the impression to anyone, especially Jerry, that I was insulting him.

  2. If you have trouble understanding French menus, use a phone app like Google Lens to translate text straight off the menu.

    I just tried an experiment. Since I didn’t have a French menu handy here at home, I hand-wrote “Parlez-vous Francais?” on a piece of paper with lots of other writing on it. I opened the Lens app which uses my phone’s camera and pointed it at my fairly poorly written phrase. The app highlighted all the text fragments within the image frame. This is a live image. You don’t need to take a picture first. I touched “Parlez…” and it immediately translated it to English! Ain’t technology wonderful?

    Or you could just ask the nice English-speaking waiter.

  3. “Finally, the menu (fixed-price meal) is often a great bargain at lunch, with two or three courses that are often much cheaper than ordering separately from the regular menu (à la carte). Your selections may be limited, but they are often specialities and worth ordering.”

    IMHO, that deserves top-level tip status. It’s not like in the USA where the “specials” seem calculated to make you pay more or get rid of ingredients that are about to go past their serve-by date.

  4. Once we went to a restaurant in Paris and we were both trying our best to speak nothing but French. But, during the meal, Gethyn accidentally lapsed into Welsh and the restaurant owner — who loved our efforts — thought it was charming…

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with your recommendation about duck breast, I always cooked them the same way.
    We have had a recent warning in the UK about the increasing occurrence of salmonella in duck meat, presumably due to careless stockmanship or slaughter. Have the French managed to avoid the contagion?
    I no longer buy duck breasts here, as they can’t be cooked properly. I buy legs and cook them well done with hoi sin or something similar: a great shame.

    1. Much better than you used to be able to. First, if you eat fish then you’re golden. Even if you don’t, there are an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Paris, right up to three-stars (Arpege, for instance, offers an all-vegetarian menu.)

      On the other hand, if you’re a vegan you’re pretty much screwed. . . .

      1. Speaking from experience, Arpege will serve a vegan menu.
        Our experience, my wife is the vegan, some years ago was that you can do well especially if you ask in advance. It helps to be tolerant – we would not ask, for example, whether something was cooked purely in oil or cooked in butter or a butter/oil mix. I suspect hard-core vegans would find it more difficult.
        But there are always sites like Happy Cow, which will guide you to places even the hard-core vegans can eat at in safety.

  6. Agreed, duck or lamb *meat* is fine done rare. But duck or lamb fat/skin is much better well done.

    (OK, I confess to being a heathen.)

  7. If you struggle with your high-school French, the waiter may lapse into English.

    In Britain, the waiters in Paris have something of a reputation for being extremely rude and for refusing to speak English. This has always puzzled me because my experience has always been the opposite.

    I eventually formed the theory that it is because I go into a restaurant trying to speak French, even though mine is terrible. I think it is being prepared to put the effort in that makes the difference.

    Another tip which may only be necessary for English people who learned their French in England in a certain era: I was originally taught at school that the French word for “waiter” is “garçon”. My last French teacher said “never ever call the waiter garçon”.

  8. In terms of tipping, don’t forget that often ushers do expect a “pourboire” (tip) to show you to your seats.

    I wonder if that has ended.d

  9. Jerry, I remember you saying that asking for a doggie bag is déclassé in France. Is there any shift at all in that thinking, given the trend to avoid food wastage (coz of the environment and all that)? What would happen is one did ask to take home the remains of one’s meal? I don’t think I could resist, especially after that mega-feast you had at the secret restaurant, where you barely made a dent in a few items. However, I’d be very OK with the food being donated to the less fortunate.

    1. I have never heard about doggie bags in Europe. It is something we see in American movies (but I do not know all the countries). With the exceptions of Portugal and North Spain, I have never seen a restaurant in Europe where you get so much food that you can not finish it. Serving sizes are reasonable. But it is up to you not to order too much.

      1. Never seen that in the UK…

        The ting is a lot of restaurants these days have very small portions when what I want is my sides filled…


        1. This is actually quite common in the UK in my experience, I’ve rarely been refused. On the occasions I have, I will just wrap my food in serviettes and take it anyway. As a Yorkshireman I am of the opinion that I paid for it so it’s mine! This is usually a little treat for our lovely doggies when we get home – why should they miss out because of a grumpy owner or waiter?

          This causes much consternation and embarrassment in my daughters! The fact that I make sure the proprietor sees me in the act probably doesn’t help in that respect.

    2. I don’t think “sac pour le chien” would be well received. But you can ask to take the rest with you (emporter in less posh restaurants. They’ll usually wrap it in Al foil.

      1. Good to know the correct form.
        Here in Canada, I politely let the server know I’d like to take home the rest. I’m not a particularly big eater, and I either share with fellow diners at the table or divide the food in half with the uneaten portion to go.

  10. I’ve only been to Paris twice, in 1993 and 2013. On my first visit, everyone would impatiently switch to English the moment they heard the non-native accent in my French. On my last visit, people were happy to keep talking French to me, and in some cases asked me which language I preferred. Either my French had improved over 20 years (unlikely, although I did live in Ottawa between 1994 and 2000, where I used French on a regular basis), or there’s been a shift in attitude among Parisians.

  11. Your trip — which I’m enjoying v. much btw, is making me damn hungry JC. The rules for eating there are also great and I shall use them. I will turn up on spec, shout at the French people (helps them understand) and wait for my ketchup to arrive. Order ketchup in advance – go it.

    David A., NYC

  12. Your trip — which I’m enjoying v. much btw, is making me damn hungry JC. The rules for eating there are also great and I shall use them. I will turn up on spec, shout at the French people (helps them understand) and wait for my ketchup to arrive. Order ketchup in advance – go it.

    David A., NYC

  13. On the point of separate checks. What French friends and I have often done is to divide the check ourselves and each one pays his part, usually with plastic. Never had a problem there.

    Thanks for all the restaurant tips. I can’t believe Cartet!

        1. I know you are probably joking but the app does more than calculate. Each person registers a credit card with the app when they install it. At the restaurant one person pays for the whole meal with their credit card. In the app the payer enters the amount and identifies their dining partners. I suppose the others also use the app to acknowledge they were there. The app then charges the non-payers’ credit cards and deposits it into the payer’s account.

          At least I think that’s how it probably works. I suspect the hard part is arranging for all your friends to install the app ahead of time. I suspect this will really only be practical when all of us pay for things using our phones. Perhaps someday soon.

  14. When I visited Denmark a few years back I made a point of trying to learn the basics of at least reading the signs and attitudes in restaurants. The “do not tip!” was an interesting one, though as we had pre-paid a “fixed price” meal through the conference it made no difference for one place.

    It was also very interesting seeing the Danish take on Vietnamese food we had on the last night. (Both seem to emphasize the importance of local vegetables …)

  15. That’s quite interesting. Do the French pass around tips about how to eat in American restaurants? I would find it quite amusing if French people are told to be super loud when they come to America so that they fit in at the restaurants.

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