Eating out in restaurants in France is to be seen as one of the great cultural joys. The essence of French cuisine is found in its regional, seasonal dishes and its haute cuisine menus. The history of gastronomy in France is intrinsically linked to its cultural and social history and it is generally accepted that French chefs are among the best in the world. They are revered in their home country and fine cooking is considered an art in France where great chefs are viewed as superstars and eating is celebrated as an event that is meant to dazzle the diner.
Professional cuisine in France is based on respect for the produits du terroir – the food of the soil as it were. All over France, towns and cities have traditional associations with their region’s distinctive cuisine.
The French Government operates a system of Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) which literally means “controlled designation of origin” and which serves to grant official certification based on the concept of “terroir” to specific French locations for wines, cheeses, butters, and other agricultural products. As you can tell, the cuisine of France is of the utmost importance.
In our experience eating out in French restaurants isn’t always the gastronomic experience we might have been expecting. We have had some wonderful meals out but also a few memorable moments in our experimentation of French restaurants including a time when we ordered a great sounding “confit de canard”. What we got was a barely warmed up tin of haricot beans and a bit of fatty duck! The fact is that like anywhere there are restaurants serving food that doesn’t match up to your expectations but on the whole there are more good restaurants in France than not, and if you apply common sense to your choice and follow a few tips you hopefully won’t go too wrong and will end up with a really great meal!
If you’re into restaurant guides, one of the best guides around is the Michelin guide. The reason that the Michelin system of awards and recommendations is so successful is that they do their homework and we’ve rarely, well never actually, found them to be wrong!
Top tips for dining out in France:
- Many restaurants are open for set meal times only – don’t arrive so late that they have stopped serving food, generally 11.30 a.m. to 2.30 pm for lunch and 6.30 pm to 10.00 pm is a safe bet. If you have the opportunity to reserve ahead take it. We have often passed restaurants we liked the look of only to find that they appear to close at whim. It seems in France that quite a few restaurants, particularly in rural or quieter areas, will close if they have no reservations for the evening.
- Menu prix-fixé or menu formule – most French restaurants offer a fixed-price meal, at least two courses and often more, the quality is usually of a high standard and the price includes tax and service. The menu will usually be constrained to lunch times and may not available in the evening so if you’re hankering after a meal at a very expensive restaurant and want to take advantage of the menu prix-fixé check the prices for lunch and dinner.
- Restaurants generally offer several set menus at different price levels. The more expensive menus are likely to include additional courses, pricier ingredients and/or a superior wine. The menu du jour (a set menu of the day), will also be on offer and that is generally of a high standard, fresh ingredients and generally represents good value.
- Eating à la carte simply means you choose freely from the menu rather than a fixed menu, often this will include more sophisticated and pricey items and perhaps therefore less popular.
- Menu dégustation – A tasting menu with a selection of small servings, sometimes called the menu surprise – the chef will choose what you will be presented with. Generally if this is the menu you want – everyone on the table must have the same.
- If you eat à la terrasse (outside) at a restaurant you will generally pay a little more than for eating inside.
- If you ask for water with the meal you’ll generally be charged for it unless you ask for a carafe d’eau which will be free tap water.
- Tips! Many people ask if they should tip in a French restaurant and if so – how much? Some restaurants include service charges in their prices and this will be shown on the bill but it is normal to tip in French restaurants. There’s no fixed rate and you can’t add it on to the bill when you pay by bank card as you might in say the UK. Generally 10% is about right – depending on how you feel about the service you received. If you’re just having a beer or a coffee somewhere, a Euro or two is common.
- When you’re full, the expression is “J’ai bien mangé”, which means “I’ve eaten well”, the expression to be full in French translates as being pregnant!
Eating out: traditional restaurants
Dining out in typical French restaurants will consist of: a starter (une entrée), main course, (le plat principal), a selection of local cheeses (fromages) and/or a dessert. In top fine dining restaurants you may find that following the appetizer will be a fish course, main course, cheese, dessert and to round off black coffee and petits fours, accompanied by impeccable service and the skills of a master sommelier (wine waiter).
The French take their dining out experience seriously and an evening in a restaurant can easily mean two hours or more at table and, you will rarely be encouraged to get a move on so that the waiters can fit someone else in.
You’ll usually have a choice of several menus, menu prix-fixe (see above), menu du jour and you’ll often find that there will be a light green salad or a sorbet between courses. An aperitif is often complimented with little snacks – usually traditional to the region, which the French call des amuse-bouche or amuse-geule. Price varies according to whether you’re in a tourist area, city or rural area and the type of restaurant but you should be able to get a decent two course meal and a glass of wine for less than €20 in most places and you’ll find it’s considerably cheaper than that in some rural restaurants.
Self Service restaurants
Self-service restaurants in France, Les “self” – the Flunch restaurant brand is typical of the self-service restaurants found in many shopping centres and the large superstores which are found on the outskirts of almost every town. For a quick and low price meal they are immensely popular with the French – as are the McDonalds chain which are springing up all over France.
Cafés, bistrots, brasseries – you can get a beer or coffee in these venues without having to buy a meal which isn’t always the case in most restaurants. Many of them serve light meals, often only at midday but they are not always a fine dining experience. We’ve been to several of these types of eatery and the experience is variable – from those that really impress to those where you watch in bemusement as the waiter rushes over to the supermarket and brings back a cooked chicken and then serves it up to you to fulfil your poule et frites (chicken and chips) meal of choice!
Café life is an important part of life in France going back to the time of the French Revolution when the revolutianairies would meet up to talk, plot and plan over un café. These days you’ll find that Cafés still provide a meeting place for debate and unlike elsewhere in the world, culture in France is such that one cup of coffee may last as long as you like – no-one will rush you or try to move you on.
Cafés have an early start to the day serving breakfast – usually a coffee with milk or an espresso and perhaps a croissant or baguette. Cafés are like bars or pubs by lunchtime switching to serving a beer (bière) or glass or wine. You may get a simple lunch – perhaps a croque monsieur (toasted ham and cheese sandwich) or moules et frittes (mussels and chips).
If you want to try real French country cooking, a ferme-auberge (farmhouse Inn), often managed by a farming family, is the place to go. The food served must predominantly be from the local region or the farm’s own vegetable produce or livestock and its a great opportunity to sample local specialities. There isn’t always a big choice on the menu but it will always be very fresh and very tasty with home cooked bread, fresh vegetables and fruit and more likely than not a carafe of wine.
If you find a good auberge you’ll feel that you’re having dinner with friends, sitting at the hosts table (table d’hôte) and eating with the family.
Above all, enjoy eating out in France, ask for advice and if all else fails look at what other people are eating and tell the waiter if you see something you like the look of but don’t know what it’s called!
Useful restaurant vocabulary
|Breakfast||le petit déjeuner|
|Big cup of white coffee||un grand crème|
|Coffee with milk||un café au lait|
|Glass of water||une verre d’eau|
|Jug of water||une carafe d’eau|
|Main course||le plat principal|
|Soup||la soupe, le potage|
|Could you bring the bill please||L’addition, s’il vous plaît|
|Where are the toilets||Où sont les toilettes s’il vous plaît?|