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How to Eat in a French Restaurant

how to order in a french restaurantA lot of people have a lot of questions about how to eat in a restaurant in France. So, I’m going to take you through every step of eating in a French restaurant, so you’ll never have to worry about committing a faux pas ever again. So get your eatin’ pants on, let’s get started – and bon appétit!
Oh, first, check out the French pronunciation guide, and the WhyGo France patented (ok, not really) French menu decoder to know what it is you’ll be eating – or avoiding.
Now that the absolute basics are out of the way, let’s move on to the vocabulary that has to do with snagging a table at a French restaurant.

  • We have a reservation. = Nous avons une réservation.
  • We do not have a reservation. = Nous n’avons pas une réservation.
  • Do you have a table for two? = Avez-vous une place pour deux personnes?
  • We’re two for lunch/dinner. = Nous sommes deux personnes pour déjeuner/dîner.

Depending on what kind of place it is, they may ask you in return:

  • Are you here to eat? (as opposed to just a drink) = Pour manger?
  • Or, for lunch? Pour déjeuner? For dinner? Pour dîner?
  • Are you getting something to go? = Pour emporter?
  • Do you prefer indoor or outdoor seating? = Préférez-vous à l’intérieur ou sur la terrasse?

At many places they’ll come by, give you the menus, and ask if you want something to drink to begin. They mean a cocktail, and by that they usually mean a kir. (See my guide to French apéritifs.)

  • Would you like something to begin, perhaps a kir? = Souhaitez-vous quelque chose pour commencer, peut-être un kir?

They’re usually pretty wordy when you first sit down, because they like to be formal and courteous, so just wait for the word “kir” and perk up like a sunflower. They may have different flavors – muir, peche, or cassis – it’s your choice, but the cassis is the original.
When you order, first you want to tell them whether you’re having a menu or choosing à la carte. Often the different menus are named, for the chef or for the kind of overall theme of the meal. You can use the name of the menu if you want, or you can totally say the price, they’re not weird about that.

  • I would like the “ocean” menu. = Je prends le menu “océan.”
  • I would like the 17-euro menu. = Je prends le menu de dix-sept euro.

Then you can order by saying,

  • I would like… = Je voudrais…
  • To begin… and then… = Pour commencer… et puis…

If you’re getting a menu that includes the dessert, you can wait to order it until you’ve finished your meal.
Now it’s onto the wine. You would order this after everyone has placed their orders.

  • And a carafe of your house wine (red, white,rosé). = Et une carafe de vin (rouge, blanc, rosé).
  • We will have the (label of wine). = Nous aurons le (Pic Saint Loup, Côte du Rhône, etc.).

If you want water, don’t feel bullied into having the fancy stuff. “Une carafe d’eau,” a carafe of water, is free and perfectly acceptable to order, no matter how expensive the restaurant is.
One thing you do NOT want to do, no matter how much you’ve wanted to your whole life, is call over the waiter by saying, “Garçon.” This is a huge, huge no-no. Would you call to a waiter in America by yelling, BOY? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Simply say pardon, or excusez-moi, or monsieur, madame or mademoiselle.
After you’ve had your main course (plat), they’ll ask you if you want dessert, or just bring you the menu again. They’re usually aware of whose menu included dessert, but they ask everyone anyway. They’ll also ask if you want coffee; it’s going to be an espresso, so don’t try to order anything else.
To get the check, you have to ask for it. While you may think you’re actively being ignored by the wait staff, they’re only doing what is widely accepted in French culture – leaving you in peace while you finish your wine or your conversation or you lick your dessert plate clean. It’s also the reason why you may think you’ve had very slow or bad service, but they’re just helping you make an evening of it.
Anyway, to get the check, for goodness sake, don’t do the hand motion. It’s:

  • The check, please? = L’addition, s’il vous plaît? (lah-deess-yon)

As for paying the bill, a few things here:

  • They usually give you the check on a small plate or tray. If you’re paying by card, just leave the card on top of the check.
  • They’ll come over with a machine.
  • Your card, because it is not French, does NOT go in the foot of the machine; it will be swiped through it, either down the side or across the top. If you see the waiter sticking it in the foot of the machine, say, “Oh, excusez-moi, ça c’est une carte de crédit” and make a swiping motion with your hand.
  • Some machines have a hard time accepting foreign cards. Some machines don’t work all the time. If your card does not work, DO NOT PANIC. They’re not judging you; they understand that foreign cards, and their own machines, can get wonky. Either make sure you have cash on you beforehand, or ask them where the closest ATM (guichet automatique) is.
  • If they are super apologetic, you should be very nice and say, “C’est pas grave.” (“It’s not important/it’s no problem.”) If they act like you’ve offended them by using a foreign card – although this reaction is rare – say “Je suis très désolé” (“I am so sorry”) and get thee to the ATM ASAP.
  • You know what, on second thought, just pay in cash.

>>Read everything you need to know about how to tip in France.
Either with or after the bill, it’s not unusual to have the waiter or the owner bring over a digestif – usually some liqueur that is near and dear to the owner’s heart and/or liver. Thank them profusely, and say nice things. Here are some complimentary things to say about your meal:

  • Delicious = délicieux
  • Incredible = incroyable
  • Wonderful = merveilleux

Leaving a restaurant, particularly a small one, is usually an emotional affair. You’ll say goodbye a hundred times, and they’ll say it a hundred times, and you’ll both wave to each other, and they’ll follow you to the door as if it was their home; it’s all very touching. I’m exaggerating, of course, but the French do have a way of parting that’s truly memorable.
For example, you’ll say “Bonne soirée,” the “have a good evening” to the greeting of “bon soir;” they’ll say “Au revoir,” meaning goodbye. Then you’ll say “Au revoir, merci;” they’ll say “C’est moi, à bientôt,” which means, the pleasure is mine, see you soon. And on and on. They’re not correcting you; they just like to shake it up verbally upon bidding farewell.
Then waddle your way back to the hotel, fall into a coma, and do it all over again the next day.
Isn’t France grand?