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From childhood, the French are raised to appreciate the art of dining, and the many rituals that accompany it—even public school lunches include a cheese course. Part of the reason you’re traveling to France is, presumably, to tap into that gastronomic reverence. But knowing how to do it right is tricky, particularly if you don’t speak the language. Here’s everything you need to know about Parisian restaurant etiquette, including some helpful phrases. Do as the French do, and you’ll have a much better experience in Paris.
Say Bonjour, Always
Whether it’s at the post office, a boutique, or a fine dining restaurant, say bonjour to every single person you interact with. France is formal in this respect, and it’s considered rude if you don’t acknowledge and greet people. You can use bonjour in the evenings as well, but some people will switch over to bonsoir around 5pm. The only hard and fast rule? Don’t forget to say hello. A few pleasantries can go a long way naturally so don’t forget to say thank you with merci or bonne journée for have a good day or bonne soirée, if it’s evening.
For restaurants that accept reservations, reserve. Even a casual corner bistro can easily book up. It can be hard for diners to tell if a place requires reservations or not, so unless a restaurant specifically states on its website that it doesn’t accept them, assume you’ll need to book. How far in advance you’ll want to reserve depends on the restaurant. For hotspots like Septime or Frenchie, you should call or check online weeks ahead; for more casual dining, call a day, or even just a few hours, in advance. French restaurants close more often than American ones, so making a reservation is also a good way to find out if they’re open before you cross town.
Most reservations will require a phone call—restaurant websites in Paris are often just an address and a phone number. More often than not, you won’t be able to book online, and you’ll almost never be able to view the menu in advance. To phone in the reservation yourself, always begin with bonjour. If you’d like to reserve a table for two people on the 15th at 8 p.m., then the French phrase would be:
Je voudrais réserver une table (I would like to reserve a table)
pour deux personnes (for two people)
pour le quinze octobre (on the fifteenth of October)
à vingt heures. (at 20 o’clock.)
It’s important to use the 24-hour clock to avoid confusion, so remember to add twelve!
...And Keep Them.
If you make a reservation, honor it. Many restaurants in Paris do only one service a night, because the French like to linger. This means that for a small restaurant, a no-show can have real economic ramifications. If you must cancel, give as much notice as possible. (And definitely don’t double book: Tourists are becoming infamous for making multiple bookings at hotspots on opposite sides of town, then deciding at the last minute which one they’ll keep. This is poor form.)
Restaurants will want a phone number in order to confirm your reservation a day or two in advance—remember to give your country code, too. If you don’t pick up when they call to confirm, you may show up only to find that your reservation has been given away. If you’re worried about missing the call—or concerned about international roaming charges—be proactive and call the day beforehand yourself to confirm.
Know Which Days To Go...
Many restaurants and shops will shutter for the day on Sunday or Monday. Lots of travelers go wrong here by not planning accordingly. Take a look at your list of places to eat, and if any are open on Sunday and Monday, take advantage and visit them on those days.
...And Which Months
In August and, increasingly, the second half of July, Paris can be a ghost town. It often feels like the entire city has gone on vacation, with many restaurants closed for anywhere from 2–6 weeks. So if the goal of your visit is to eat your way across the city, consider visiting at a different time of year. The end of December, also popular with tourists, is a better bet, but can still be a little risky: Many restaurants close for Christmas and New Year’s, which are family holidays when most people cook at home. If you opt to eat out, you’ll most likely end up paying premium prices for fairly mediocre tasting menus. Rent an apartment with a kitchen instead, and shop in advance like the Parisians do.
Eat At The Right Time Of Day
Set eating hours are still firmly entrenched in French society. Lunch is generally served from 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm, and most restaurants will serve dinner from 8 pm to 10 pm. Some restaurants may open earlier for dinner to cater to an international clientele, but most French people won’t step foot outside a minute before. For meals outside those time frames, less formal options are a better bet. Wine bars tend to have more flexible hours, catering to patrons seeking a drink or a snack before or after their main meal; brasseries are open all day, with continuous service; and bakeries and patisseries are good options for late-afternoon snacks. It’s fine to sit in cafés for hours as well, although it’s good practice to pay rent for your table, so to speak, by buying a round of coffees or drinks every so often.
Give Up Some Control
In France, the customer is not always right; in fact, the customer is usually wrong. The chef is an artist welcoming you into his or her studio, not a sycophant eager to please your whims, and restaurant professionals in both the kitchen and the dining room take pride in their expertise. Enjoy the guidance of the talented team in charge.
Don’t Expect Too Many Accommodations
If you have dietary restrictions or food allergies, let the restaurant know about them when you book, as Parisian kitchens are cramped and frequently don’t have a lot of alternatives on hand. You’ll have a better meal—and the restaurant will be more accommodating—if they can plan ahead.
Order Like A Parisian
On French menus (cartes), the word entrées means starters, and main courses are called plats. This is often confusing to Americans, for whom an entrée is a main course. While Parisians might keep it simple when dining at home, when they go out to eat they tend to commit to the full three-course formule of entrée-plat-dessert. It’s frowned upon to order just two starters, or just a main course.
If you’re not hungry enough for a three-course meal (although remember, portions tend to be smaller here than at home), it’s better to head to a wine or tapas bar, where you don’t have to follow the standard formula. The options at wine bars range from ambitious, high-end food to rustic platters of charcuterie or cheese.
It’s perfectly acceptable to request tap water. If you go the bottled route, you can often end up spending more on water than you do wine. For tap water, ask for une carafe d’eau.
Don’t expect bread and butter as an automatic starter. Bread will often arrive with your main course, to sop up sauces. Unless you’re at a very high-end restaurant, it’s unlikely that your table setting will include a bread plate—the expectation is that you’ll put your bread directly on the table. This can feel strange at first, but you’ll get used to it.
Cheese, if offered, tends to come at the end of the meal, right before, or in place of, dessert. Sometimes you might encounter a fresh cheese like a burrata among the entrées, and at a wine bar you’re of course free to order cheese at any point.
Thanks to a relatively new French law, restaurants must now allow patrons to take their leftovers home, but it’s still not common custom. You might get some weird looks if you request a doggie bag.
Pay—And Tip—Like A Pro
In France, it’s considered rude to bring the bill (l’addition) before a customer has specifically requested it. Whether at a corner café or a fine-dining establishment, you’re allowed to linger for as long as you like. The only downside? When you’re ready to go, you may have to be a little assertive to catch your server’s eye.
The price of a meal in Paris includes service charges, so tips aren’t required—but they are appreciated. Most French people wouldn’t leave more than 5 percent, or 10 percent for very good service. There isn’t a tip line on a credit card bill, so be sure to have cash on hand.