You will find that nearly every French person will greet you with a Bonjour or Bonsoir. Even people that you pass on country walks are likely to offer a greeting. It is simply considered good manners to say Bonjour (hello) upon entering a restaurant or any place of business, acknowledging both the shop owner and the other customers. Upon leaving, one always says “Au revoir” (good bye). “Bonsoir” (good evening) is generally used after 6:00 pm. Don’t get this confused with “Bonne Soirée”, which means “Have a good evening.” “Bonne journée” means, “Have a good day.”
What to Expect
- A Reservation is often required, and in smaller establishments you may not get a table without having made one, even if it appears that tables are available. This is because the kitchen may have purchased fresh ingredients and prepared for service based on the number of reservations it has for the evening. If you enter an establishment and are greeted with the word “Complet,” they have no space.
- One seating. Unlike in the US where the objective is to “turn tables,” many restaurants only have one seating per service. Most often, the table is yours for the evening. You will not be rushed.
- Personal Space. In many restaurants in France, the tables are placed very close together, often with just a couple of inches separating one table from another. This means that sometimes the proprietor will actually need to pull table out to allow diners sitting against the wall to take their seats. The French are very used to these arrangements. Other than a polite “bonjour” when you are first being seated, and maybe a “bon appetit” when your food is served, your neighbors will most likely very much keep to themselves, with voices at very low conversational levels.
- “La Carte”. This can be a bit confusing at first, but the menu in a restaurant is actually called la carte – which is the same word for a map. You may also be brought a “Carte des Vins,” which is the wine menu.
- “Le Menu”. Le menu and la formule refer to a fixed-price pris fix menu, which includes two or more courses, often with limited choices for each. The choices may be written on a chalkboard or on a special page in the carte. Often, a chef will use le menu to highlight some of his or her specialties. This is usually the most economical way to eat.
- Order of the Meal. A French meal often includes numerous courses, in this order:
- un apéritif – cocktail, pre-dinner drink
- un amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule – a little snack, just one or two bites, sometimes brought to the table with your aperitif
- une entrée – appetizer/starter (false cognate alert: entree can mean “main course” in English)
- le plat principal – main course
- le fromage – cheese
- le dessert – dessert
- le café – coffee
- un digestif – after-dinner drink
- Vous desirez un aperitif? After handing you la carte, your server will most likely ask you, “Would you like an aperitif?” In Burgundy, the official apero is the “Kir,” consisting of white wine and crème de cassis, or a ‘Kir Royale” made with sparkling white wine and cassis. The French believe that this little bit of alcohol and sweetness enhances the appetite. Your drinks will be brought to you to sip while you leisurely consider la carte.
- Avez-vous choisi? Your server will watch you for signs you have made your selections. (One signal is to close your carte and place it on the table.) He or she will then return to your table and ask, Avez vous choisi? or “Have you chosen?” Your order will then be taken. Note that in many restaurants, if you are ordering a menu, you may be expected to make your dessert selection at this time, as well. In café’s and very casual bistro’s the waiter may appear, at attention, pen at the ready, and say “J’ecoute,” which means, “I’m listening.”
- Ordering Wine. After you have placed your complete food order, your server will then ask which wines you would like. It is quite customary to have different wines with different courses, paired with the foods you have chosen. In Burgundy, especially, the best response is to ask for the server’s recommendation, “Avez-vous un recommendation?”
- No bread plate. Most often, you will not be provided with a plate for your bread. You should place your bread directly on the tablecloth, at the upper left side of your plate.
In France, meals and drinks are priced inclusive of tax and service. It is nice to leave a small tip if you have received attentive service or food of outstanding value and quality. You are not expected to tip every waiter for every coffee. The word in French use for a tip or gratuity is “pourboire,” meaning “for drinking.” In the old days, a pourboire was literally a little something left so that the server could buy himself a drink!
“L’addition, s’il vous plait” (Requesting the bill)
Unlike in the U.S., a waiter in France will most likely NOT bring you a bill “l’addition” in a restaurant until you ask for it. To do so would be considered impolite, implying that the customer should rush through the last sips of coffee.
To request the bill (especially if you do not speak French or if the restaurant is busy), just catch the waiter’s eye, then hold up one hand and pretend to be writing on it with the other. This seems to be the universal symbol for “Check, please.”