The chances are that during your stay in Paris, you might end up going out to a restaurant. Maybe even several times. But, like in any country, France has a few Dos and Don’ts that may be useful to know beforehand so as to avoid any cultural misunderstanding.
Before you even get in the cab, did you book in advance? Parisian restaurants are for the most part small, intimate, cosy affairs. But cosy means not many tables, and not many tables means a reservation is essential. Don’t take the risk of turning up to find a) “nous sommes complets” (we’re full) or b) the deuxième service (second service) starts in an hour and a half… and you have to wait at the bar.
You should also know that in Paris people sit down for dinner from half past seven at the very earliest to half past nine. Ideally you should ask for a table at 8 o’clock. Earlier clients will probably be the British, the severely jetlagged, or families with children. Customers who turn up after 10pm are usually Italian, and normally very unpopular with the kitchen staff.
So, you arrive at 8 o’clock (don’t be over ten minutes late without calling) and the waiter hands you la carte. The rule is simple – the menu is law. This means that no, you cannot have the purée de patate douce and a side-salad with the saumon instead of the pommes de terre sautées. Suggesting variations to a plate is interpreted as insulting the chef’s taste. In my experience as a waitress, the only times a chef will consent to change the ingredients of a plate – without making a big fuss – is when allergies or children are involved. “I’m allergic to shellfish, would you mind leaving them out of the risotto?” will work, as will “I’m sorry, my daughter absolutely loves green beans, would it be possible to have some instead of the spinach?” You can obviously use the “My daughter” excuse for yourself, but you’ll have to find a child to stand in during the order…
When my mother first came to visit me in Paris, she refused to drink the tap-water. Many years later, she’s still reluctant. But, seriously, water from the faucet is absolutely fine over here. Sure, you can order bottled water if you prefer the taste, but otherwise save yourself some euros and just ask for un carafe d’eau.
In 99% of restaurants in Paris they will give you a little basket of bread to snack on while you are waiting for your food. Unless you are in a very tourist-friendly area, butter is not served. Ask and you’ll get some, just don’t sit waiting for the butter to arrive, because it won’t. Also, don’t wolf that bread down too quickly. Firstly, you won’t appreciate your food as much when it arrives, and secondly, it makes a wonderful sponge to soak up the sauce à la française.
If you did go a bit overboard with the bread, and you’re left with a full stomach and a half-full plate, take a second before asking for un doggie bag. In very smart restaurants this is not done at all. However, this is where your ‘daughter’ comes in again. She’s back at the hotel, sick. And she loves steak tatare…
Asking for the bill is simple. Never call out for attention, simply catch the eye of any of the waiters and perform the ‘writing a cheque’ gesture in the air. If the waiter comes over, a quick “l’addition s’il vous plait” will do. Where tips are concerned, it is normally considered acceptable to leave a few euros on the table to say thank you to the staff. Around 1.50 euro per person, unless there was something exceptional about the service. Be aware that in good restaurants the tips are shared equally, so that sweet waiter who’s always wanted to visit New York will only get a small portion of your thank-you gesture.
The most important thing of course is to enjoy your meal, so bon appétit!