From what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.
Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.
First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.
But if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.
The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking, or to help them succeed for good cooking. That is, away from the most obvious tourist spots, where the restaurants don’t have to care about the French diner. In order to get the best of French cuisine, you have to eat where the French do.
Things to look for:
Multilingual menus–they are often a clue to a high level of tourist trade.
This is not a fail safe measure. Even for establishments without personal translators, it takes minimal effort to get the job done online. (Sometimes with comic results; however, bad translations don’t mean bad food–they mean bad translators.) So on the one hand, let’s give restaurants credit for being welcoming to tourists by providing translations, since it really shouldn’t be a big deal.
On the other hand, the tough judges aren’t the tourists but the locals. You want to eat where they do. And if a restaurant is good enough, it will have so much business with the locals that it won’t need the tourists. This is the ideal restaurant. Reservation cards on tables are one hint that a place is good. Locals don’t walk in; they reserve.
Let’s say you’re walking around, looking for a place to eat. How can you tell whether a restaurant will be satisfying? One tip: look for chalk.
Pre-printed menus, like translations in many languages, aren’t a huge effort or expense anymore. But they can (as in sometimes) indicate that the menu doesn’t change with seasons. And that the menu is too big. There’s a risk they’re out of this and that, especially if you’re not traveling in high season, or you’re going to be served pre-cooked or industrial stuff, not freshly homemade.
Instead, look for a chalkboard with the day’s menu written in chalk. That means it changes, possibly daily.
A small menu means the chef pays attention to each dish and each ingredient.
Another key to your dining satisfaction is to know that an entrée is a starter/appetizer (not the main course). Entrée means entry, after all. The main dish may be called a plat (plate, or dish) or else you’ll just see viandes/poissons (meats/fish) in a separate category. I have noticed more vegetarian choices lately, but that’s a new trend. Even salads tend to have meat. Salade gourmande usually includes foie gras, gizzards and slices of dried duck breast. Just so you know. Usually these kinds of big salads are considered a meal and aren’t in any “prix fixe” or set-price menu. A “salade composée” is just a lot of ingredients laid on a bed of lettuce, not tossed. The French are not big on tossing. They like each item to be distinct. Just so you aren’t surprised.
Often, the menu will have separate dishes in their separate categories–five or six starters, then five or six main courses–and then a variety of “menu” choices, where you can get a good deal. It might be choose among entrées, plats, desserts for one price. Or it could be entrée + plat or plat + dessert for one price, and entrée + plat + dessert for another price.
Cheese, at least a nice wedge or round with a bit of bread, usually is included in a menu. Sometimes also a small pitcher of wine, especially at lunch.
Seriously. This IS France!
On to the waiters. They are professionals. The tension is not really about them and their alleged rudeness but about diners’ expectations. What French diners expect from waiters is not at all what Americans expect.
The French waiter is not supposed to be your friend. He (and it very often is a man) is supposed to serve you. This is not rude; he’s supposed to leave you alone. He will not tell you his name; he may describe the day’s specials, but not to the extent that is fashionable in the U.S. He won’t stop by to see whether everything is OK.
But if your water pitcher is low, it probably will be whisked off the table and refilled without you asking. If you drop your napkin, a new one will appear next to your plate as if by magic. The French waiter is not a participant in your meal but an invisible guardian angel ensuring that your meal goes flawlessly.
This continues right up to the end. Because in France, especially outside big cities like Paris, your table is yours and yours only for the entire evening. You can reserve for 8, but if you show up at 7:45, they won’t say it isn’t ready yet. If you show up at 8:30, you won’t be scolded and then rushed through your meal, because another party is scheduled to take over the table at 10.
Since the French love to linger at the table, there will be a pause between courses. This is expected; the service isn’t slow because the French don’t want their dishes to arrive one right after the other. When diners finish eating, their plates stay on the table until everybody in their party has finished, so that the slow eaters don’t feel pressure to rush. And, if they don’t see anything awry at your table, the waiters won’t come unless called. This is because you have every right to stay at the table and yak with your friends until the restaurant closes, without being pressured to continue to order drinks or coffees or whatever. So when you do want to leave and pay, you have to get their attention. The easiest way is to start to leave; they’ll come quickly with the check.
I have been to restaurants in France with visitors, and they have judged the service as bad, because it didn’t meet their American expectations: the waiter didn’t chat, the waiter ignored the table (though we never needed him), dirty dishes weren’t whisked away upon the last bite, the check took forever to arrive.
The other thing is if you order something that’s not “done.” Two possibilities might ensue: First, in France and much of Europe, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is sadly mistaken (not the same as wrong). Take the menu above; the last item is veal sweetbreads with a morel cream sauce and risotto. But the waiter might have seen several non-francophone diners confronted with ris when they were expecting riz, having misread the menu. And he might try to see whether you know that ris isn’t rice, even though it’s pronounced exactly the same way as riz. And you might easily take it as the waiter being rude.
Or the waiter just can’t comprehend what you want. On a family trip to Italy years ago, my brothers routinely ordered coffee with their meals. Coffee lovers, they couldn’t wait to taste a vaunted Italian venti. The waiters would nod, “sì, sì, signore,” but the coffee wouldn’t come, despite frequent pleas by my brothers. The waiters would reply something in Italian that probably meant “we didn’t forget your coffee.” Eventually, the toddlers in the group had enough of sitting still and we would rush to get the check and leave before tantrums began. And my brothers never got their coffee. Because in Italy, nobody drinks coffee with dinner; it’s for after dessert. (They finally went to a café expressly to have an espresso. “There was a little cup, about the size of a thimble,” one brother recounted. “The bottom of it was barely covered with some brown foam. But I tell, you, it was enough!”)
When we lived in New York, the Carnivore suffered grievously every time we went out to eat. It was the same problem of clashing expectations, but in reverse. Why are these waiters telling us their names? Look, here they come again! Can’t they leave us in peace? Why do they bring the main dish so quickly? They don’t give us a minute to breathe! They give us the check before we’ve even had coffee!
He would send the main course back and tell them to wait until he had finished with the appetizer (or worse, the aperitif). And he would completely lose it when we would be told we needed to finish up and get out because the next party was waiting for our table. Once, he hadn’t finished the appetizer when the main course arrived, and the waitress grabbed the appetizer plate as he was still stabbing food with his fork. He pointed out that he hadn’t finished, so she just dumped the remaining food onto the main course dish.
But what do you expect? In New York, waiters are actors or singers or some flavor of Future-Successes for whom waiting tables is unworthy of their Greatness. They play the obsequious role only up to a point, then rebel as soon as it looks like they might not get a maximum tip. In France, waiting tables is an honorable métier, paid a living wage (with health coverage and retirement, of course), worth doing for an entire career.
Also, forget about the 20% tips over here. Usually service is included, but one is polite to leave a little extra–10% would be generous.
So those French waiters aren’t ignoring you. They will know if you drop your fork before it even hits the floor and will slip you a new one before you think to ask. Their job is to work magically, without you noticing. They aren’t being slow or inefficient; they are letting you take your time.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Bon appétit!