kid menu 4Last week, I offered some tips for choosing a restaurant in France. Today has been-there-done-that counsel for eating out with kids in France, plus some general kid-friendly travel advice.

It’s fairly rare to see children at fine restaurants in France. It isn’t that the French don’t love kids–they have a higher fertility rate than other developed countries (1.98 kids per woman in France, compared with 1.91 in the U.K. and 1.86 in the U.S.). and government policies around maternity leave, job protection and pay are strong (I don’t want to say “generous,” because that sounds as if it isn’t deserved, when in fact it’s earned).

kid menu 2
Choice of slice of ham with fries or mussels with fries. Yes, the kid’s menu has mussels.

All the same, kids and adults occupy distinct realms in France. And to have the best experience possible while traveling with kids, it’s good to know the cultural expectations (you can always flout these–it’s a free country–but you will be subject to Gallic scowls).

Dinner is late in France. Most people I know eat between 7 and 8 p.m. at home (BTW, the French use the 24-hour clock, so it would be 19h (h for heure) and 20h). But it’s rare to find a restaurant open at 7. Most start service at 8. When toddlers need 12-14 hours a night and even preteens need 9-11 hours, it’s logical that they are in bed around 8 p.m. The French deal with this by leaving the kids at home with a babysitter.

grande bouffe
Opens at 7 p.m.! And the owners have kids, so they’re understanding.

The other challenge is the French expectation that dinner should be enjoyed slowly. It is difficult to enjoy dinner when you have a ticking time bomb of a toddler sharing your table. We would target one of the few restaurants that opens at 7, La Grande Bouffe, which suited the Carnivore just fine, as it specializes in large slabs of red meat cooked (well, quickly passed near) a wood fire right there in the dining room. We would get there the minute it opened and order quickly, lest a big table arrive and overwhelm the one-man kitchen.

Our child would sit angelically for an hour, which seemed like quite a feat for a one- or two-year-old, but after that, all bets were off. First fussing, then increasingly emphatic demands to get DOWN. However, even in family restaurants, kids don’t wander the way they do in the U.S. Restaurants do not provide crayons and special paper placements for coloring. Bring your own. Also a sippy cup, because they also don’t have plastic glasses, and you can’t enjoy your meal if you are trying to keep your kid from dropping or knocking over a glass glass. A stroller is a good option (if there’s room–some restaurants are tiny), because they can go to sleep.

There are options, such as brasseries, with wider hours. Informal family restaurants–mostly chains like Hippopotamus or Buffalo Grill–open early and have reliably OK food but do you really want to spend your meals in France in the equivalent of Applebees? (I like Applebees well enough but I wouldn’t cross the ocean to eat at one.) One Parisian restaurant that’s quite loud–in a raucous, not discotheque way–is Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois, a medieval-style place where the servers, dressed in period costumes, stab your knife into the table. It is not gastronomic, but pretty fun, a bit like our medieval meal last summer.

kid menu
Sirop is usually grenadine mixed with water; sometimes other flavors are available. Milk is almost never an option. Pom’pote is applesauce that you suck out of a little plastic bag.

Nice restaurants in France are quiet. In the U.S., the louder the better, but that doesn’t hold here. Everybody speaks in a whisper. That means you have no cover or plausible deniability when your kid shrieks. And nicer restaurants rarely have children’s menus or high chairs (and forget about changing tables!).

If you don’t want to go downmarket to family-focused restaurants, consider nice restaurants with outdoor seating, where the ambient noise level is higher. The catch is that all the smokers want to sit outdoors, but you might be able to score a spot upwind or with nonsmokers around.

Another option is to shift your schedule and eat your “nice” meal or main meal at lunch. The expectations for calm are somewhat less strict at lunch, plus the menu usually is cheaper–double win.

If a place doesn’t have a kid’s menu, they sometimes will offer the same menu as for adults, with half portions at half the price. One of our favorite restaurants in Carcassonne, Le Clos des Framboisiers, does the half-size, half-price option. Our favorite Chinese restaurant, La Jonque, suggested a stir-fry of chicken and vegetables with rice–not on the menu, but it was a big hit with our kid.

kid menu 3
“Pitchou” is a term of endearment for “child” in the South of France. The menu choices are hamburger (without bun), fish or chicken breast wrapped in hame and cheese and breaded. Sides are homemade fries, vegetables or penne pasta. Dessert: two scoops of ice cream.

Some years later, our kid asked to have a birthday sleepover with two friends, with dinner at La Jonque–ALONE. So I called and reserved two tables, specifying that they should be as far apart as possible in such a small place. The chef and his wife have kids, and understood. We arrived all together, then split into opposite corners of the dining room. Another family with kids about the same age were there, and those kids stared wide-eyed with naked jealousy as ours ordered on their own and seemed to have a great time at their very own table.

If you have decided your main “nice” meal is lunch, then you can have something simple or even get takeout for dinner. This is one of the best arguments for renting an apartment, where you can feed your kids, put them to bed, then relax with a glass of wine. I am not one of the people who will put a child to sleep in a hotel room and then go down to the lounge in the lobby. But it’s no fun (been there, done that) to sit IN the hotel room in the dark while your kid sleeps for 12 straight hours. A separate bedroom lets them get the sleep they need (a tired kid is a cranky kid), while letting you look over plans for the next day or just zone out in front of the TV.

The way to hold out from noon to 8 p.m. is to adopt the French snack, called un goûter (a taste), un quatre-heures (a 4 o’clock–this one doesn’t follow the 24-hour system) or even un petit quatre-heures (a little 4 o’clock). Don’t even get me started on how un quatre-heures is masculine when heure is feminine.

menu cite 2
An example of the lunch menu being the same as the dinner menu but cheaper.

I have found that an essential element to good behavior in children is to use up their energy. France has great parks and playgrounds. The lovely Place des Vosges in Paris has a big playground, full of beautifully dressed kids (wearing artfully tied scarves) being watched by their chicly dressed parents. Our kid’s eagle eye would detect playgrounds from a mile away. “Maison!” I would strain to pick it out, and sure enough, on the corner of a public square otherwise filled with café tables, there was a playground with a little house on stilts and a slide coming out. Just watch out for the “Pelouse interdit”–keep off the grass–signs and stick to the actual playground.

In Paris, in the basement of the Louvre, there’s a shopping gallery, and at one end, there’s a big empty space where you can see excavations of the ancient foundations. Almost nobody goes there (“What’s this?” “Old stones.” “Cool. OK, what’s next?”). This is the perfect place for some little ones to run and scream their heads off before dinner. Even if you’ve been hoofing around sight-seeing, your toddler has probably been strapped into a stroller and is dying to move.

Coming soon: great things to see and do with kids in France.

 

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19 thoughts on “Tips for Travel With Kids in France

  1. I have four daughters now all grown and mostly flown (30 down to just shy of 22). The rule you apply to children of wearing them out is surely finite? Don’t matter where those little ankle biting critters are they have them some energy. More than we do. And they need to burn it. The child that lives in the apartment above us has parents that do not adhere to this. Father takes this (probably 6 years old) child to school balanced on this very upmarket scooter (the father’s scooter for the avoidance of doubt) – he (the child) returns at lunchtime and does exactly what he did from a quarter to 7 le matin when he woke and what he will repeat when he is scootered (or put on the saddle of a bike if it is maman) home until about 22:00. He will run around. Loudly. Very very loudly. And I want to scream – take him to le Jardin de Ville (donated by the Lesdigières familly in 1720 – they clearly knew what was coming vis a vis revolutions and chopping of heads a few decades on and decided to short circuit it and keep theirs). I love your approach. The France that I knew when my girls were growing really embraces children. BUT. There is a way of embracing the fact that the children are tolerated and actually having a relaxing time yourself. You nail it. Unsurprisingly, since you are living it!!

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    1. Did you click on the link? It’s to one of the funniest ads.
      Before having kids, I went to Paris with a friend and her then year-old daughter. It was winter–it snowed a bit. We went to the Louvre basement and she ran like a demon, then we went to a restaurant. The waiter looked at us hard, and I thought he was going to refuse to seat us with a kid in tow. But she was out like a light within five minutes and we had a lovely, peaceful dinner.

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  2. I’ve noticed that the children in restaurants in France are much better behaved than in North America. I think it’s because it is expected of them to act civilized and not draw attention…..

    Ali

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    1. Rules about table manners are pretty strictly enforced, not just at home but also at school. But you rarely see kids in really nice restaurants, except Sunday at noon for a family meal. Nice restaurants with long meals are not really fun for kids so why take them? Of course, on vacation, that isn’t so easy. Most parents don’t want to leave their child with a new babysitter, especially in a foreign country. My babysitters were more thoroughly vetted than national security advisers.

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  3. You have some great menus here! And may I admit that you’ve made me very hungry? Moules-frites… heaven… not only in France, but Belgium — and a taste of both countries my kiddos acquired very young.

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  4. Le Parc has a great menu for children – we’ve been going there with friends who visit Saint-Chinian each year, for some time now. Their kids have been eating the regular menu for a few years, but before then, the children’s menu was the best – totally geared to make sure that the little ones have a great tasting experience too, without overwhelming them. I agree with you though, it’s very rare to see children in upmarket restaurants – thinking back, each time we’ve been to Le Parc we were the only table with children!! Expectations are fairly high – French children generally know how to behave in restaurants, and I’ve had very few meals spoilt because of unruly children!

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    1. When we went to Le Parc (sans kid), there was a dog (brought by diners) that wandered from table to table. Some people thought it was cute, others were horrified to pay so much for a meal in a fancy place and have to shoo away a begging dog.

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      1. Oh no – I don’t like begging dogs at the best of times, but at Le Parc?? If I have a choice, I prefer to see children in a restaurant rather than dogs. Most parents take more care over the behaviour of their children than some pet owners do… That said, the French have a relaxed attitude to pets, and most of the pets are pretty relaxed too 😉

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      2. Well, I know people see their dogs as their children, but social services won’t come and put your dog in foster care if you leave it at home alone. Parents can’t always manage to get out without the kids.

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  5. My husband, 7 year old daughter and I spent 2 weeks in Paris last summer (we are Americans); your advice is spot on! We ate out for lunch and ordered takeout or cooked in the apartment we had rented for dinner. It worked out great! Never once did we see a young child dining at a restaurant at dinner; a few teens now and then.

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