Wine, bread and cheese

A crash course in French restaurant etiquette

If ever there was a good example of being thrown into the deep end, I think that moving halfway across the world to a country where I couldn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone and with no job prospects in sight would definitely qualify! Now I know that many of you, if put in that position, would voluntarily execute a beautiful swan dive into that deep end and gracefully make your way to the shallow end, taking all of the challenges and mishaps in your, uh hem, stroke. I take my hat off to you, but this article isn’t for you. This article is for those of you who, like me, envisage yourselves bomb dropping into that deep end, emerging coughing and spluttering, and then not so gracefully doggy paddling to the shallow end all the while trying to keep your head above water. Importantly, both groups do make it to the shallow end eventually. It’s just that the latter may need some water wings in the beginning to help them get on their way. Because I am currently splashing around in the shallows and am no longer in need of them, allow me to provide you with my water wings… In this article, I will impart some of my observations about eating at restaurants in France so that you can immerse yourself in their famous food culture without worrying about committing any embarrassing faux pas, of which I have made many.

Timing, as they say, is everything

Lunch time in France is usually two hours long. It is for this reason that many businesses close between midday and two in the afternoon when all of the restaurants are bustling with people. And so it was that very soon after arriving in France, my husband and I strolled into a restaurant minutes before two o’clock, tired and hungry from a long morning of unpacking, blissfully unaware that we were breaching a social interdict. Unfortunately for us, we chose a fast-casual restaurant chain, which means that the restaurant is operated on a self-service basis and at two o’clock most of the food had been cleared away. After an excruciatingly awkward moment where the staff realised that we were foreigners and were probably cursing our stupidity, an employee to whom I will forever be grateful threw a steak onto the grill for us and grabbed some leftover desserts from the back. Needless to say, after sharing a sympathy meal alone in a restaurant, my husband and I are now the most prompt customers any establishment could ever hope to receive!

Une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît

In France, there are two things that you never have to pay for at a restaurant: bread and tap water. They are usually brought to your table at the beginning of a meal without you having to ask for them.  Of course you are welcome to order mineral water, but the quality of the tap water in France is excellent, it is common practice to drink it with a meal, and you should feel free to ask for it if the waiter doesn’t bring it to your table by ordering “une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait.” Once the jug is on the table you are expected to fill your own glass. As a side note, ice is not automatically served with water or soft drinks, a French convention which drives my husband crazy. Even when you ask for it, “avec des glaçons s’il vous plait,” brace yourself for the eventuality of only a couple of cubes appearing in your glass!

The true French stereotype: the baguette

I’m sure you’re all familiar with at least a couple of French stereotypes: they wear berets, they say “oh là là” all the time, they’re rude, they drink a lot of wine and eat a lot of cheese, and they walk around holding baguettes. Of course all stereotypes should be taken with a pinch of salt, but I quickly discovered at least one of the above to be true: the French do walk around holding baguettes! In France, bread is sacred. A daily visit to your favourite boulangerie to buy fresh baguettes is common practice. A meal served without bread in a restaurant is unheard of. When the bread basket is set on the table, simply grab a piece and place it on the table next to your plate. Before my husband and I became well-versed in “bread etiquette” when dining, we had to surreptitiously scan the tables of our fellow diners in order to establish where they were placing their bread, as no side plate is provided. On the table is most definitely the social convention. Our eyes were also darting back and forth to ascertain whether we were the only table not provided with butter. We weren’t. This is because the bread is meant to accompany the meal and mop up the sauce. I still envisage my mother scolding me (and I am a grown woman) every time I do this, as at the very least, mopping up your sauce with bread is considered controversial in terms of manners in South Africa. However, you can take comfort in the knowledge that in France it is the done thing. So my advice – be brave! Don’t hesitate to put your bread on the table and use it to mop up that delicious sauce with abandon.

Tips on tipping

Tipping is a tricky thing in France. This is because there are no hard and fast rules like in South Africa, where 10% is the accepted standard. I know it goes against the grain for many foreign diners, but believe it or not, you don’t have to tip your waiter because the tip has already been included in the bill. In fact, it isn’t even considered a slight if you don’t! Having said this, a small tip is, of course, always appreciated if you feel the service was very good. My husband and I find it hard to break the habit and more often than not leave a Euro or two; the accepted token amount. However, I have noticed that when we are out with our French friends, they do not tip the majority of the time. FYI, you cannot tip with a card, so if you choose to do so, you’ll need to have some coins handy.

Did you know that in 2010, French cuisine earned a spot on UNESCO’s World Intangible Cultural Heritage List? The list aims to protect cultural traditions ranging from the Spanish Flamenco to the ancient Indian practice of yoga. It is clear that France’s food culture is one of pride and love – an experience not to be missed. By taking into account the above advice the next time you are at a restaurant in France, you can plunge head first into the experience and enjoy it without any reservations. The water wings will hopefully help you to stay afloat, even when your stomach is full with wonderful French cuisine 🙂 Bon appétit!

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