How To Dine Like a Local at a French Restaurant
Choucroute, Aligot, Ratatouille, Piperade, Pot au Feu, Coq au Vin, Bouillabaisse, Raclette, Boeuf Bourguignon… whatever your favourite French dish, there’s nothing more quintessentially French than dining in a good French restaurant. Here’s what you need to know about restaurants in France, including some tips for dining out like a local.
Opening hours and making a reservation
In France, the majority of restaurants follow strict service hours – typically, between 12pm and 2pm for lunch service (or possibly 12.30-2.30pm), and between 7.30pm and 9.30pm for dinner service. Making a reservation is a good idea, especially for evening meals. If you are dining at a popular restaurant or one with limited seating, or if you are arriving in a large group (more than the standard 4-person family), reservations may be essential. Remember, the restaurants with the longest queues or those that require pre-booking are inevitably the best!
Whatever you do, do not arrive at five to two or at quarter to nine expecting to be served, as the kitchen will normally be closed. Unlike in many other countries, French restaurants will have no problem turning away customers if you don’t arrive within the service hours!
On arrival at the restaurant
If you have already reserved, your table should be ready and waiting for you. You will simply need to wait and then explain that you have reserved, giving your name.
Without a reservation, it’s best to arrive as early as possible after service opens, or you risk being turned away or asked to return later.
Either way, most restaurants require you to wait (usually near the entrance), and you will be shown to a seat by the waiter or waitress.
Ordering an aperitif
It is completely the norm in France to begin your dining experience with an aperitif, something to stimulate your appetite, even at lunchtime. Your waiter will likely ask you for your aperitif order before returning to take your food order.
Aperitifs are typically alcoholic, but you may find that there are non-alcoholic options, and you can, of course, also order a soda (especially for children!). Here, in the beautiful Charente, we often have a Pineau des Charentes (a regional fortified wine) or a VSOP Cognac with Schwepps and ice before the meal. Many restaurants serve a small snack, such as peanuts, or an amuse-bouche (in fancier restaurants) alongside the aperitif.
The Menu and Ordering
You will typically be given the menu upon being seated, and the waiter/waitress will talk you through any specials. Most restaurants offer a choice of ‘à la carte’, where you choose from the menu, or a ‘menu’, which is typically the most affordable way to dine but is more limited in choice.
Some restaurants in tourist ‘hotspots’ or where there is a reasonable-sized English community, will have English translations.
French menu cheat sheet:
Menu – A ‘menu’ is a set menu, typically with a choice of two or three options for you to choose from for each course. You can typically choose between an ‘entrée-plat’ (starter and main), ‘plat-dessert’ (main and dessert), or an entrée-plat-dessert (three courses). More upmarket restaurants are likely to have other options such as a 5 or 7-course menuor a dégustation menu (a tasting menu or the chef’s choice). The price for a menu is set (occasionally, one choice may require a surcharge, but this will always be clearly marked), and you must select it at the time of ordering (you can’t typically decide to go for the menu once you have started, although they may let you add a dessert if you’ve chosen the entrée-plat!). You also must choose between the provided options – you can’t substitute items from the main menu.
Formule – is similar to a ‘menu’, but it’s typically a cheaper, lunchtime-only option. You’ll see this at fast-food restaurants, cafés, and some restaurants and bistros.
Plat du jour – Dish of the Day. These ‘specials’ will often be written on a chalkboard or presented to you by the waiter/waitress.
A la Carte – You select the dishes you want from the menu where more choice is offered. This menu is usually slightly more expensive than opting for a menu.
Typically, you will be asked to choose your starter and main course first of all and then order your dessert after your main. Some restaurants do like you to choose all three courses at once, though – especially if they are very popular with everything made to order.
Wine pairing is quite common. The waiter/waitress should be able to recommend a wine from their menu to go with each course, and they are usually very knowledgeable, so don’t be afraid to ask for their recommendations. You should be allowed to try a wine or two before deciding. There are usually options for wine by the glass or carafes of house wine if a whole bottle feels too much.
Dining at a French restaurant
A typical meal consists of three or four courses.
The ‘hors d’oeuvre’ or ‘entrée’ is the starter, and you can often gain an excellent feel of what is to follow by the standard of the starter. Small and light in comparison with an Anglophone country’s typical offerings, starters are to be savoured. Soup is popular for this introductory course in winter-time. Another popular starter in the Charente is “Rillettes” which is a traditional, homemade type, of course, pâté served with some baguette, cornichons and maybe radish.
The ‘plat principal’ is the main course. Main courses, if accompanied by vegetables, will usually only be accompanied by one vegetable, such as green beans for example.
Salad may be served separately before the cheese course (or with the cheese course) or before dessert.
It’s cheese next. The cheese course is often an individual plate with three to four quite small portions of cheese. You may need to ask for more bread (which is perfectly acceptable), and the cheese will almost never be served with crackers.
Sometimes you may receive a cheeseboard to your table. If you are at a restaurant with a cheese trolley, prepare to be seriously wowed and do ask for guidance – usually, the waiter/ress will have a really extensive knowledge about each cheese: where it is from, how it is made, which flavours you can expect to taste at this particular time of the year and the cheese strength. Depending on your choice of cheeses, they will also offer guidance on the order in which to eat your cheese in order to maximise your taste experience.
Bread and water
Every restaurant table has a basket of bread. Usually, sliced baguette. It is perfectly acceptable to pop your bread down on the tablecloth next to your plate as side plates are not often used – and do not expect butter; it’s simply not the French way!
Bread is regularly used to mop up juices and is not usually eaten whilst waiting for the meal.
You can also ask for a carafe d’eau – a jug of water – if it hasn’t already been offered.
Bread and water are typically included with the price of the meal in France, unless you order it as a specific side dish or ask for mineral water.
Coffee and dessert
The French are world famous for their cuisine and, indeed, their desserts. There is a real love of chocolate. High-quality, dark, luxurious chocolate. Be it a chocolate moelleux (chocolate cake with an unctuous liquid centre), a chocolate mousse (of which almost every household has their own recipe) or a huge, crispy choux profiterole.
Any decent restaurant will have its own hand-made speciality dessert. A good tarte citron (lemon tart), tarte aux pommes (apple tart) or a crème brulée, for example. Desserts are often traditional, simple, made with local ingredients and absolutely delicious.
There may be a choice of cheese course or dessert course, or both, which is infinitely preferable in my book, if you can squeeze it in!
Coffee or a digestif anyone to round off the meal? Note that a ‘coffee’ in France will typically be an espresso, unless you ask for something else.
Have fun eating your way around each region in this fabulous country.
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