Help me look less lame ordering in french restaurants.
August 27, 2010 2:43 PM   Subscribe

Explain to me the mysteries of ordering at french restaurants (more inside...)

I'm returning to southern France for 3 weeks this year and would like to actually eat out a bit more than I usually do when I travel there. My lack of french language skills plus an overall lack of knowledge about dining out there leaves me rather intimidated.

Let me explain:

In the US, no matter where you go to eat, there's generally a formula that you follow: The waiter comes over, asks you what you'd like to drink; you tell him; he goes away and brings it back; you place your order for the appetizer or main course; he goes away and brings it back.

The formula has it's minor variations, of course, but this is pretty much it. And there's a certain reliability and comfort in that. You know what to expect.

My french is still not where I'd like it to be, so, while I can basically communicate what I want during my dining experiences, much of what the waiters say (in their rapid fire fashion) is lost to me.

So without understanding, I'd like to be able at least have some sort of general structure of ordering to fall back on.

Is there one? Do you typically order drinks first then select your menu as you do here? What about apertifs? When do you order dessert if you plan to?

Also, any other tips or tricks would be appreciated... the only one I know is that I'm told you can, in most places, actually order a carafe of des vins du pays to receive a carafe of the local/house wine (which is usually less expensive than ordering a particular bottle).
posted by finitejest to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Expect meals to take longer. My resto-savvy husband took me to a nice french restaurant one night and he considered it a failure of the restaurant that we were there for only two hours... one is expected to linger and drink between courses.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 2:56 PM on August 27, 2010

Just got back from southern France, and I speak terrible French. The ordering flow worked differently nearly every place I ate, but it was never difficult to understand. In quite a few places, it followed the standard casual/American ordering pattern like you describe above.

In other places, ordering took place with a prix fixe menu. In those cases, you picked out the components of your meal for each course from a limited selection. But prix fixe menus are common at nicer restaurants in the US as well, and there was nothing unusual about the French experience (other than the language).

The only thing that stood out to me was that some restaurants had strict hours about meal times. One place we visited would not seat us for a late lunch (it was almost 2:00), but other places nearby were happy to serve us. No idea how common this is.
posted by fremen at 3:01 PM on August 27, 2010

Best answer: I lived in Paris for a few years and the sequence usually went something like this:

Waiter comes over and greets you. If you want an apertif, you order it then (une coupe du champagne or un kir or un kir royale or un(e) Lillet rouge or un(e) Lillet blanc) are common.

Often, there is an amuse bouche (tiny free hors d'oeuvres) at the nicer places that comes automatically.

After the waiter brings your apertifs, you order your first and main courses plus the wine. In many places, you are right - there is a vin du table available that is much cheaper than wine by the bottle -- it's not always good although in some places, and with some meals, it's absolutely fine.

After you finish your main course is when you decide if you want salad and/or cheese. This gives you a chance to finish up any wine that's left and think about dessert. Re: dessert, unless you're ordering something that takes awhile to make (rare, although I have seen certain items -- maybe some sort of chocolate fondant cake-type thing, etc.) you can certainly order it at the end.

After dessert comes coffee and liquers if so desired -- I LOVE a good armagnac.

Also, as L'Estrange Fruit says above, meals take far longer than in the US. One memorable meal in Paris took four hours, and it was worth every second. The French believe it's rude to hurry someone through an experience that is entirely designed to stimulate and delight the senses.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 3:12 PM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

David Lebovitz addresses a lot of questions you may have about travel/restaurants in France. He's wonderfully honest and realistic.
posted by littleflowers at 3:31 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Bring along the Marling Menu Master, a pocket sized guide to French food and courses. Nearly all French restaurants post their menus outside, so you can review the menu and look up dishes in the guide before you go in.
posted by Elsie at 3:55 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's not that big of a deal, but I feel your pain. I went to a restaurant wanting just a pizza and after a few minutes, I got it through my big skull that pizza wasn't offered for lunchtime - I was very tired and just wanted to order something simple, without a plat de resistance, etc. Was in a small town, server didn't know English. Derrr.

Any real Travelers French guide will cover the basics of restaurant French - much of the economy is based on tourism and dining out is under that. Hopefully, the waiter will be a little understanding. My French is better, now....

The coffeee break french lessons aren't bad - here's one with a dialog on going to the South of France to eat:

(it goes for a few lessons, they meet up with people, those people invite them to eat with them, etc)

They have earlier episodes that cover more basic traveling French - the link I gave is fairly advanced. has a video on eating out - it's very fast:

One of my favorite expressions sounds like, "satisified?", but with a french accent - I always thought it was someone saying that to me, but it's actually the phrase, "Ça a été?", which itself is a French lesson to understand.
posted by alex_skazat at 3:58 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Relax.

I've travelled widely in France using only my very rusty O-level French and I've never had a problem.

It's nice to open with whatever French you can muster, even if it's only to say "Bonjour" and ask for the menu.

Do order the house wine. The house wine in France is usually very nice and very cheap - or at least much cheaper than the other wines on the menu. If they have anything in barrels go for that. It tends to be a serious bargain.

Obviously, much depends on the type of restaurant you're in. If it's a high-class place things tend to follow the same sort of pattern they do in the US or the UK. You get water, and a menu. You can elect to order an aperitif if you wish but it is by no means necessary. Peruse the menu and simply order whatever you want. In a more casual bistro I've found it's a good plan to sit down and immediately order a drink: beer, house wine, kir... anything. Then just take your time. Order starter and main together if you like or just order a starter and then decide on a main later. French bistros are generally pretty relaxed and I have never had a problem just ordering more or less on the fly.

The French love to eat, they love to eat out and they are pretty relaxed about it. You should be so too. And hapax_legomenon's answer is great.
posted by Decani at 4:19 PM on August 27, 2010

You must immediately rent the film Tampopo. It's mostly about soup, but there's sequence about ordering in a French restaurant (in Japan) that will set your mind at ease and then some. Enjoy delicious food!
posted by gum at 6:04 PM on August 27, 2010

Best answer: I live in Southern France! (Nice.) hapax_legomenon has the procedural part down pat. As for specifics to this area, I'd strongly suggest avoiding restaurants in areas/on streets full of tourists (as in, you can hear practically no one speaking French except when ordering). Going even one block away can take you to more authentic places. The restaurants in tourist spots here are often shoestring places that set up in spring and close, permanently, after the tourist season. Their food consists of pre-prepared stuff reheated in microwaves (no, I'm not kidding, it's happened to me), but you pay a premium for it.

The one exception to that rule would be the socca and pan bagnat hole-in-the-wall places here. They've been around for ages (literally), are absolutely delicious for lunch, and cheap! They're different than the more formal French restaurant experience. I love them because they're always so lively, down-to-earth and relaxed. The best aïoli I know in Nice is cooked right in front of you at a big open-air restaurant with picnic tables in Vieux Nice. Saying it's the best I know here is saying a lot, since I've also eaten homemade aïoli cooked by Provençal farmers and so know what to compare it too. Holy deity that stuff is heavenly. You shout your order, it's shouted back to the chefs, you shout whether you'd like a pichet of vin (rosé is perfect with that dish), you're given a glass and silverware, you drink some of your rosé while waiting for your order of aïoli to be shouted for you — UN AÏOLI !!!!! — you pick it up, sit back down and enjoy. Usually chatting with tablemates you meet.
posted by fraula at 5:16 AM on August 28, 2010

"pichet of vin"? teehee, I'm turning French. It would be "un pichet de rosé/rouge/blanc" depending on what you want — all table wines. A "pichet" is a bit smaller than a "carafe," which are usually 750ml. Pichets are usually 250ml and 500ml, or "un quart" and "un demi". You could also say "un quart de rosé" to order a 250ml pichet, for instance.
posted by fraula at 5:22 AM on August 28, 2010

Note that you can always order a free pitcher or bottle of tap (not mineral or sparkling) water. Restaurants, including fast-food ones, are legally obliged to provide free water to their customers.
posted by elgilito at 9:42 AM on August 28, 2010

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