With its international reputation for fine dining, few people would be surprised to hear that French cuisine can certainly be very good. As a testament to this, France is tied with Japan for first place as the country with the most Michelin star restaurants.
Unfortunately, it can also be quite disappointing; many restaurants that cater to tourists serve very ordinary fare, and some are rip-offs. Finding the right restaurant and one where French people go to is therefore very important – try asking locals, hotel staff or even browsing restaurant guides or websites for recommendations as simply walking in off the street can be a hit and miss affair. The downside is that outside of the tourist traps, it is very rare to find a restaurant with English-speaking waiters, so be prepared to have to speak some French.
There are many places to try French food in France, from three-star Michelin restaurants to French brasseries or bistrots that you can find on almost every corner, especially in big cities. In general, one should try to eat where the locals do for the best chance of a memorable meal. Most small cities or even villages have local restaurants which are sometimes listed in the most reliable guides. In fact, many fine dining restaurants are in rural villages rather than in the big cities, and French people often drive to those villages to dine during special occasions. Even among cities, Paris is not considered by the French to have the best fine dining scene; that honour goes to Lyon. There are also specific local restaurants, like bouchons lyonnais in Lyon, crêperies in Brittany (and in the Montparnasse area of Paris), and baraques à frites in the north.
Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, even Thai eateries are readily available in Paris, either as regular restaurants or traiteurs (fast-food). They are not so common, and are more expensive, in smaller French cities. Many places have “Italian” restaurants though these are often little more than unimaginative pizza and pasta parlours. You will also find Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, as well as Greek and Lebanese food. The ubiquitous hamburger bars – US original or their French copies – are also available.
In France, taxes (7% of the total in restaurants) and service (usually 10%) are always included in the bill, so anything patrons add to the bill amount is an “extra-tip”. There should not be any additions to the advertised price, do not hesitate to question such additions. French people usually leave one or two coins if they were happy with the service, but it’s not mandatory. Bread and tap water are always free of charge, and no extra price should be applied for the dishes.
Fixed price menus seldom include beverages. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water or fizzy water, at a premium; ask for a carafe d’eau for tap water, which is free and safe to drink. Water never comes with ice in it unless so requested, and water with ice may not be available.
As in other countries, restaurants tend to make a large profit off beverages. Expect wine to cost much more than it would in a supermarket.
Ordering is made either from fixed price menus (menu fixe) or à la carte.
A typical fixed price menu will comprise:
- appetiser, called entrées or hors d’œuvres
- main dish, called a plat [principal]
- dessert (dessert) or cheese (fromage)
Sometimes, restaurants offer the option to take only two of the three courses, at a reduced price.
Coffee is always served as a final step, though it may be followed by liquors. Coffee will always be served black unless requested otherwise. For white coffee, ask for café au lait. A request for coffee during the meal will be considered strange.
Not all restaurants are open for both lunch and dinner, nor are they always open all year around. It is therefore advisable to carefully check the opening times and days. A restaurant open for lunch will usually start service at noon and accept patrons until 13:30. Dinner begins at around 19:30 and patrons are accepted until 21:30. Restaurants with longer service hours are usually found only in the larger cities and in town centres. Finding a restaurant open on Saturday and especially Sunday can be a challenge unless you stay close to the tourist areas.
In a reasonable number of restaurants, especially outside tourist areas, a booking is compulsory and people may be turned away without one, even if the restaurant is clearly not filled to capacity. For this reason, it can be worthwhile to research potential eateries in advance and make the necessary reservations to avoid disappointment, especially if the restaurant you’re considering is specially advised in guide books.
A lunch of 2-3 courses for two on the menu including wine and coffee will cost you (as of 2018) €30-50 on average. A main course at dinner will cost €15-30 in a typical restaurant, while a typical dinner for two with beverages will cost €50-110. The same with beer in a local bistro or a crêperie around €35-55. You can, or course, spend considerably more.
Outside of Paris and the main cities, prices are not always lower but the menu will often include a fourth course, usually cheese. As with everywhere beware of the tourist traps which are numerous around the heavy travelled spots and may offer a nice view but not much to remember on your plate.
French waiters have a reputation for being rude, but this is largely undeserved. While there are certainly a few bad eggs who will seemingly go to any length to demonstrate their contempt for you as a customer, most perceptions of rudeness are simply down to travellers having certain expectations of service which are different to the French cultural norm.
So let’s clear things up: in France the customer does not come first. You are not always right, your every whim does not have to be indulged, and the amount of money you flash will not entitle you to a superior service to others in the room. The vast majority of restaurants in France are privately-owned independents, with all the proprietary pride that entails; you as the customer are nothing more than a temporary guest in the restaurateur’s home. That means you will be treated well, as long as you are polite and follow a few house rules. Humility and a sense of humour when mistakes happen can both go a long way in this game!
Upon arrival at a restaurant, wait at the door to be shown to your table. Seating yourself without being invited to do so is often taken to be presumptuous, and may result in your getting off on the wrong foot before you can even say bonjour. Asking for a dish to be changed for any reason is unusual and can be taken as a criticism of chef’s cooking. If you don’t like how a particular dish is prepared, or can’t eat one of the ingredients, order something else. There is a reason the full menu is posted on every restaurant door, and that is to allow people to get an idea of what is on offer in advance of making a commitment to eat there. While dining, it is considered impolite to have your elbows on the table; ditto for laying your hands in your lap. If you are given a glass or a cup with your beverage, use it.
Waitering is a respected profession in France, and you should recognise this from the get-go. In the French psyche, a good waiter is there to make sure you receive your meal and drinks in the proper manner, and then to keep out of your way so you can enjoy yourself in peace. If you need something, ask and you shall receive, but don’t expect to be approached during your meal, or for your needs to be anticipated in advance. Above all, don’t copy the movies by addressing your waiter as garçon (boy), as this is demeaning and about a century out-of-date etiquette-wise. A simple excusez-moi is more than sufficient to attract the server’s attention. One way to ensure good service can be to ask the waiter’s recommendations for wine or to point out any local specialities on the menu; this shows that you respect their expertise and gives you the opportunity to learn more about the local cuisine.
You can show your appreciation at the end by leaving a small tip. Tipping is neither compulsory nor expected as the serving staff receive a full wage, and many establishments factor a 10% service charge into the price of the food (this is signalled with service compris printed on the bill or menu). Most French people, when deciding to tip, will just round up the bill to the next multiple of five – if a bill comes to €26, call it €30 and everyone’s happy.
Bakeries (boulangeries) are something of a French institution and are to be found all over the country from the smallest villages to city streets. All white bread variants keep for only a short time and must be eaten the same day, or else saved for dunking in soup or hot chocolate the following morning. Hence bakers bake at least twice a day.
- The famous baguette: a long, thin loaf;
- Variants of the baguette : la ficelle (even thinner), la flûte, la tradition (a baguette with a generally more delicate taste but also more expensive);
- Pain de campagne or Pain complet: made from whole grain which keeps relatively well.
Pastries are a large part of French cooking. Hotel breakfasts tend to be light, consisting of tartines (pieces of bread with butter or jam) or the famous croissants and pains au chocolat, not dissimilar to a chocolate-filled croissant, but square rather than crescent shaped.
Pastries can be found in a pâtisserie but also in most boulangeries.
Every French region has dishes all its own. These dishes follow the region’s local produce from agriculture, hunting and fishing. Here is a small list of regional dishes which you can find easily in France. Generally each region has a unique and widespread dish, usually because it was food for the masses:
- Cassoulet (in the south west) : beans, duck, pork & sausages
- Choucroute, or sauerkraut (in Alsace) : stripped fermented cabbage + pork
- Fondue Savoyarde (central Alps) : melted/hot cheese with white wine
- Fondue Bourguignonne (in Burgundy) : pieces of beef (in boiled oil), usually served with a selection of various sauces.
- Raclette (central Alps) : melted cheese & potatoes/meat
- Pot-au-feu (found all over France) : boiled beef with vegetables
- Boeuf Bourguignon (Burgundy) : slow cooked beef with red wine gravy
- Gratin dauphinois (Rhone-Alpes) : oven-roasted slices of potatoes with sour cream and cheese
- Aligot (Aveyron) : melted cheese mixed with a puree of potatoes
- Bouillabaisse (fish + saffron) (Marseille and the French Riviera). Don’t be fooled! A real bouillabaisse is a really expensive dish due to the amount of fresh fish it requires. Be prepared to pay at least €30 per person. If you find restaurants claiming to serve bouillabaisse for something like €15 per person, you’ll find it to be of a very poor quality.
- Tartiflette (Savoie) : Melted Reblochon cheese, potatoes and pork or bacon.
- Confit de Canard (south west) : Duck Confit, consists of legs and wings bathing in grease. That grease is actually very healthy and, with red wine, is one of the identified sources of the so-called “French Paradox” (eat richly, live long).
- Foie Gras (south west) : The liver of a duck or goose. Although usually quite expensive, foie gras can be found in supermarkets for a lower price (because of their purchasing power) around the Christmas season. It is the time of year when most foie gras is consumed in France. It goes very well with Champagne.
- Moules marinière (found all along the coast, with large regional differences) : Mussels steamed in wine or cider (Brittany and Normandy) with a variety of local produce, e.g. simple shallots and garlic in the north, cream in the west, tomatoes and peppers in the south, etc… Normally served with crusty bread and frites.
Cooking and drinking is a notable part of French culture; take time to eat and discover new dishes.
Contrary to stereotype, snails and frog legs are quite infrequent foods in France, with many French people enjoying neither, or sometimes having never even tasted them. Quality restaurants sometimes have them on their menu: if you’re curious about trying new foods, go ahead.
- Frog legs (cuisses de grenouille) have a very fine and delicate taste with flesh that is not unlike chicken. They are often served in a garlic dressing and are no weirder to eat than, say, crab.
- Most of the taste of Burgundy snails (escargots de bourgogne) comes from the generous amount of butter, garlic and parsley in which they are cooked. They have a very particular spongy-leathery texture and, for obvious reasons, a strong garlicky flavour. Catalan-style snails (cargols) are made a completely different way, and taste even weirder!
Let us also cite:
- Rillettes sarthoises also known as Rillettes du Mans. A sort of potted meat, made from finely shredded and spiced pork. A delicious speciality of the Sarthe area in the north of the Pays de la Loire and not to be confused with rillettes from other areas, which are more like a rough pâté.
- Beef bone marrow (os à moelle). Generally served in small quantities, with a large side. So go ahead: if you don’t like it, you’ll have something else to eat on your plate!
- Veal sweetbread (ris de veau), is a very fine (and generally expensive) delicacy, often served with morels, or in more elaborate dishes like bouchées à la reine.
- Beef bowels (tripes) is served either à la mode de Caen (with a white wine sauce, named after the town in Normandy) or à la catalane (with a slightly spiced tomato sauce)
- Andouillettes are sausages made from tripe, a specialty of Lyon
- Tricandilles are seasoned and grilled pork tripe from the Bordeaux region
- Beef tongue (langue de bœuf) and beef nose (museau) and Veal head (tête de veau) are generally eaten cold (but thoroughly cooked!) as an appetizer.
- Oysters (huîtres) are most commonly served raw in a half shell. They are often graded by size, No1 being the largest (and most expensive).
- Oursins (sea urchins), for those who like concentrated iodine.
- Steak tartare a big patty of ground beef cured in acid as opposed to cooked, frequently served with a raw egg. Good steak tartare will be prepared to order at tableside. A similar dish is boeuf carpaccio, which is thin slices or strips of raw steak drizzled with olive oil and herbs.
- Cervelle (pronounced ser-VELL), lamb brain.
France is certainly the country for cheese (fromage), with nearly 400 different kinds. Indeed, former president General Charles De Gaulle was quoted as saying “How can you govern a country which has 365 varieties of cheese?”.
Breakfast in France is usually very light, typically consisting of a coffee and a croissant or some other viennoiserie at special occasions. On normal days most people have a beverage (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice) and toast of baguette or toast bread with butter and jam/honey/Nutella that can be dipped in the hot beverage, or cereals with milk, or fruit and yoghurt. The French breakfast is mostly sweet, but anything can change and you can have savoury breakfasts everywhere today.
Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, the Loire Valley… France is the home of wine. It can be found cheaply just about anywhere. Beer (lager) is also extremely popular, in particular in northern France, where “Bière de Garde” can be found. The alcohol purchase age was recently raised to 18 for all drinks, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, laws against drunk driving are strictly enforced, with stiff penalties.
French wine is classified mainly by the region it comes from. Many wines don’t label the variety of grape that was used, so to know what you’re getting, you have to learn what types of wine each region is known for. Wines are usually labeled with the region (which may be broad or very specific) and a quality level:
- Roughly half of all wines are AOP (Appellation d’origine protégée), or AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) in wines before 2012. For this highest tier, wine must come from designated areas with restrictions on the grape varieties, winemaking methods, and flavor profile.
- Another third of wines are IGP (Indication géographique protégée), or Vin de Pays before 2012. These too are judged to meet the character of a region’s wine, but have fewer restrictions than AOP/AOC wines.
- The lowest tier are Vin de France, or Vin de Table before 2010, which are everyday table wines that are not labelled by region.
Wine and spirits may be purchased from supermarkets, or from specialised stores such as the Nicolas chain. Nicolas offers good advice on what to buy (specify the kind of wine and the price range you desire). In general, only French wines are available unless a foreign wine is a “speciality” with no equivalent in France (such as port), and they are classified by region of origin, not by grape.
Etiquette-wise, you shouldn’t drink alcoholic beverages (especially red wine or strong alcohol such as cognac) directly from a 70 cl bottle. Such behaviour is generally associated with drunkards (though if you are surrounded by college students, you may be OK). Drinking beer from a 25 to 50cl can or bottle is OK.
Prices of food and beverages will vary on whether they’re served to you at the bar or sitting at a table – the same cup of espresso might cost €0.50 more if served at a table than at the bar, and €0.50 more again if served out on the terrace. Really, you’re not paying so much for the beverage as for the table spot. Do consider the bar, though – while you will have to stand, café bars are often where a great deal of public discourse and interaction happens. In any event, cafés are required by law to post their prices somewhere in the establishment, usually either in the window or on the wall by the bar.
There are a couple of mixed drinks which seem to be more or less unique to France, and nearby francophone countries.
- Panaché is a mix of beer and lemonade, basically a beer shandy.
- Monaco is a Panaché with some grenadine syrup added.
- Kir is a pleasant aperitif of white wine (in theory, Bourgogne Aligoté) or, less frequently, of champagne (then named kir royal and about twice the price of regular kir) and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or peche (peach), or mûre (blackberry).
- Pastis is an anise-based (licorice-flavored) spirit, similar in taste to Sambuca or Ouzo, that is served with a few lumps of sugar and a small pitcher of cold water to dilute the liquor. It is traditionally enjoyed on very hot days, and as such is more popular in the south of the country but available more or less everywhere.
There is a variety of bottled water, including:
- Évian, Thonon, Contrex, Volvic: mineral water
- Perrier: fizzy water
- Badoit: slightly fizzy and salty water.