Restaurant Etiquette and Dining in France

Place des Vosges Terrace


The French take their dining seriously, eating properly at midday and in the evening and very rarely snacking. That may be one reason why French women manage to retain that annoying slenderness.

  • Hotel Breakfast: Breakfast in hotels throughout France is improving fast, and most hotels now serve more than the previous offering of just coffee and croissants. In chain hotels, and medium-priced places you’ll get a whole buffet, often with a proper cooked breakfast. If not the whole sausage/bacon/tomato style, you’ll get boiled eggs (though beware of boiling them yourself; I can never get the timing right), charcuterie, ham and a whole range of jams.

Remember that most hotels charge separately for breakfast, so if you don't like the look of the dining room or the breakfast, you can choose your own café or bar outside. But do look at the price for breakfast in your hotel; it might be an excellent good-value choice. Prices are usually between 12 and 18 euros.

  • Café/Bar Breakfast: If you’re after something simpler, try a café or bar offering fresh squeezed juice, croissant with butter and jam; perhaps a pain au chocolat, steaming cups of coffee or bowls of hot chocolate. Sit on a terrace in summer and watch the world going to work. It’ll cost you around 10 to 12 euros.

If there are no croissants in the café you’ve spotted, it’s perfectly normal to go to a boulangerie or patisserie and buy your own to eat with coffee back at that café you spotted.

  • Lunch: Lunch is an important meal to the French and good restaurants fill up fast between noon and 2pm with latecomers finding the service has finished. In many rural areas, it remains the main meal of the day. Many restaurants do good-value set price lunches so this might be the time to try some of France’s Michelin-starred places at a fraction of the normal cost.
  • Afternoon Tea: This is not a French meal, but both the natives and foreign visitors have fuelled the fashion for it. It’s not the elaborate meal it is in Britain but a dainty affair with porcelain cups and light pastries. In Paris, head for one of the tea shops owned by Mariage Frères, a delightful small company which has been going since 1853 which has several branches.
  • Dinner: Expect a long meal taken seriously. Restaurants are bustling places in the evenings, with families and groups of friends meeting up and are open from 6.30pm or more usually 7.30pm. In small towns, there may be only one sitting and the restaurant will not serve beyond 9pm; in big cities, times are more flexible. Many restaurants offer a set meal which is well worth considering. One of my favorites is the Café des Federations in the decidedly gourmet city of Lyon where around 27 euros brings a platter of four starters with charcuterie to die for, a hot dish, a cheese platter and a house dessert.

Or order from the a la carte menu (Carte). Three courses is the norm.

  • Snacking: Once upon a time, this was not a French concept; nowadays times have changed and there are good snacks to be had.

Where to eat quickly and casually: There are plenty of crêperies (places serving pancakes), pizzerias and sandwich bars for a quick dish. A favorite is a croque-monsieur or croque-madame (toasted cheese and ham sandwich). Be aware when you order a sandwich that it is likely to be a small baguette (long thin crusty loaf), cut in half with cheese and tomato, ham and cheese, or whatever you want inside. But there will not be any butter or margarine included. Outside the main areas, your best bet is to go to the local boulangerie (baker) or patissererie (cake shop) and choose from their range of both savory and sweet offerings. If you get hungry in the afternoon, do what the French always used to do: buy a baguette, cut it in half and put a slab on chocolate inside.

  • And don't forgot those wonderful outdoor markets where you can buy the best local ingredients, breads, cheeses, sausages and charcuterie and make up a great picnic.
  • If you're in Paris and want a quick snack or a take-away, try Frenchie to Go which is owned and run by Gregory Marchand, a top French chef who runs the excellent adjacent restaurant and wine bar called Frenchie. American inspired, Frenchie to Go is the place for favorites like a pulled pork sandwich, pastrami on rye or a Reuben sandwich. It's at 9 Rue du Nil, Paris 2 and the nearest metros are Métro 3, 4 stops at Sentier or Réaumur Sébastopol. Check out the website (in English).

Recommended Restaurants outside Paris

01 of 05

Choosing your restaurant

© Brasserie de la Paix, Lille

Which Restaurant to Choose?

Eat what the locals eat and follow these easy rules.

  • Avoid the tourist traps as you aren’t on holiday to eat your usual favorites, but to experiment with new dishes and tastes.
  • Big attractions are often surrounded by restaurants which have a captive audience and are often not the best choices. And definitely steer clear of the streets packed with restaurants with very similar menus that look as though they share a kitchen.  They’ll probably have eager waiters offering the best value if you just step inside, Monsieur and Madame.
  • Get away from the crowds in the smaller streets where restaurants have a simple menu that is not laminated and doesn’t have garish pictures of the dishes they offer and a menu in three different languages.
  • Seek out those places with blackboards, either outside or hanging on the walls inside, with the dishes of the day chalked up and crossed out as they are sold out.
  • Look at the clientele – do they look like locals?
  • The French have strict hours for eating but there is a solution if you find yourself wanting something out of hours. Look for a large brasserie (only in the bigger towns and cities however). Many brasseries (but not all of them; don't rely on this) will serve throughout the day, though it may be a restricted menu. And choose a brasserie rather than a small restaurant if all you want is one main dish; the French believe firmly in a good three-course meal and you won't be popular if you are in a restaurant ordering just one dish.
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02 of 05

Choosing what to eat and drink

© Ambassadeurs des Vins Jaunes – Marianne Monnier

Which Dishes to Choose

  • It’s always a good idea to take the plat du jour (dish of the day) for the main course at lunch or dinner; it will change daily and be freshly cooked.
  • Check out the local specialties. If you’re by the sea, try the shellfish and fish dishes, though remember that oysters are best when there’s an ‘r’ in the month:  September to February are the top months. Or just ask the waiter what is fresh, local and seasonal; he should be delighted to tell you.
  • However, good food using fresh ingredients is not guaranteed. So many restaurants have been re-heating pre-prepared food that the government has done something about it. A law passed in 2014 has introduced a new logo – shaped like a saucepan with a roof-like lid – that must be used by any restaurant serving a home-made dish. If they don’t have the logo; the food is not home-made, or fait maison. What else would you expect from France? In 2010 UNESCO declared French cuisine a ‘world intangible heritage’, honoring theismajor French cultural practice. UNESCO delared that French gastronomy is a "social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups".
  • French gastronomy represents 13.5% of foreign tourists’ expenses, so it’s a logical step for the government to encourage the best experience.
  • If you have a love of cheese, you'll have a great time in France where even in modest restaurants the cheeseboard is taken seriously. Ask the waiting staff to explain the cheeses and take their advice on the order of eating them. Start with the mildest and end up with the strong.
  • It's not a well-known fact, but instead of washing down their cheeses with claret or Burgundy, the French are now choosing Scotch whisky. So consider the following, recommended by Paris Match: 12-year old Glenfiddich with Burgundy goat cheese; limited edition 1984 whisky from the Jura (£750 a bottle) with Salers, from central France; Taiwanese Kavalan whisky with Roquefort, and Jack Daniel's with Swiss Appenzeller cheese. Or just check what the restaurant carries and order that.

What to Drink?

  • Don’t be worried about telling the sommelier what your price range is. The best sommeliers love the challenge of finding a good wine at the cheaper end and will be quite happy to recommend their choice. In France it’s always best to choose the local wines unless you are in one of the few areas which are not wine-growing regions like the remote and rural Auvergne where the vineyards are few and far between and the weather is not the best for wine.
  • In Brittany and Normandy try the cider, though remember that it can be quite alcoholic.
  • France has an enormous number of small craft breweries, particularly in the north of France, so you’ll find restaurants championing their local brew of beer, well worth sampling in most cases.
  • The French will serve tap water; ask for a carafe d'eau (jug of water).
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03 of 05

Restaurant Etiquette in France, the Dos and Donts

Atout France/CØdric Helsly

 Here are a few handy tips to remember when you eat in restaurants in France.

  • At table, wait for somebody to say bon apetit before starting. If nobody does, say it yourself and gain some kudos for your knowledge of French table habits.
  • When not eating, keep your hands on the table.
  • Don’t eat just with a fork, but with the fork in your left and hand and the knife in your right.
  • If there is no side plate (and there usually isn’t), then put your bread on the tablecloth.
  • Many smaller restaurants don’t serve butter with bread; you will have to ask.
  • Leave the waiter to pour the wine for you.
  • Don’t ask for a doggy bag; it’s not considered polite or usual unless you are in an American-themed restaurant in a major resort.
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04 of 05

Taking Children to Restaurants in France

Atout France/Michel Angot

Though France is changing, it’s still generally true that children are well behaved in restaurants. They are used to the long menus and are happy to sit quietly with their parents throughout the meal.

I shall never forget taking our small son (then aged 9) to a restaurant on one of our French trips. He was fine until a family with two small girls walked in. He was up and over to their table in a flash, asking them to play with him. The oldest little girl looked at him, then said in perfect English: “First I will eat and then I will play.” I did think that French children can be old before their time.

  • Eat in outdoor restaurants or on terraces, either open-air or enclosed in winter; it's a great distraction for children.
  • Many restaurants now do a special Kid’s menu at a fixed price which is a cut above the average you find in other countries. But if your child doesn’t fancy this, then ask for a half portion of a dish on the main menu; most restaurants are happy to oblige.
  • You’ll find that children love the habit of putting the bread on the tablecloth if there’s no side plate (which is common in most restaurants, except the high end).
  • Children are good at dishes which intrigue them. I was astonished by my small son who was fairly fussy  at home, only eating what he knew from a definite list of favorites. Snails took a long time - the garlic taste is overwhelming for young palates, though the  look of the snail shells and the art of picking out the meat inside fascinated him. "Yuck" was his first reaction, then "Just wait until I tell my friends at school" followed pretty rapidly.
  • We were on the north coast of France when he first ate mussels. He saw the people on the next table picking up the first mussel, then using the shell to take out and eat the rest, using it like a cross between a knife and a spoon. He has never looked back. Of course it helped that mussels are usually eaten with perfect French fries.
  • And frogs’ legs look the part, but taste just like chicken. They are fussy to eat and are disappearing off many menus, but the story back home is well worth a stab at them if you come across this French specialty.
  • Don’t try foie gras or truffles on your child; it won’t work and it's horribly expensive!
  • While some families take their children to eat dinner later than 7.30pm; if you’re not used to this, eat in a brasserie which serves food at all hours.
  • What to drink. If you buy a fizzy drink you’ll find it expensive. So go down the French traditional route: ask for a free carafe d’eau (jug of tap water) and un sirop (syrup). While adults might find the French syrups pretty sweet, children love them and the French have been brought up on them. There’s a huge variety to choose from and you might get overwhelmed by the choice (given rapidly by an often busy waiter). So check out beforehand what your child likes. Grenadine and mint? Cherry? Raspberry? The choice is endless.
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05 of 05

Tipping in French Restaurants

Atout France/CØdric Helsly
  • Tipping in restaurants is regulated in France with 15% included in the bill. Service compris (service included) will be printed on the bill, along with the TVA (French sales tax). This is done for government tax purposes, and in a good restaurant, the tips will be passed on to the staff. If you think the service has been good, then leave around 5% extra in cash. The trend to leave an extra tip, however, is disappearing and though French waiting staff are paid properly, it’s not a great salary and many of them rely on this extra income. So be generous!
  • In cafés and bars, it is always customary to leave a few coins. You’re probably paying in cash anyway, so round up to the nearest euro and if you’re feeling generous, then add another.
  • Of all the nationalities visiting France, the Americans have always been the highest tippers, followed by the Germans, Brazilians, Spaniards, Russians, British, French (way down the list, for shame!). But as French customers tend to be the rudest and least accommodating when they are in a restaurant, perhaps the service follows suit? The Italians come in a not very respectable last.  
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