5 Tips for Eating and Drinking in France Like a Local

Eating and drinking are different in France. Why? Because the culture is different. If you are going to travel to France –or anywhere, for that matter –why not try it “their way”. If nothing else, it should provide you with an interesting experience and a better understanding of the culture. So, here are some tips for how to do both like the locals. I bet you’ll have a few “ah ha” moments when you realize you may have misinterpreted things in the past!

1. How to order Coffee! Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, I don’t know about you but I think it’s complicated wherever you are. In the US Starbucks has turned ordering coffee into a multi lingual tongue twister. In France, it’s very simple –as long as you follow the custom! Cafe au lait (or any coffee served with milk or cream) is a  breakfast drink, and not generally served after noon, or with meals. A “cafe normal” or “espresso” is just that –expresso in a small cup, served with a small cold glass of water. that’s served during “coffee breaks”, at cafes, and after meals. Can’t take “expresso”. Then order a “cafe Allonge” (literally “stretched out”) or a “cafe Americaine” –both are watered down espressos –in other words, a typical strength coffee.

2. Dessert comes Before Coffee. Not with. You can’t have it with. The waiter will say yes, but if the place is any good –or even remotely authentic– this won’t happen. Don’t worry. It’s better after! You finish your meal, and get the nice “pick me up” of the cup of coffee. Need something sweet?  Never fear. Coffee comes with a little something sweet, always –a chocolate (in the basic cafes) or tiny pastries of some sort in the “nicer” restaurants.

3. Sauces in France won’t make you fat, and don’t come ‘on the side’. “Hmmm”, you say, “how is that possible?” Glad you asked. Because the meals are balanced, the portions, including sauces, are smaller, the food is very fresh, and we don’t snack endlessly on things between meals because the meal itself is completely satisfying. If you order sauces on the side, you will (a) either ruin your meal, or (b) consume more of the delicious sauce than you would have had you let the chef dress the dish with what was probably a teaspoon to a tablespoon of sauce (rather than the 1/4 cup they might bring you).

4. Be Patient. We really value prompt service in the US. But, that’s not the case everywhere else in the world. It’s neither bad nor good, it’s just different. Don’t expect a waiter to run to your table when you arrive. It’s customary to allow people to “settle in” and relax before pressing them for their food orders. Also, don’t expect the check to be delivered as soon as the dessert spoon (or coffee cup) drops from your hand. Unless you’re at a sidewalk cafe (or the place knows you’re American and is trying to accommodate you). It is the height of rudeness in France to plop a check down on the table unbidden. It is tantamount to telling the diner to leave. You are at the restaurant to enjoy yourself. You are meant to relax. Thus, nobody is going to bother you by asking you to pay or leave, until you are ready to do so. So many times I hear stories from clients who say that “the French do not like Americans.” And their justification for that is that the “waiters ignored them”. They were left to languish at the table with no service and couldn’t get the check….Time to reinterpret that behavior. The peaceful enjoyment of your meal and the people that you are with is what the French dining experience is about. So, you will not be bothered to leave or pressed to order. Enjoy it for what it is. You’ll be home soon enough!
5. Order from the Prix Fixe menus. The specials and the meals really are special. They are not “left overs”. They are the market fresh items. Order the 3 or 4 courses. In most places the portion sizes in the prix fixe menus will be made small enough to make this an enjoyable tasting experience as opposed to an endurance contest. As a general rule, the larger the number of courses, the smaller the portion size of each course. The goal of these multi course menus is to give you a taste of what’s best and leave you happy, not to overload you with food so you feel like you got supersized and not to make you feel you need a stretcher or a stomach pump.
Any ideas for customs you wish to explore, let me know. We’d love to discuss it!
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2 comments on “5 Tips for Eating and Drinking in France Like a Local

  1. megtraveling says:

    These are all excellent suggestions! And I like that you can linger as long as you want after a meal, too…

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