French Restaurant Etiquette: Top Tips for Dining in France

One of the best parts of traveling is eating out and exploring different cuisines. France is well known for its refined food culture. Perhaps you are nervous about making a faux pas at a Parisian restaurant? Read these top tips for dining out in France to learn about some cultural differences and avoid any awkward moments.

Arriving at the Restaurant

Make note of the later meal times. Lunch is typically served sometime between 12pm and 2pm, and dinner is often not served until at least 7pm. Many restaurants don’t keep their kitchen open all day and may even completely close for a couple of hours between the lunch and dinner services.

If you don’t respect these hours, you’ll have a harder time finding a decent meal. During the off-hours, if you get hungry, you can head to a café or brasserie for a drink and something small to snack on. 

Many French restaurants function on a first come first serve basis. You can often just seat yourself if you see a table open unless otherwise indicated. At more popular or busy places, you might notice a host or waiter seating people. This is also the case at fancier restaurants where you might need to make a reservation ahead of time.

Ordering Your Food

Consider ordering from the fixed price menu which is often the best offering of the day and usually a good deal. Often the formula allows you to pick a 2- or 3-course meal, and then you can choose among a smaller selection of starters, main dishes, and desserts. 

Substitutions are not commonly made in France and asking for substitutions could be considered insulting to the chef who has crafted the menu. If you don’t like a certain dish on the menu, order something else that you will be happy with without any modifications to the ingredients. 

Of course, if you have allergies or dietary restrictions, you should definitely communicate this with your server. Check the vocabulary for those ingredients ahead of time so that you can express your needs effectively. It might be wise to call the restaurant in advance to make sure they can accommodate you.

To avoid having to pay for water with your meal, ask for a carafe d’eau (a pitcher of water). It will arrive at room temperature but free of charge. Ice is not commonly served in water in France.

Paying the Bill

At the end of the meal, let the waiter know when you are ready for the check. In France, waiters rarely check in on you during the meal. You’ll need to make eye contact with the waiter or signal for them to come over so you can ask for the bill. 

If you’re having a hard time flagging down the waiter or you are in a hurry to leave, you can often just go inside to pay directly. In this case, you will usually go up to the bar to pay. 

Tipping is not really necessary in French restaurants. In France, waiters and waitresses are generally paid a decent wage. You can round the bill up by a euro or two or leave some coins if you want to, but this is not expected and you won’t be considered rude for not leaving anything extra at all.

During the Meal

When clinking glasses during cheers, be sure to make eye contact. If you fail to look people in the eyes for the toast, it is considered bad luck and you may be subjected to several years of a bad love life! 

Finger foods are not really a thing in France, so plan on using your fork and knife for just about everything on your plate. This includes using cutlery to eat French fries and pizza. There are exceptions, of course, but it is better to err on the side of being polite when out in public.  

A basket of bread is customarily brought out with the meal. You can place the piece of bread on the table next to your plate. Instead of bringing it directly up to your mouth, tear off bitesize pieces with your hands. It is perfectly acceptable to wipe up the sauce on your plate with the bread.

Meals in France, particularly dinners, can last for hours. Take your time eating, enjoying good company, and savoring the experience. 

Signal you are done eating by placing the fork and knife together diagonally at about 4 o’clock. This will indicate to the waiters that they can clear your plate. 

According to French law, restaurants must provide you with a doggy bag if you ask for one. This is part of a new zero-waste initiative. Portions sizes are typically very reasonable in France, so it is unlikely that you won’t finish your meal, but it’s great to have the option to bring home leftovers if you’re full.

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