Bon Appétit! What you need to know about dining in France
Travelling abroad is a great way to experience different cultures and customs, one of the best ways to do so is to indulge in the cuisine of the country or region of your destination. But this can be intimidating in unfamiliar territory, this article aims to take some of the mystery out of dining in France, which is famous for its gastronomy. Each region certainly has its own specialties but there are some generalizations when it comes to meals and mealtimes that you should be aware of before your trip.
Breakfast / Petit DéjeunerYou can expect the basics of bread and pastries with preserves and butter, juice, coffee and tea, the basic continental. Expanded continental often includes cheese & charcuterie, (cold meats), boiled eggs, yogurt and cheese. Some hotels that cater to a high percentage of North American clientele have started to add hot items to their breakfast buffets such as bacon and eggs, but as a rule, it is best not to expect that “buffet breakfast” includes hot dishes.
Tip: If you’re not a big breakfast eater anyway you may want to skip paying the cost of breakfast in your hotel ($$), and find a local bakery for a great croissant or pain au chocolat instead ($). Most bakeries also sell basic coffee, (think Nespresso, lids not always available for take away). Ask for “allongée” or Americano if you find espresso too strong for your palette.
Lunch / Déjeuner
Normally served from noon until 2 pm. While you can find some restaurants in larger centres with non-stop service all day, when travelling in rural areas as you do when battlefield touring, you should realize that you may not find lunch after 2pm as most restaurants close for the afternoon until evening dinner service.
Tip: Many bakeries offer prepared sandwiches, some can make sandwiches to order and many have a “formule” consisting of a sandwich, drink and dessert for a set price. If you think you might not be able to make it to a restaurant within the normal lunch hours or will be in a very touristy area where restaurants are typically more expensive, crowded and less palatable, (eg. Chateau Versailles between March - September), consider taking your lunch with you and have a picnic.
Apéritif or "Apéro"Before dinner the French enjoy the aperitif, which is a cocktail, wine / champagne, beer, fruit juice or soft drink prior to dinner. Usually accompanied with a savoury snack such as nuts, pretzels and / or crackers. An apéro can also proceed lunch, but is never obligatory.
Dinner or Supper / Dîner Most restaurants do not open for dinner service until 7 pm. Typically to the French 7 pm is “aperitif” hour whether at the restaurant or at a cafe or bar before going to the restaurant. Restaurants usually fill by 8 pm, consider reserving a table as you could be out of luck if you just show up without, especially on weekends. Tip: If you want an authentic gastronomic experience, ask a local where she / he would dine rather than the local tourist office where the staff must be impartial and can only offer options based on budget and cuisine.
How would you like that cooked? (La cuisson?)
If you are ordering a steak or a hamburger, you will be asked how you would like it cooked:
Blue = Bleu
Rare = Saignant (literally means "bleeding")
Medium rare / Medium = À point
Medium well = Bien cuit (this is as far as you should go)
Well done = Trés bien cuit (but why would you want to make the chef cry?)
Dessert - Dessert
I always recommend the "café gourmand" which is usually an espresso accompanied by a selection of bite size desserts, so you don't have to choose just one dessert and pay extra for a coffee at the end of your meal. Most places will allow you to swap a cup of tea for the espresso.
What's on the menu?
Note that most restaurants have their menus posted outside so that you can clearly see the dining options and prices. Always check the day's special boards, often you can have a multi-course meal for lunch or dinner for a set price.
Where to eat
The best restaurants are busy at meal times. If the restaurant is empty during normal meal times, there is probably a reason and you should move on to the next one; often a wait is better than choosing an empty restaurant and being disappointed with your meal. And if you are disappointed or there has been a mistake, don't hesitate to speak up, the French expect it.
Relax and enjoy
Finally take your time when dining in a restaurant, French meal times are typically unhurried affairs, a time to enjoy the company of friends and family or to discuss business with clients and colleagues. You will need to ask for the check, (l'addition), when you are ready to pay; they won't bring it to you otherwise. Hopefully this will be helpful to you in planning your trip and selecting your restaurants. Bon appétit!