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Ordering in Paris

Hello all,

I will be traveling with my husband soon in Paris. We only know a few introductory phrases to get us by in French so I am concerned about ordering Paris if the waiter/waitress does not speak English.

I can comprehend the written word better than hearing it, so I'm confident when looking at a menu I can figure out the main dish and ingredients but it seems to me to be very rude to point to a menu item.

Any tips are greatly appreciated.

Thank you!

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  1. FIrst, learn hello, goodbye and thank you in French- it will serve you well. Ask nicely in French if your waiter speaks English. A good establishment should be able to offer some help as long as you are respectful.

    Here are a few links. The first 2 are books and the last is a document. You may find these helpful to translate when you get there.




    Enjoy Paris! You'll be fine!

    1. Go to your local library and check out Polly Platte's books, "Savoir Flair" & "French or Foe"; everything you need is there.

      1. Just relax about it, and try not to play the "ugly American". All French waiters & waitresses in Paris and elsewhere have at least a brushing of English, and will try to help you, not fight you, as long as you smile. So don't worry, and forget the books. It is not rude to poiint and try to pronounce the name of the dish, as long as you remember the word "Merci" .

        1 Reply
        1. Excellent! I have several key phrases in my arsenal and of course s'il vous plait and Merci are at the top. Thank you!

          7 Replies
          1. re: kittybart

            We just spent two weeks in various places in France (including Paris) and most restaurants had a very poorly translated english version of the menu (our favourite translation referred to "droppings of goat" - no idea what it was, we did not order it ;-)) and a waiter or two who spoke reasonable english. We have a passing knowledge of french which helped. I suggest you DO have a small phrase and word book. We found it really useful as some words just don't translate well. Even when we tried our french, most of the waiters opted to use their english as the common tongue. It did get a bit silly when we spoke mostly in french and they mostly in english...it was fun though. You won't have any problem...just be courteous.

            1. re: foodiesnorth

              For info, "droppings of goat" is the litteral translation of "Crottin de Chevre", the most famous being Crottin de Chavignol; Pity you missed it, it is the best goat cheese of the Loire valley, sometimes served hot on a salad.

              1. re: monchique

                see....that is why I preferred the French menus! Damn...it is a pity, but thank you for solving the mystery. It was the funniest apparent mistranslation...now it just makes me sad!

                1. re: foodiesnorth

                  I avoid English menus, in-fact translated menu's are one of the signs for me that a restaurant is best avoided i.e. strong inverse correlation between the quality of food and the number of languages a menu is translated into.

                  I also tend to find translations miss out both interesting and key information thus trying to decipher the menu can be more rewarding. I am highly allergic to walnuts and therefore that was the first bit of French I learned, apart from that I dive in and throw caution to the wind. Yesterday we ordered "Caillettes" which turned out to be a traditional dish in Provence made from lots of offal - wonderful.

                  1. re: foodiesnorth

                    I have seen a funnier one. 15 years ago I saw, in Paris "Le coq au vin du chef" translated into "The chef's cock in red wine".

                    Sounds delicious.

                    1. re: vielleanglaise

                      Good one!
                      Here is a (true) extract of the recent menu of a restaurant near Lisbon... No need to say we re-translated it for them...

                      Squids grilled with paint (lulas grelhadas com tinta)
                      roast beef hot boss (rosbife quente chefe)
                      soaked lamb keeps (ensopado de borrego)
                      ribbons ox grilled (tranches entrecosto vitela churrasco)
                      loin filthy oven to baker (lombo porco forno à padeiro)
                      roasted filthy loin with chestnuts (lombo porco assado com castanhas)

                      And for your pud you can choose from the following:

                      Filled cookie spheres of ice cream and covered with choc. (profiteroles c/choc.)
                      little cold of lemon with Fardels of eggs (semi frio de limão c/trouxas de ovos)
                      cloud of egg whites with covering of candy of eggs (farófias à Atlântico)
                      Camel Dribble with Almond (with condensed milk) (literal translation of baba de camelo c/amêndoa)
                      mixed of the cheeses to the Boss of the Atlantic restaurant (misto de queijos à chefe)

                      I leave you with your Portuguese dictionnary!

                      1. re: monchique

                        I have in front of me a packet of sweets made in china that contain "Cat Fibre". Yummy!

            2. Yes, translations can be funny (our favorite so far was a “salad of lawyers" – meaning avocados). And, athough I agree with PhilD that the presence of a menu/carte in English is suspect, I'm no longer convinced, as I once was, that this is a sure sign to avoid the place; more and more, we see alternative cartes offered in English (but always very simply translated) as a default international language, in recognition that at any given time, about half of the diners in many good restaurants in Paris (and the countryside) seem to be non-French speakers.

              I believe that if you make a good effort at pronouncing the item you want, your waiter will be pleased, and perhaps amused (in a positive way). If you have to help that along with a little point of a finger, that will not be the worst thing. (My wife does that all the time, while I insist on trying to pronounce without pointing.)

              To the extent your inquiry concerns figuring out what to order, one thing to do is, study the offerings before you go in. Almost all Paris restaurants will post the menu/carte outside, and this gives you a chance to review it, pull out a “Marling Menu Master” (we’ve used that little pocket book to decipher choices – but it works well about only 20 percent of the time), and make some choices before you enter and sit down. Once you do sit down, through, we’ve found that Paris waiters expect you to order pretty promptly. So, if you’ve still need more time, you can always further delay by ordering an apero (just ask for a "kir maison," and there's a good chance you'll get white wine with a splash of cassis).

              We set out these and some other restaurant/ dining tips (including, of course, saying “bonjour,” etc., to your waiter and others) in our article, “How to blend in: 12 (‘Une douzaine’) tips on how not to appear too much like a tourist in a Paris restaurant . . . (or least how to be a good one)” –http://parisandbeyondinfrance.blogspo... . We hope this may be of use.

              -- Jake (http://parisandbeyondinfrance.blogspo... )

              1. We just returned from three weeks in France, and everyone we encountered was polite and courteous and willingly met our limited French with their limited English.

                Most of the restaurants in central Paris will have an English menu (often not the best translation), but if you venture further afield, particularly outside the 1-5 arrondissements., the restaurants may not have an English menu, so have a dictionary handy and don't be afraid of creative sounding names for what turns out to be simply roasted meat with a wonderful sauce.

                I can see I've offered little new to what others have already mentioned, but I will say this: just be prepared for the sticker shock. The exchange rate is just awful, and in light of this it's too easy to spend quite a lot for a mediocre meal in a touristy area while just for a bit more you can dine splendidly in a less touristy arrondissement.

                1. One of our favorite experiences was in Paris when a waiter at a really nice restaurant knelt down next to our table and translated the menu using barnyard sounds.... lamb was "baaaaaaaaaa", beef was "mmmmmmoooooooo" and so on. So much for the stereotype of the snooty French waiter!!

                  I have found, however, that any menu dictionary is somewhat limited in that sometimes restaurants will attach their own names to dishes. I've given up understanding exactly what I'm ordering and just translate the main protein -- that "usually" works. (Although I had an unfortunate misunderstanding of ris de veau one time. I knew it wasn't what I thought I'd ordered, but it tasted fine, so I didn't bother to look it up until later.)


                  1 Reply
                  1. re: waldrons

                    heheheheh my otherwise excellent French phrasebook says "ris de veau" is "rice and veal!" I know better, but sadly, many people don't!

                  2. I almost always point to the wine on the wine list, even in the US. It may be my mispronouncing the name or vintage or the servers understanding. It saves someone from going through the whole cellar and coming back 20 minutes later with a wine I didn't think I ordered.

                    1. I would strongly suggest the purchase of Scribe's "The A-Z of French Food" which since the demise of Brentano's is best obtained on ABE, etc.

                      John Talbott http://johntalbottsparis.typepad.com/...

                      1. load your iPod with Michel Thomas and learn on the flight. Simply having you string sentences together in no time. Absolutely know the polite phrases - please, thank you etc. If you have food favourites or preferences for how your food is prepared (bleu par example) 'google translator' them before you go and paste them to a page, creating your own personal dictionary.
                        Enjoy, it's a fab city. We've lived here for four years.

                        1. There is a very detailed food glossary available in WORD format on Patricia Well's website. VERY helpful. It's true most dictionaries disappoint...

                          1. In addition to the other great advice here these two go a long way:

                            Bon jour (think julia child when you say it)

                            L'addition (pronounced "la de see ohn") s'il vous plait. - You may have a hard time paying and leaving without this one.

                            1. You can easily order from a French menu using (Talbott's recommended) "A to Z..." or (Gman's recommended) Patricia Wells Glossary or if you have a working relationship with Julia Child. Sadly, neither the Markling translator or college French will get you far on a menu. I have sat next to dozens of Americans who mention that they are fluent in French and watched them wither behind a menu.