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Can you help with our challenge, please

Hi Chowhounders. We have a challenge I am hoping you can help with. We are visiting Paris Aug. 7-10 and are looking forward to it. We have traveled and enjoyed eating in many different countries. We love to eat good food, whether it's in small, home-style places, trattoria type (Italy) spots, as well as well known splurge places.

We were in Paris about 8 years ago and loved our visit. Here's our challenge...neither one of us speak a word of French...and even when I had a great book that translates 'food'...we still struggled with menus. On top of it, I will fess up, we got intimidated by some of the attitudes of the waitstaff when we asked if they spoke English. We did find a small bistro that had fantastic food and we felt very welcome...we went twice.

We want to enjoy the wonderful food Paris has to offer. The other challenge is that one of us does not eat beef...fish, chicken, is ok, but no other meat. Chowhounders, can you help us by recommending places we can enjoy great food/wine, without struggling with the language difference (ask for menus in English without seeming like ugly Americans?...if they don't have, then how do we figure out the menu?...etc)...and any great restaurants to suggest (again, bistro type and we would like a splurge dinner too).

Thank you so much...

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  1. Well, I suggest you have a look at Patricia Wells' food glossary. It will help you to avoid mistakes by ordering food items you will not like. Note items you won't eat at all.
    http://www.patriciawells.com/glossary/

    Some preparations can simply not be well translated, but with a food glossary, you can at least find out about the ingredients. Like 'à la florentine' is always in combination with spinach, just to give you an example.

    Other than that, you'll still have time to learn some of the basic expressions like bonjour Monsieur (or Madame), au revoir, merci, une carafe d'eau (a pitcher of tab water, etc.)

    1. "ask for menus in English without seeming like ugly Americans?"

      1. First of all, try not to jump to negative conclusions, esp when you travel.
      2. Secondly, if you go to only those restaurants that have English menus, this will restrict you greatly, and often to the touristy kind of brasseries.

      Most of the better starred restaurants also have an English menu. That's another price category also.
      As for good bistros that do have an English menu, well, good bistros - esp the authentic ones that do not cater to tourists specifically - tend not to have an English menu. I seem to remember chez L'Ami Jean having one, which stood out as an exception. (Book about 10 days in advance.) I haven't noticed other good bistros having this.
      Once you are seated, look around and see what others are eating; don't hesitate to ask your neighboring diners what the dishes are and if they are good. I ordered this way more than 50% of the time in Thailand.
      Lastly I second Patricia Wells' food glossary. The vocab is not huge. I can't speak much Spanish or Italian or Japanese but in my experience I find that it is not insurmountable to learn the menu language. In fact try to think of the learning as fun and games.

      1. Yes to everything already written. In addition, since you have a couple of months before your trip, get out your Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" or get one from the library and pretend it is your menu. Learn (and write down) the names of things you would like to try as well as those that you definitely do not want to eat. Most things on the menu will be at least slightly different from the wording on your list, but you will have a launching pad for your order. And most waiters really are there to help. Remember as my husband reminds me that they are as much afraid of you as you are of them.

        1 Reply
        1. re: mangeur

          Great recommendations! I would just say learn just a couple French phrases, hello, thank you, food items, etc and use them often ;) It really does make a difference, people will tend to help you more when they think you have at least attempted to learn the language. I am currently reading "The Sweet Life" by David Lebovitz, some interesting insights to French culture

        2. Hi Everyone,

          Thanks so much for your replies so far. I appreciate it and your good advice. Will definitely use the Patricia Wells' food glossary. Keep 'em coming.

          We can speak some basic French phrases, albeit with NY accents. :-) And the kind of food-phrases that you'd see in a French restaurant in the US is something we are familiar with. When we were in Paris in the past, it was particularly difficult for us,.

          We love to travel and are foodies...and avoid the touristy restaurants whenever we travel. We actively seek out places that locals go to. Most of our 'oh my God' meals were in tiny off-the-beaten paths in Italy, Spain, Greece, Belguim, Amsterdam...ah, some great meal memories! ...France is the challenge for us.

          Can you recommend any bistros you've been to in Paris, fell in love with, and dream of going back to? Thanks again, Chowhounders...

          4 Replies
          1. re: synergy

            The aforementioned chez l'Ami Jean.

            1. re: synergy

              Everyone recommends P Wells but I found "The A-Z of French Food", Scribo Editions, v helpful, ordered from Aimer Books Riverside Conn but often seen in Paris bookstores (price from Amazon is laughable).

              For bistrots we're in love with, do a search here and you'll tumble on many quickly; it's the most FAQ.

              1. re: John Talbott

                I second the A-Z book. Its discreet size and comprehensiveness place it above Patricia Well glossary for me, as far as what to carry into a restaurant.

                I am a bit surprised by the difficulty you had in Paris, given your success during trips to other countries. I speak French, and so I realize I am coming from a different perspective, but here are recommendations that I give to non-French speaking friends who visit Paris. You can search on them in this board to find many recs and reviews.

                -Fish La Boissonerie
                -Maceo
                -Willis Wine Bar
                -Juveniles

                Hope you have a better dining experience this time! -sou

              2. re: synergy

                you know, the thing that really, really riles the French (and I'm one of them) is tourists who address the locals directly in English without making the effort to at least say "bonjour". The only real French sentence you need to know is "Excusez-moi, je ne parle pas français, parlez-vous anglais s'il vous plaît".
                Just learn this magic phrase and your life in Paris will be much easier :-)

                Aside from this, I recommend reading David Lebovitz's blog. Shock full of information, great insights from an American living in Paris, and some restaurants recommendations.

                For specific recommendations, It would be helpful if you said in which part of Paris you are staying.

              3. This is a none issue problem that gets much attention.

                I can speak about 50 French words, if I count "mayonaise" and thirty other French words also used around the world, and haven't had a problem eating at any restaurant in Paris. If the wait staff acts up, I do what I do in the US. ...ask for another waiter or table. If trouble persists, I ask to be relieved of my reservation. That happened once in many years of enjoying food in Paris.

                Basically the wait staff are all professionals and do a darn good job. And, they love you because you are US and will probably actually tip them. I know it's included, but we always tip when we enter and when we pay the bill. We also tip if we make a reservation in person for later.

                Ugly, but happy, Americans eating well in Paris.

                1. The bistro we went to our last time in Paris was La Maree Verte. I kept a card from the restaurant. Has anyone been there? We enjoyed it and the owners were wonderful.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: synergy

                    In the same street, you'll find two nice places that are discussed pretty frequently here:
                    Le Petit Pontoise and Itinéraires.

                  2. Thank you all for your suggestions and advice. Unfortunately our travel plans have changed. I have printed out this thread and will save it for when we can get to Paris.