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Apr 10, 2011 01:53 PM

The dreaded English-speaking room


It happened again tonight.

I headed to L'Ardoise for what I hoped would be a terrific dinner. I didn't have a reservation, but they had room for me downstairs. Would that be all right? Sure!

Then I got downstairs and realized that the two tables (there was plenty of room), one a couple, the other a group of 6 or 8 (I'm not sure which) were talking in English. Then i was handed a menu. In English.

Sorry, but that did it. I left.

This happened to me once before a few years ago at Allard. I had made reservations for our family of five and when we arrived we were promptly ushered past other diners to a room in the back where English was all that was heard.

Contrast this to my experience last night. I went to Auberge Pyrenees Cevennes, a charming place in the 11th, which I shall cover in a separate post. They knew I was an American, I knew they knew I was an American, but we conversed in French, I ordered from the French menu, and French was all I heard. And the meal was fantastic.

What about you? What do you think of automatically being handed a menu in English and being sent to...the English-speaking room?

  1. I was one of 3 dreaded English speakers who were asked to LEAVE a Paris restaurant, because only 2 of us ordered dinner, the 3rd ordered an app. because we had had a late lunch. Even when our third said no problem, he would order dinner, we were hustled out of the restaurant.
    I'm hopeful that my final goodby to France on our way to Switzerland will hasten the rusting and eventual collapse of the Eiffel tower by a day or so.

    1. I think it's not a big deal. I find the posts on these boards, written in English, and that complain about restaurants covered here being full of English speakers very odd.

      I've been living here for longer than I care to consider, and live, work and socialise in French, but there are waiters, bar staff, but also colleagues, beggars, cleaning ladies, telephone sales people...who insist on trying to speak to me in English. While some of the above want to earn an extra buck, I like to think most are just trying to be accomodating, or polite.

      When I'm abroad, and especially when I don't have a complete grasp of the geography and lingo, I think it's pointless to pretend to be from the place and I embrace the tourist statute - menus written in Engish n'all.

      8 Replies
      1. re: vielleanglaise

        Why odd? It is a real phenomena in Paris, when I first arrived I was often placed in the "English" section, but after a few months I got wise to this and was able to negotiate my way into the French section, and I use the word negotiate deliberately as it often was a case of negotiation. Over time it became easier to avoid the English section (asking for the smoking section usually worked) and I suspect the long time Paris residents on this board now unconsciously negotiate this hurdle, possibly because they no longer frequent the main culprits.

        Is it a problem? As some have said you are getting the same food. But food is only part of what makes a great meal. In my experience the English section usually has worse service, the staff often have low expectations of you as a diner i.e. as a tourist you know little of French, food wine and culture and thus they offer safe recommendations or don't take the trouble to form a relationship with you.

        The other problem is the fellow diners (and this may be controversial) as many are tourists with only a peripheral interest in food and often little appreciation of dining culture ect. We (on this board) are different, we travel for food, food is important to us, the dining experience is special. Thus we want to enjoy this experience with others who will also experience this. To be frank this is more likely to be a local than a tourist, because a tourist has to eat out, a local chooses to.

        The "English room" is more pronounced in Paris than many other cities because of the volume of tourists. But you can find it in many, many other cities which have large numbers of tourists, and like Paris those are generally not the best places to be seated.

        1. re: PhilD

          "Why odd?" If you have 100's of posts on a restuarant on english speaking chowhound about a restaurant, then it's odd to be surprised to find english speaking clients flocking there, and the restaurant catering linguistically for this clentele. They'd be stupid not too.

          The problem with a crappy restaurant where they have menus in English, or staff who speak in English is the crappy food, not the menus.

          While I suppose It's possible to "go local" when living in a foreign country, it's more difficult to avoid looking, being treated as a tourist....when one's a tourist. On a recent visit to Seville I'm pretty sure that the locals knew I was a tourist. A polite tourist, I hope, who stuggled with his "gracias" "mas vino tinto" and "donde esta la Alahambras" but a tourist nevertheless who when his terrible Spanish wouldn't do would slip into Italian, French or English.

          This post reminds me of Forster's A Room with a View, and Charlotte Bartlett who rails against "Baedeker tourists" as she searches for "authenticiy"

          1. re: vielleanglaise

            "who when his terrible Spanish wouldn't do would slip into Italian, French or English" my all time favorite memory in Florence was when I needlessly slipped into French - the waitress was so nice and teasing.saying in English "you are in Italy now not France" and approving when I used eo vorrae instead. she was cool. and Spain? i could never grasp the Castile lisp (Mom once asked for the bathroom and was served a beer HA!)

            1. re: vielleanglaise

              I agree with you, vieilleanglaise. I mean, it's not odd given the chowhound craving for an 'authentic' or 'non-tourist' existence/experience but it is odd that all the English-speakers resent hearing so much English given that the majority of restaurants sought and visited by said hounds are those special occasion/destination restaurants that are more likely to be filled with gastronomic tourists than actual people who have to pay Parisian rents/housing costs and eat at home, especially on Sunday night.

              That said, it can be annoying if one is looking for the opportunity to practise language skills, but that's easily done by going to places where people will chat-- or by being a woman at which point a drageur will accommodate the need for conversation.

              I am puzzled as to why the OP left if this was a restaurant he really wanted to try. I agree that as annoying as it might be, the waiter was trying to be accommodating. I also agree that if the perceived English language ghetto annoyed, the OP could have asked in French for another menu and to be moved to a more appealing spot.

              1. re: vielleanglaise

                You need to differentiate between the "crappy restaurant where they have menus in English, or staff who speak in English is the crappy food, not the menus" and "the good restaurants that still have an apartheid policy". These still exist. I agree that it is a case of buyer beware in the former but it irritating in the latter and can be a frustrating issue.

                Is it an issue they are English speaking or is that a proxy measure for the other things? In my experience many of these areas are populated by ignorant (of food) tourists, often with surly teenagers who whinge about the foreign food. IMO Chowhounds wish to avoid this and enjoy their meals.

                Many of the comments about this not being an issue come from Chowhounds who are Paris residents or spend a lot of time there. The good news for you is that you now have a subtle understanding of how things work, thus you unconsciously avoid the "English" room (you know where to go and what to book).

                On the surface your comment about "100's of posts on a restaurant on english speaking Chowhound about a restaurant, then it's odd to be surprised to find english speaking clients flocking there, and the restaurant catering linguistically for this clientele. They'd be stupid not too" has a lot of truth to it, the restaurant recommendations are getting more and more homogeneous and they are tending towards the standards you will find in standard guidebooks rather than a cutting edge food site.

                I disagree about the tourist comment, I firmly believe there are different types who get different treatments. Someone knowledgeable about food options who has researched where to go (via this board) is in a different class from the masses and will probably avoid most of the worst aspects of it. I pretty confident I did when I was last in Seville. And whilst my Spanish is dire I can navigate a menu and spot a good place to eat - nearly all exclusively Spanish (even the El Bulli hotel on our visit). But Paris is more tricky, the volume of tourists make it so, and thus advice on restaurants with the "English" room is gratefully received in order to avoid them.

                1. re: PhilD

                  If you are thinking that L'Ardoise is a restaurant that segregates its clientele by language I would consider the fact that the OP was there on a Sunday evening which is traditionally an evening where only the tourist dine out. He hasn't said that the main floor dining room was half empty which it could have been while they wait for the people who reserved tables to arrive. I would hate for a restaurant to get a reputation like that on so few facts and you to miss a good meal.

                  1. re: AGM_Cape_Cod

                    I've only been to l'Ardoise once (was closest option to where I was working at the time) and every single person in the room -- this was the main room -- was American or British, with the exception of one family that was Dutch. The food was fine but it was a weird experience.

                  2. re: PhilD

                    Phild- I find both of your posts very well observed and stated, based upon my own experiences. I am a bit surprised that some of the posters seem to be taking an opposite stance, rather than perhaps seeing this in shades of grey. Or perhaps they are folks who can argue either side of the issue and simply went one direction rather than the other this time.

                    In my experience, it's not always an "English" room, rather a less desirable dining location where non-regulars are seated first on a busy night. If I haven't reserved in advance and am offered a table in another room, I always want to see the space and table before agreeing to be seated because where I am seated does affect my dining experience. I do this everywhere, not just in France.

                    Even on a English-written board, I am surprised that others are surprised that having studied France and French for years, I might want to speak French when in France. If I am dining in a group with English speakers, then it usually makes sense to interact with the server(s) in English. If there are French and English menus, and increasingly there are, I always want the French menu because as others have noted, the descriptions can range from too brief to amusingly inaccurate.

            2. As long as you are getting the same food as the French speaking clientele, what is the problem?
              Why not ask the French waiter in French to bring you a menu in French?

              3 Replies
              1. re: DavidT

                You seem blithely unaware of the very American precept: Separate but Equal is No Good.

                There is something called The Tipping Point.

                I know some Parisians who begin to avoid places where there are too many Americans. If you live in Paris, maybe you've heard of people like that as well. Once a place gets labeled as such, there may be a tipping point if the Parisians stop going altogether. That is the point where the clientele is no longer French, no longer knowledgeable about the food, and the food choice and the experience suffers.

                The question is: how do you know that hasn't already happened at the place you're eating if all you hear is English?

                I don't like or agree with Separate but Equal. And I don't like the idea of ghettos. Sure it leads to things more serious than having a bad meal, but still's not an encouraging sign.

                1. re: Steve

                  Regarding the tipping point. Last time at L'Ami Louis in October, there were more English speakers than French, first time that has happened. Much to my discredit, l was not happy at all. Consider this my favorite restaurant anywhere and the loud English made it less a fulfilling experience. Food was just as great though.

                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                    Well, you are in a very good position to know if the quality of the food is being maintained!

              2. I don't remember going to a resto that has an English menu.
                If I were handed one, I probably would laugh and ask for the French menu. I don't see what is so humiliating.
                Hey, maybe the trick is not to go to a resto with an English menu...
                As for the mythical English-speaking room, it is not something that I notice. If I were to banish everyone who speaks my languages, the resto would be empty and the chef would hate me and where would I be then.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Parigi

                  If I am handed the English menu in any country I always ask for the "native" language one to go with it. Sometimes things just don't translate properly.

                  Has anyone tried using google translate on some of the 3 star restaurant menus. It is hilarious. Just in case anyone needs a good laugh or is trying to procrastinate like I do often.

                  I have never had a bad experience in Paris, I do know that being able to speak a language does inherently give one benefits. In Italy I am able to converse with waiters easily, I definitely get "more in depth" treatment (I'm trying to refrain from using the word "better"). I can say "I want what he/she is having it looks fabulous, tell me all about it"

                  Its not the Parisian waiter's fault I never learned French :)

                  1. re: Parigi

                    I always find posters who don't want to hear English spoken in a restaurant except their own very entertaining.
                    Maybe some of them believe they're put in the English section when actually the whole restaurant is just one big English section. Some evenings it is the case at Chez Dumonet for instance.

                  2. I don't get why you think this was rude. It sounds as if they were trying to put you at ease you by putting you in a room with your fellow countrypeople. I think that was considerate. Giving you a menu you were guaranteed to understand completely was also considerate. It doesn't necessarily mean that you'd get inferior food. I'm pretty sure it would have come from the same kitchen.

                    I do get that some people travel to experience a local flavor, but many people, of all nationalities, just want to feel comfortable wherever they are. Unless those resto people were rude to you, I'd give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they were really trying to give you an experience that would please you.