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May 10, 2011 05:47 PM

a funny thing happened on the way to the bistro...

I am an American living in Paris, fluent in French, and am often invited to dine out with friends, especially if it is their first visit here. This should be nice, however a funny thing keeps happening, and I find myself becoming increasingly embarrassed and angry about it, especially when visiting any establishment I regularly frequent. We decide on the type of place (La Regalade SH, Cafe des Musees, Ma Bourgogne,Chez Georges, Dumonet...), reserve a table, then I translate the menu, answer questions, and make certain everyone is on board regarding prices, choices available- all before entering the place. We are seated, and then invariably, one or two people ( we are never more than 4 ) decide "Oh, nothing for me, thanks", or decide to split perhaps just one entree or one plat ( again, among 2-3 people ). This has happened several times, with different people, and I am at a loss to explain this unacceptable behavior. I have tried to explain the quaint French notion that going to a restaurant means that you plan to actually eat a meal, but to no avail. Has anyone else noticed this trend, or am I just running with the wrong crowd?

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  1. Ow. I never encountered that situation. What do they think they're going to a restaurant for?

    If you notice that pattern in your co-diners' behavior, maybe you should ask yourself what the people who do that have in common (socially, intellectually, professionally, etc.) in order to isolate them and not ostracize them, just don't take them to restaurants anymore. Just out of curiosity, I would like to know your conclusions because it is a strange thing indeed.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Ptipois

      I find this extremely strange indeed. I suggest before you actually go and have lunch or diner with folks you have never met before, to just for for a drink. When you think those folks are really interested in having a meal, meet them again or not...

      I am with you that this must be terribly embarassing, especially at a place you regularly go.

      1. re: Ptipois

        Ptipois: "what the people...have in common". Well-educated professionals, 40-60 years, most have done some foreign travelling, all have money to spend and are self-described foodies. Most are in Paris for the first time, demanding to be taken to "the best places for real French food". When asked to elaborate on that theme, they simply cannot. The decision is always left in my hands. Are they too lazy or intimidated to do their own homework? I don't know. This is why I make certain to discuss a range of choices beforehand and arrive early, so they can study the menu (again) and understand what is being offered before we enter the place. Choices are agreed upon, but then the inevitable happens when the waiter comes to take the order (which I give for them, en francais, so there is no stress there). Everyone claims to be ravenous, but no one wants any food. I could understand if a chosen dish was not to their liking, but this is not the case. I have firmly told the table that to refuse food in this manner is equivalent to attending a full-on Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma's and saying, "Oh, I'll just have a little piece of bread." Many Americans do not understand the real estate aspect of French dining, wherein you effectively rent your table, and are expected to play the game and partake of a meal, not just something to nibble on with a glass of Chateau N'importe Quoi. Sadly, obligations require dining out. I have run the gamut from multi-starred palaces to neighborhood bistros, all with the same curious results. Perhaps it is a cultural divide? Is the real art of eating lost to Americans?

      2. It has happened to me, but not often, thank god.
        Sometimes friends from Asia want to order something like 3 starters and nothing else. I have to explain to them that France is not a snack culture like theirs. In their own country, one eats nearly all the time. Meals are not a strong concept. One always has stomach for a bowl of noodle here and there which is not counted as a meal. And meal-meals are smaller in comparison.

        It drives me bonkers too. But the structuring of a meal is culturally ingrained. It is not an intellectuall thing where you point out: hey don't do that, and they immediately change behavior.

        After I explain to my Asian friends, most of them are willing to try a different way of structuring a meal. How happy they are, I don't know.

        In my experience, the problem with non-Asian out-of-town diners in Paris is that many of them diet and are also used to restaurants that offer an insane degree of flexibility. So diners think they can come to a restaurant not to eat. Or, worse, ask the translating friend - in this case, me, - to ask the chef if it is ok to tweek this and that and adjust to their harebrained food preferences for a dégustion menu. BECAUSE back home this or that famous restaurant does that for them.

        Lastly it may be the tragedy of the translator. People not only expect you to translate, they expect you to solve problems: what do you mean the reservation is lost? What do you mean I can't change merely X number of items on the dégustation menu? What do you mean I can't have all sauces separated from the food, served on the side? (These are all actual questions my friends have asked me while I tried to translate for them.)

        8 Replies
        1. re: Parigi

          Parigi: "...the tragedy of the translator." I do like that phrase, though not the actuality! We who live here are expected to be cultural embassadors with the ability to move mountains. While happy to help solve real problems (lost passports, credit card problems, etc), I am just about fed up with trying to make the French restaurant fit the American guest. I agree with your experience in hosting Asian guests here. Those paradigms are ingrained over millenia, and as such, should be respected whenever possible. My question, though, is why do so many Americans bother to travel at all? They are bored by the sights, dislike the foreigners they meet, don't respect the customs, and demand to "have it their way" wherever they go to eat or drink. I can appreciate culture shock and the subsequent desire to seek comfort at the nearest McDo or Haagen-Dazs; on occasion, this might save someone's sanity. But you can't spend all your time in these places. I don't know which is worse: to make a reservation then refuse to eat, or to order extravagantly and just fiddle with the food you chose, not eating it because it was not what you had expected. A recent guest from New Orleans declared all French food to be "fresh, all right, but flavorless" - then demanded Tabasco and salt, which were poured all over a Carpaccio de Langoustines... It is disrespect - for the good food, for the good people providing and serving it, and for tradition. What happened to the "open-spirit" of the American traveller? When and how did it all go so wrong? Cheap flights and inexpensive hotels are leading many people way outside of their comfort zone, and as a result, they really do suffer shock. Perhaps that is why they act out when food is concerned, trying to control that basic need as best they can. In a charitable moment, I would understand and even forgive. However, some people should stay home in the Barca-Lounger with a sack of chipsand some Ding-Dongs...oh, and the Tabasco!

          1. re: manouche

            "some people should stay home in the Barca-Lounger with a sack of chipsand some Ding-Dongs"

            Like this poster, la honte !

            1. re: Parigi

              There is no "smiley" with eyes big enough and a mouth dropped deep enough into the floor to describe how I felt after reading the post on the Spain board...

              1. re: Rio Yeti

                Well, every one of my replies to that thread has been removed.

                1. re: Parigi

                  I'm sorry I missed that!

                  San Sebastian is quite possibly my favourite place in the world. You'd have to try really hard to eat badly there.

              2. re: Parigi

                That post left me gobsmacked!

                To the OP, I've never seen this type of behaviour. And if I were a guest in any country and was off my feed for whatever reason I'd choose someplace where eating a small dish was appropriate. And it certainly isn't acceptable behaviour here in San Francisco, although it is acceptable to eat two appetizers, say in a non prix-fixe restaurant, like having soup and a large appetizer (which can be the size of a main course in other countries). This also, allows me for dessert.

              3. re: manouche

                Fascinating post. Incomprehensible phenomenon.

              4. re: Parigi

                "In my experience, the problem with non-Asian out-of-town diners in Paris is that many of them diet and are also used to restaurants that offer an insane degree of flexibility. So diners think they can come to a restaurant not to eat."

                This is the situation we have experienced. "Starving." "So hungry!" "Really looking forward to dinner tonight." Then, "Do they have salads? Ask if I can have the salmon poached. No sauce. Plain steamed green beans, please. Bread? Oh. no. Cheese? Oh, I can't possibly." And then, praising the meal to the heavens, not realizing they missed the entire point.

                As bad, the guy who filters the menu choices through his wallet.

              5. I don't envy you - I imagine that, as Parigi says, much of it could be down to the American culture of expecting the restaurant to serve what people want rather than what is on offer. Maybe from now on you need to tell them in advance that they can't do this - an introduction to how to eat in Europe!

                It may even be worth warning them not to eat too much at lunchtime (some of them may just not be hungry).

                Is it possible that it's because of prices? ie. they know the cost, as you have prepared them, but they don't want to ask you to find somewhere cheaper, so manage it by not eating as much themselves.

                1. I agree with everyone - this is very strange and not correct.

                  BUT . . . . I do have one possible explanation . . . . and it is stretch but a possibility . . . .

                  If they are people traveling to visit you in Paris, it is possible that with jet lag they just aren't hungry when they think they should be hungry. This does happen to me when traveling a lot, it can take me 2-3 days before I'm back on my regular eating schedule. There are times where it takes me 2-3 days to even really feel hungry again.

                  A reach but a real possibility.

                  1. This would drive me absolutely bananas, to the level where I simply couldn't go out for a meal with those people again. I dunno, this can't merely be some sort of cultural divide, can it? Is there anywhere in the world where it's considered acceptable to go to restaurants without eating?

                    3 Replies
                      1. re: Ptipois

                        Not in Britain either.

                        But, as Parigi says below, in many Asian countries (and in Britain in an Asian restaurant), pickers and non-eaters wouldn't be noticed in a group.

                      2. re: Diapason

                        "Is there anywhere in the world where it's considered acceptable to go to restaurants without eating?"

                        Again am not excusing anyone or any culture, but in China where a large group dine around a round table and share everything, a non-eater, whatever his reasons, does not seem so odd. In Paris he would stand out like a sore thumb.