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Jan 17, 2012 05:46 AM

Dining in Paris - overcoming language barriers


I will be visiting Paris for a few days with my boyfriend at the end of January. We are both vegetarians, which I realize might be tricky while we're there. We also unfortunately speak very limited french. We are both desperately trying to learn all the french we can before we get there, but I am still nervous about our ability to get by, especially in restaurants.

Maybe I'm ignorant, but I don't expect restaurants to have english translations under their menu items... at least not the good ones :) We are bringing a little french/english dictionary to help us out with reading the menu (yes, we'll be THOSE tourists - I'm sorry!), particularly because we have to be careful not to order meat. I am wondering if anyone can help us with some basic ordering terms & restaurant etiquette so that we can communicate as best we can.

What is the best way to let them know we're vegetarian? Are there any restaurant etiquette practices / best phrases to use in Paris that we might not be familiar with in Canada (where I'm coming from)? Also, are all tips included?

Any information you can share would be so appreciated, as well as some restaurant suggestions if you have some!

Thank you / Merci !

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  1. Restaurants always have menus posted in the windows (I think it's a law). When my menu French wasn't so good, I'd take my menu translator to the restaurant before they were open, and translate the menu on the window. This avoids the embarassment of furiously thumbing through a translator under the table while already seated. Oh, and a regular French/English dictionary probably won't have enough food items or cooking terms. You need a real menu translator.

    I'm not very carnivorous but I love fish, and there's always fish for me to eat, but most of the places I go don't have any veg options (cafes will but I'm not sure many restaurants will). So, I'd do as much research as you can before you go on places that will. It's such a big city, there have to be resources for vegetarians! Good luck!

    I just did a quick google search and saw that David Lebowitz, who's blog I love for all things Paris, has a whole section on veg dining. Looks like there are great tips there:

    1. Je suis un vegetarien. Je ne mange pas la viande ou des poissons.

      I think. Of course you can add eggs (oueff) and cheese (fromage) depending of whether you are ovo lacto or vegan. I made my 12 year old daughter, who for reasons that have nothing to do with her two meat loving parents, is an ovo lacto vegetarian, learn these phrases before her first trip to Paris. It was the second phrase she learned after, "Mon pere a tres soif. Une autre bouteille du vin, se vous plais!!!"

      4 Replies
      1. re: Mike C. Miller

        Just a couple of minor corrections:
        Je ne mange pas de viande ou de poisson.
        s'il vous plait

        1. re: PBSF

          Since we are into corrections…
          "Je suis végétarien".
          I don't mean I am, god forbid !!!
          I mean one doesn't need the article "un". It is a "Ich bin ein Berliner" genre mistake.

          1. re: Parigi

            i have a feeling that somebody called "earthmomma" might be "végétarienne". :)

            je mange PAS de viande et PAS de poulet et PAS de poisson. In spoken French, it's more common to omit the "ne" in a negative and just emphasize the "pas" with as many reiterations as possible.

            1. re: Parnassien

              I was correcting Mike. All my fault. With vegetarian-related posts, I try to read as fast as possible. :-)

      2. I've been a coupla times and the people could not have been nicer, before going I studied what may appear on a menu and always started off (sorry too lazy to do the accents and diacritical marks) "Bon Jour (Soir) pardon moi je ne parle Francais, uhhh, je veudrais'l vous plait"

        a nun might slap me, but mine was not the attempt of the "ugly tourist"

        yeah I know that is horrendous and it WAS corrected every time but everyone was great and good fun. just try to allow that you know what you are mangling isn't really French and you also aren't demanding they speak anything else. walk w/o fear.

        8 Replies
        1. re: hill food

          In all parts of France, from Paris to the Languedoc, everyone has been lovely and really helpful when we have shown some ability/willingness to speak French - no matter how basic or flawed our attempts have been. To me (and I suspect, to them) the "ugly tourist" is someone who breezes into a place and starts speaking in English without any attempt at either: a) asking them if they speak English and/or b) apologising for their own lack of French.

          As for the original poster, so long as you are able to say "hello" (very important to say this before asking for anything), explain that you are vegetarians and either ask if they speak English or tell them that you only speak a little French, then you will be fine. It helps to translate the menu before going in, but don't be embarrassed about using your dictionary/menu translator in the restaurant - it's much less embarrassing than ordering a plate full of kidneys by mistake!

          1. re: Theresa

            Thank you everyone for all your help I feel much better now after reading all this. We will make sure we have a translator to read menus out front & attempt at speaking every bit of french we can. My boyfriend does eat fish from time to time so he might have some more luck than me. In the end, I might end up eating so many baguettes & pastries that I won't have room for dinner anyway :)

            Again, many thanks. My apologies for making you read a vegetarian-related post ;)

            1. re: earthmomma

              the challenge of being a vegetarian in France sounds daunting, but really isn't (vegan? now that's a different issue)

              1. re: hill food

                No, it's a challenge. It's pretty common to see a vegetarian dish garnished with lardons (bacon bits).

                It would be difficult at best to be vegan in France.

            2. re: Theresa

              Ii learned my lesson years back when my husband and I walked into a charcuterie where an elderly woman manned the counter. I called out "Bonjour." She gave me a blank stare. My husband, two steps behind me, greeted her, "Bonjour, Madame." to which she answered, "Bonjour, Monsieur. Comment je puis vous aider?" Still ignoring me.

              No "Madame", no service. 8-(

              1. re: mangeur

                classic. she wasn't really mean, just correct. still, HA! it's perfect.

                OP: never mistake the formality for being rude, it's not.

                1. re: hill food

                  Got it! We don't usually have that kind of formality here, so it's really good to know what is expected. Many thanks!

              2. re: Theresa

                Totally agree with this. At least attempt a phrase in French and they will typically respond in English. And to the OP, don't be afraid to just ask the waiter what something is if you hit a word you don't know. Being a waiter there isn't some $5 an hour job, it's a career, so you're far more likely to get professional, friendly service than here.

            3. sorry to harp on, while the residents of Paris may not be the warmest and outgoing (or God forbid back-slapping) behind the reserve they really are good people. and if you make the effort, they will try to help (imagine my embarrassment in the Marais when a little 80 something woman dressed to the 9's in Givenchy or Chanel or something on 4 inch heels asked me directions! (everyone off the major blvds. are hopelessly lost and using a map - you won't be alone) "uhh uhhh uhhh") but that's how it goes, she was sweet and I asked her to be a stand-in for my recently deceased Grandmere. she politely declined. just talk and be nice. always say the polite words and you'll get a big hall pass.

              3 Replies
              1. re: hill food

                I just returned from 2 weeks in France last night (1 week in the Languedoc and 1 week in Paris). My French is limited at best. All of my interactions with waiters and waitresses were positive, even when I did not understand something they made me feel comfortable.

                I had dinner Saturday night at Le Petite Cheval de Menge in the 11th Arrd. and when I did not recognise the words for a certain type of baby chicken on the menu, the young waitress put her thumbs under her arms and flapper her arms like a chicken!!!

                Me and my wife had a great laugh and it was a good icebreaker.

                What I do before traveling to a different country is I make up flash cards (1 for subway/taxi, 1 for restaurants, 1 for hotel questions) and I keep them in my pocket at all times for quick translations. It is better than pulling out the Fodors Guide at the table!!

                Have a great time, I did see a vegetarian restaurant on Rue Richer in the 10th.

                1. re: tito

                  Yes - sometimes when I've asked what something is on a menu, I've had waiters doing all sorts of things to demonstrate what animal it is and/or what part of the beast the meat is from. As you say - always a good icebreaker.

                  1. re: Theresa

                    The opposite thing happened to me in Russia, in a St Petersburg Bar, nice weather, on the terrace, and I wanted a carrot juice. Why ? I don't freaking know, I've never ordered a carrot juice anywhere before, and I've never ordered one since... But I just felt like it.

                    So of course, after trying the word carrot in a few languages, trying to draw the shape of it in the air, I finally... did the Bugs Bunny gesture, my friend died laughing, the waitress looked at me like I was crazy (I guess they don't have Bugs Bunny in Russia...) and I ended up ordering a juice with mixed fruits which may or may not have contained carrots...

              2. One of the best -- and one of the most exhaustive:


                it's available in both .doc and .pdf format -- so you can drop it onto an iPhone, a Kindle, or any other similar device, so it's at least fairly discrete.

                I keep it bookmarked and refer to it often -- mostly when I'm nowhere near a restaurant.

                4 Replies
                1. re: sunshine842

                  Thanks for the link, brought back some memories.. Addition, for sure i will not forget this word.. My most embarrassing moment ever in a restaurant, was a couple of years ago at Likafo. Very good dinner and my instinctive end of meal sentence abroad in english - the check please. I asked it from one of the elders there, and immidiatly got one of the most angry looks ever, a "barking" of angry sentences in french (i think..), all in all a not so small mayham started, all resto looking at me and staff coming to my table to understand what the problem is about. Of course i understood exactly what is going on - there was a sign in french "no cheques allowed" or so, he was thinking that i'm trying to avoid cash, at some point i had to wave the bills :-) With the help of younger staff all went OK quickly, actually it didn't prevent me from coming again a couple of days later.. Actually i knew the word addition and was "a bit shy" to use Franch words, anyway the phrase "check please" is kind of an instinct for me..

                  1. re: oferl

                    that's one where relying on sign language works well, too -- the universal gesture of drawing a checkmark in the air will bring you the bill in every country I've ever visited, regardless of the language spoken.

                    1. re: oferl

                      "check, please" is so peculiarly American that you'd even create confusion in the UK ... btw, one of the euphemisms in French for l'addition/ the bill is "la douloureuse"/ the painful thing... and often all too appropriate !!

                      it's just too bad that douloureuse is filled with vowel sounds and liquid consonants that most foreigners can't quite manage

                      1. re: Parnassien

                        Oh that's cool, "bring me the painful thing".. We sometime use "what's the damage" slang, but painful thing is nicer. Not sure i had issues with check while visiting UK, and indeed it stuck from the more often visits to the US.