A very specific challenge regarding ambiance for my dear parents - Paris
My parents (both in their late sixties) have charged me with the task of finding them places to eat while they are in Paris for five nights in September. They are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and will be staying at the Park Hyatt Vendome. They are mobile but would prefer places within 10-15 minutes walk of a metro stop.
Here's where the challenge comes in. My parents are retired public school teachers who have devoted themselves to educating developmentally delayed children and are good, kind, and down to earth people. (I mention this to butter you up for what comes next.) That said, they get VERY nervous in new situations and feel easily slighted when someone is brusque with them. A weird look from a waiter can ruin their meal. (I wish they had thicker skins, but they are who they are. And I love them.) While it's been their dream to go to France, they are extremely worried about encountering "rude" people in Paris. Of course, I've told them that Parisians are some of the kindest, funniest, and most charming people in the world and as a whole no "ruder" than any other cross-section of a city, big or small. (I've even told them multiple times about how a pharmacist in Paris once spent 30 minutes trying to figure out why my husband's left ear hurt.) But they still insist on being anxious about the situation.
With that in mind, can Chowhounds please recommend places where the host is warm and inviting, the service friendly and gregarious, and the overall atmosphere convivial and welcoming? When my parents recall their favorite meals, they always mention things like the owner chatted us up and then came to our table! the waiter laughed at dad's jokes! the waiter flirted with mom! they asked us to come the next night! they gave us a free dessert! The actual food for them is secondary. So long as it's French, tasty, and hot, they'll be happy. It's ambiance that matters. (And, they are not into stuffy, fancy places at all, however solicitous the service might be.)
If you sense a lot of hand wringing in this post, you're right! My dad's health is not great and this might very well be their last trip abroad. I want them to have fond memories of their trip to Paris. I appreciate all of your help.
Have them learn a few French phrases. "Please", "Thank You", "Where is...?", "We would like..", etc., the more the better. I have found that even my crappy high school French went a long way in Paris. Even if the conversation was continued in English, or hand signs. I never had any rude service. However, French service is different than American. They can appear quite stiff, or formal, and not very convivial. But there are exceptions. Basically, smile, be polite, and speak French if possible (even if you horribly mutilate it).
Sorry that I can't help you with restaurants.
Agree with cosmo. Paris is not Parisland. I have not met more rude waiters here than elsewhere.
Both Pti and Cosmo have mentioned cultural differences. I can't agree more. American waiters who immediately call me by my first name make my flesh crawl. I am ready to tip them like Frank Sinatra just to get them to stop. Last year when I dined at Delphina's in San Francisco, the waiter was so loudly cheerful I was obliged to ask him to reduce his personal decibel.
No French waiter would ever scream Hi at me or call me by first name, and I am deeply grateful.
Another important cultural difference in dining is that the best trained waitstaff here tries to be omnipresent but invisible. The dining moment belongs to you and your companion(s). They are trained to bear in mind that you are supposed to talk to - and enjoy - your dinning date, not to yak it up with the waiter and chef and manager.
And the waitstaff-and-kitchen always do a kind of timing that gives you some time between courses, about 10 minutes, for you to have conversation with your companions. Waiters who rush are considered rude. But many visitors mistake this for inefficiency.
Good service? All the board's usual suspects' faves deliver good service. You need not worry at all.
But jovial banter and jokes? That's a tall order. I can only think of Mario at chez L'Ami Jean (and some visiting diners don't get him and don't like it at all) and cutie pie Serge at Dans Les Landes, who always fed me falsified Barça goal scores on game night. But don't expect thigh-slapping there or anywhere else.
I have been in Paris four times. I have been the recipient of more small acts of kindness and grace than I can count. I love the French, and I love France. It is truly a joy to come to Paris.
I know only a dozen words of French, but they are the right dozen: si vous plait (if you please), bon jour (hello, or literally "good day"), bon soir (good evening), merci (thank you), merci beaucoup (thank you very much), au revoir (good bye), parlevous anglaise (do you speak English), and tres bien (very good).
The simple rules:
1. Always say bon jour or bon soir when entering a shop or greeting someone. Bon jour will work at all hours, but you'll begin to hear bon soir after 5 p.m. or so.
2. Always say au revior upon leaving a shop. It is rude not to say hello and good bye.
3. Don't go into a small shop "just to look." Go into a small shop only if you intend to buy something there. If you just want to look, stand outside and look through the window.
There are exceptions. For example: If you go inside just to look in an art or antique store, remember to greet with bon jour, exit with au revoir, and ask "sui vous plait, parlevous anglaise" if the person speaks French, and generally expect to engage with the person there. In other words, if you want to just look, don't do it completely casually like Americans will. Only go inside if your interest is genuine and you're prepared to show the proprietor the respect of taking his merchandise seriously.
Don't paw all over the merchandise like Americans would. This is especially the case at food places, including outdoor fruit markets. Look, but don't touch. It's how they do things here.
4. Do not just babble in English, unless they begin in English. Otherwise, "Si vous plait, parlevous ainglais?" 99% of the time, the person will begin speaking English. And they will appreciate the respect you just showed them.
5. A little bit of humility helps, wherever you are.
6. Don't forget to say "merci" or "merci beaucoup" when someone helps or is kind or you really liked your meal. You can also smile, point at the plate and say, "tres bien!"
Basically, the French are all about the small courtesies. And ain't it great, by the way? America could stand to learn a thing or two about the small courtesies. If we had half the manners that the French have, we'd have a much better life as Americans.
Finally, anyone who wonders whether the French like Americans can consider the following. I am in my late 50s and this week am walking around Paris wearing a cowboy hat and pointed boots. I am as unmistakably American as it gets, and am getting compliments on the hat wherever I go.
Please tell your folks (again) that the French are great. They can be a little stiff at times, but so can Americans. Paris is a big city, not a dinner party among friends. But if there's one big city where the first language isn't English that I'd want to be plopped down in, Paris is that city.
Give them my list of a dozen words, my six "rules," and I think they are going to have a fantastic time here. One more thing to say: This time, I dragged someone else here who, like your parents, was reluctant to come. He'd hitchhiked through France in the early 1970s and was treated badly. I implored him to reconsider, telling him what I've written above.
The second day we were here, he said: "You know, I really like Paris."
Listing places where they'll get good service without stiffness or attitude would take too long. Whatever good advice you may get here, I'm afraid the problem lies in cultural differences and is therefore difficult to solve. Frequently, Americans judge as brusqueness what is only, for us, refreshing good humor that we identify as typical good Parisian service.
What is interpreted as rude manners by Americans in Paris is often only in the eyes of the beholder. Typical Parisian "popular" service (generally in brasseries, bistrots and cafés) is based on treating customers as adults. A certain type of complicity is achieved by a little briskness, meaning that the waiter assumes that the customer can take a bit of heat. Thus a bond is established. I was very aware of that last night at Brasserie Mollard, where my interaction with the service (people I had never met before) was a constant exchange of half-wisecracks and half-provocative remarks, and everybody was happy as could be.
Problem is, that kind of interaction which is Parisian restaurant tradition at its best (and oldest) is easily achieved with Parisians, not so easily with foreigners, with good reason. They have not been trained to understand this and, as new visitors, they shouldn't.
Thus I can think of places where your parents would be warmly welcome, but not necessarily coddled. Aside from that I can also think of more formal places where service would be cool and respectful but not with the kind of warm connivence that your parents would like.
Also, if we think of a place that we know and which we can vouch for, things will not necessarily happen as we think they will. We are dealing with people, not machines, fortunately so.
So I have to give the matter a little more thinking.
I think you are wonderful for trying to ensure that your parents have a lovely time in Paris.
That said, I think I'd spend more time on finding them restaurants in their price range and with the type of food they would enjoy. I'd also encourage them to learn at least a few words to speak in French, dress up a bit and learn "menu" French. You might even help them with how to order so they are comfortable in doing so.
I would also make their dinner reservations in advance for them.
P.S. I actually prefer the service that we get in France. I have no need to know my server's name or to become "friends' with them during our meal. That is not going to happen in France and your parents should understand this.
Parigi and Pti's comments prompt me to comment for the 79th time on French/Parisien "rudeness."
Not to be flip, but have they ever eaten at a Manhattan deli?
I think I'm treated better here by professional waitfolks (as the above have said) than by out of work act-people. Indeed, I've been treated rudely twice in 55 years - once by an Italian oil merchant who thought he was Marco Polo, the second time by a Polish aristo pretending to be French.
If, as is said above, one says "Bonjour', "Je ne parle pas Francais", "Merci" and "Au voir" the doors of kindness open.
However, if one blusters in as one of the 1% expecting a kissing of the ring, one will (I hope) get treated as an American boor.
Sure French brasserie waiters bustle about (that's the game), sure if you dither an hour over what you want to order, you may have to wait a bit longer, and sure in the big department stores, it's annoying Monday mornings when the sales-ladies are more interested in recounting their weekend date-frustrations than waiting on you.
But manners go a long way. Your parents will do fine.
re: Nancy S.
My in-laws, and we too, loved the service at Grand Véfour always, but there's no thigh-slapping, and the waitstaff did not flirt with MIL The sommelier did utter a most dignified "Oui, Monsieur," when FIL ordered what he always drank with every meal of his life, a glass of milk.
I appreciate everyone's thoughtful responses so far, especially how cultural differences make the typical Parisian dining experience different than the typical American one. I've strongly encouraged my parents to learn basic French phrases, not only to make their experiences in France more pleasant, but also out of respect for their host country. They are working on it (Pimsleur cds and workbook), so I think they'll come prepared.
My parents have a very moderate budget (about 100E to 125E per dinner), and are staying at the Park Hyatt gratis, having cashed in years of collected Hyatt points. So Le Cinq is out, if only for budgetary reasons. My parents are definitely part of the 99%, and don't expect to be treated like royalty, nor would they enjoy that. I think the reason why they enjoy the banter and the joking is that they love feeling like they are part of the family or the club.
I will check out the specific recommendations mentioned, Bistro Volnay, Les Jalles, Le Florimond, and Le Grand Vefour. And I'll also take to heart the advice of finding places with the food they will like in their price range. Of the places I've eaten in the past in Paris that have the food/price point I think they will enjoy, I think they might enjoy Chez Georges (near Port Maillot) or Chez Renee. These places have recognizable items (like Coq au Vin, escargot) done well. If chowhounds have places in mind with similar type of food and price point, I would love to hear them.
Thank you again. Very much appreciated.
I wish your parents a wonderful trip to Paris and a very happy anniversary.
There is a small place that we go to that is very reasonably priced and has the most delicious chicken with tarragon.
It is called Au Bon St Pourcain.
Maybe there are 10 tables. The owner usually serves you. His name is Francoise and he speaks very little English, but his daughter who is a waitress does. The menu is small and handwritten. Really classic French dishes.
There is also a little dog named Vicki who roams around the restaurant hoping to be given a treat. It is one of those quaint little places that you hope actually exist.
It is right behind St Suplice in the 6th. We'll be there for lunch in a couple of weeks. It is one of the places that we keep going back to. 10 rue Servandoni, 6th; tel. 01 43 54 93 63)
They can eat very well in Paris on that budget! Here's an idea that has worked wonders for me more than once, and established a bond.
Once they've established that the server speaks English (by asking politely -- "si vous plait, parlevous ainglaise?") they order the meal. The server will ask what wine. Tell you parents to say: "Can you recommend something? You will forget more than we will ever know about wine."
I've said exactly those words on several occasions, and it's always been taken as a big compliment. And I've always gotten good wine. Also something to remember is that "the house wine" in a good bistro or restaurant (good doesn't necessarily mean "three star Michelin temple at $750 a person," by the way) will be excellent.
Unlike in the U.S., the house wine in a good restaurant will have been carefully selected to represent the place. I once told the waiter to serve any bottle of wine up to 100 euros, and he gave us the house wine for 25 euros, and it knocked my socks off. Not as in got me rip-roaring drunk, but as in, wow, what great wine.
You see, food isn't just a business in this country. It's a matter of pride and culture, a real way of life. Spend even a couple days in France and you will realize it.
If this is their first trip to France, probably one of the best gifts you can give them is to help them understand the customs that so many Americans don't -- namely to start out with a "Hello, how are you," whether in French or English before making any request. Once they've established themselves as NOT "Ugly Americans" I can't imagine them having any more problems with rude people than in the average city in US..
I'm writing to report back on my parents' trip. After making reservations at Le Grand Vefour, and directing them to Bistro Volnay and Le Quincy, I am sad to report that they did not go to any of the restaurants I suggested. Instead, they went to Papa Pasta, the choose your own sauce and pasta chainlet. (They enjoyed it.) I am happy to report, however, that they had an absolutely amazing time in Paris eating bread and cheese, visiting museums, and walking around this beautiful, magical city. At the end of the day, I wanted my parents to have a fun trip and love Paris as much as I do, and it turns out that is exactly what happened. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my inquiry!