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Dec 10, 2013 06:14 AM

Restaurant Behavior Advice - Paris

So, this may come across as a bizarre question but I would general advice on dining in Paris (I suppose I mean versus dining in the US)...not necessarily which restaurants but more behavior-centric advice that an American who may have never dined in France could use. We are well indoctrinated at dining in the US and a couple of us have been to Paris but I never asked for this type of advice before.

For instance, that tipping is not expected...things along those lines. I want to cause the least amount of trauma on the city and our group when we visit.

We will have an 11 month old and we always scurry her out or silence her when she makes the smallest of peeps.

We will have a group of 7 people total (including the small one), 5 adults, 13 year old and the 11 month infant.

I have an additional thread about the 15th and we anticipate taking several meals in that area but will probably dine in many other areas as well.

So, maybe there is nothing of import to know...but if so, I am all ears. Thank you.

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  1. There are a lot of threads on this board on tipping. We have the habit of rounding up the bill to the next zero.
    One big difference between other countries and France in restaurants and shops is that the French don't call you by your first name (and I love them for that and for many other things), and they say bonjour and expect you to say bonjour before you launch into the subject of your patronage, whether you are ordering food or even taking the bus !
    On the other hand, since you have children in your group, do bear in mind that the French dine relatively late, and restaurants are not open between meals. The earliest you can dine is at 7h30pm. You can find a handful of brasseries that open all afternoon, but that will limit you to brasserie dining, which is not so outstanding. It would be regrettable if you come to Paris and limit yourselves to that type of restaurants.
    The French love well-behaved children (and their well-behaved parents). Children is no cause for trauma. Have a great time.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Parigi

      As somebody who has lived most of my life in France or the French speaking part of Belgium, can confirm that restaurants are generally very relaxed, provided the customer does not set out to shock (intentionally or otherwise).
      They have their working hours and it’s not too difficult to respect them. They understand if families with kids arrive early (say 7.00 to 7.30 pm for dinner) and want to eat correctly but not hang around too long as the kids get restive. French restaurants can seem slow for foreigners – but this is how French people relax and eat. If you really want to eat in an hour or an hour and a half, the best thing is to get there early and explain that the kids gets sleepy.
      Parigi is correct on names and the slight air of formality is important – unless you have been going to the same place every week for five years don’t think of addressing the waiter by his first name – even after five years when you think you get to first name terms, you will still at best be addressed as “monsieur Alex” rather than just “Alex” no matter how many times you make the point. Even young kids will probably be addressed as “jeune homme” or “mademoiselle” and rather than sounding pretentious, this carries the slightly flattering air of being spoken to as a near adult.
      Be cautious about asking for food not on the menu or asking to have the food presented in a different manner. This is perhaps not so easy to describe but think Jack Nicholson in the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces – this is not how to behave. On the other hand, well behaved kids and pretty girls can sometimes get anything they want – but that’s life.
      On tipping, it’s ok to round up to the next zero (or maybe a zero or two beyond that if the bill is in the hundreds) – 3% to 5% shows appreciation. I’m inclined to give this in cash because of some (perhaps mistaken?) view that this is preferred for tax reasons.
      Make a reservation and stick to it – it’s only polite. I can’t understand how occasionally people will write here about making several simultaneous reservations and look for guidance about which one to pick – that must drive restaurants mad.
      The main message is to relax and enjoy yourself – this is why most French people go to restaurants.

      1. re: Parigi

        Dans les Anges serves all day. Just saying. Au Dernier Metro too.

      2. With your concern about not being intrusive, I have no doubt that you will pick up clues from other, hopefully local, diners in the room. Sometimes, even negative models can be instructive!

        Do remember that a large group can be noisier than is self-apparent.


        1. Do not switch hands with your knife and fork.

          Hands belong on the table, not in your lap.

          Bread belongs on the tablecloth.

          Tourists order Perrier, locals have Evian.

          There is nothing cheap about the house wine. Sometimes far better than some of the bottles offered.

          Everything goes with champagne.

          Do not use the ashtray as a bread plate.

          33 Replies
          1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

            Great points. The hardest one for me is to remember to put a torn portion of bread on the table, not my plate. It's just so counter-intuitive to American manners. DH's arched eyebrow keeps me straight.

            1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

              "Do not use the ashtray as a bread plate."
              This advice is not specific to France. The ashtray, in most cultures I hope, is not the bread plate, or so we are taught.

              1. re: Parigi

                Besides, there aren't any ashtrays on restaurant tables anymore.

                1. re: Ptipois

                  There goes one of the great traditions.

              2. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                Most of my French friends now ask for "un carafe d'eau" rather than buying the fancy stuff, except perhaps in really fancy restaurants. This has become quite common. Paris tap water is actually very good. In fact, a couple of years ago the city put on a major PR campaign to get people to reduce their consumption of bottled water, which for most brands is tap water filtered and sometimes with additives.

                1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                  Um, is this "do not switch hands with your knife and fork" serious? My husband is Canadian and eats the British way, but I've always done the (yes, admittedly silly and more difficult, but also difficult to unlearn) American way. Have I been committing a sin in France? What drives me crazy here at home is the way some people saw away with their knives and stick their forks into the meat as if killing it. But if done correctly it can look perfectly reasonable.

                  1. re: LulusMom

                    If you are trying to pass for French or, at least, not a tourist, then yes, you seriously risk blowing your cover. Otherwise, just relax and enjoy yourself.

                    1. re: RandyB

                      Phew! Not trying to pass for anything but myself, but always like to avoid being rude.

                      1. re: LulusMom

                        Switching hands with knife and fork does not look rude, it just looks very weird to us French.

                        1. re: Ptipois

                          Totally understood. If I didn't grow up doing it, I believe I'd think the same. My husband has convinced me that it is a totally awkward way to eat, and yet since i was brought up to do it, it comes naturally to me.

                          1. re: LulusMom

                            I had a friend teach me to eat the European way and it is so much easier. I don't struggle any more. It looks so awkward to me when people eat the American way. It seems so clutzy.

                            1. re: sisterfunkhaus

                              I do wonder how it developed. Any insights? (I've always eaten European-style - mum insisted on it).

                              1. re: lagatta

                                I have just returned from vacation in an place popular with Russians, I was very intrigued to see they used their cutlery in the American way.

                          2. re: Ptipois

                            At a meal last week a thoroughly French woman was using her fork in her right hand for everything and her male, thoroughly French, companion using his left. Sorry I don't have photos but it seemed rude.

                            1. re: John Talbott

                              Which part seemed rude? Not trying to be funny here, just trying to understand. The left hand thing seems odd to me; not something I see much in the US. I'd have gathered he was left handed, maybe?

                              1. re: John Talbott

                                Sorry; reference was that taking photos seemed rude not eating habits.

                                1. re: John Talbott

                                  D'oh! Sorry about that. Rereading of course that is what you meant.

                        2. re: LulusMom

                          ""do not switch hands with your knife and fork" serious? My husband is Canadian"
                          I resonate with this; I learned to use utensils in Europe with a Canadian Mother, was made fun of on coming to the USA, switched and now switched back. Switching back & forth is far easier than negotiating that first round-about in a rental car at Heathrow.

                          1. re: John Talbott

                            But is it easier than *getting* the rental car at Heathrow?

                        3. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                          Is the water advice about brands? Or about a Parisian preference for l'eau plate?

                          1. re: Lizard

                            A lot of Parisians have wised up and just ask for "un carafe d'eau," i.e., tap water.

                            1. re: RandyB

                              Right, but unless one can get l'eau gazeuse from the robinet, I don't understand the declaration-- especially as Indianriver seems to highlight brands, not tap.

                              1. re: Lizard

                                On the other hand, so many places are now "bottling" their own.

                                1. re: Lizard

                                  Thank you all for your responses. As I indicated alreadt, I responding to Indianriver's 'Tourists order Perrier, locals have Evian', which, personally, I saw as a bit of a stretch. (And interesting, given that Evian is one of the worse tasting bottled waters, imo.)

                                  That said, I am not Parisian (I wish) and far more familiar with the custom of neighbouring francophone regions where l'eau gazeuse is our choice (but then, neighbouring or not, still not Parisian (*sigh*) and thus tourist.

                                  What is interesting, to be, is a matter of generational stubbornness (or maybe it's individual) as my family stick with bottled rigorously; I think they are unable to trust that what comes out of the tap is now potable. And as I am old enough to remember the days when we really couldn't drink the tap water, I understand the leeriness.

                                  Meanwhile, I am interested to hear about the turn to presenting and bottling their own. Very cool, that.

                                  1. re: Lizard

                                    Parisians have been drinking their water since Haussmann had filtered water flowing into the homes. It has been safe to drink since the late IXXth Century, when Pasteur's filters became widespread. The water became even more dependently safe after the First World War, when the urban French water supplies (Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse) were the first to use chemical treatment (verdunisation).

                                    The major French cities are where safe, clean drinking water comes from. (The countryside is of course another matter)

                              2. re: Lizard

                                I would say many Parisians simply drink the free water offered in a carafe - they always have done. Now some places make their own with bubbles so that is another free option.

                                But equally lots of people like a particular water, some with a fizz, some with more taste (badoit). Bottle water in France is relatively cheap (even in restaurants) when compared to many other countries.

                                1. re: PhilD

                                  Crazily enough, some house-made sparkling water is not free!

                                  1. re: Nancy S.

                                    Indeed! And the price some are charging is the same as premium commercially bottled water.

                              3. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                I don't think eating American style is considered rude - it will mark you out as not local, but so will other things.

                                There are no ashtrays any more - smoking is forbidden in restaurants. Personally I'm very happy about that.

                                Hmm, a thread on restaurants and bistros with decent house wine?

                                1. re: lagatta

                                  were there ever ashtrays? a US ex-pat friend once explained that in a cafe ashtrays are considered fire hazards and one is expected to use the floor (and they sweep it all out the door later rather than put it in the trash) kinda made sense.

                                  1. re: hill food

                                    There were most certainly ashtrays in restaurants.

                                2. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                  I've been rethinking the "switching hands with knife and fork" issue and it occurs to me that one is better off using the best manners he knows from his own culture rather than trying at the last moment to acquire those of the culture he is visiting.

                                  I remember sitting next to a Frenchman at a large dinner table at which an American woman was frantically trying to dine "French style". She was bumbling her fork around, almost waving her knife and looked completely flustered. The Frenchman leaned toward me, subtly gestured toward her and whispered, "What IS she doing?" Better she had just used her best home manners and style which while being recognized as foreign would also have come across as civilized.

                                3. I am not kidding about the ashtray. Check my tale

                                  about 50 down under travelma478.

                                  You cannot make these things up.

                                  1. Wow my friends and neighbors have covered it all in 3 hours while I was out of it - but,
                                    1. Start off with "Bonjour," End with "Merci Au revoir."
                                    2. Don't sweat bringing an 11 month old in; the French waitstaff, despite their undeserved reputations as rude, love kids, you'll have to shove away the mousse, etc.
                                    3. 7 people as someone said, if over 80 dB, are a problem, best to get a private room, downstairs (Les Papilles), upstairs (Bastide Odéon), etc room.
                                    4. And last, as someone who's taken kids and grandkids everywhere here for 50 years - my advice is to relax. Just make sure the 13 yo has enough books, iPad's etc. Our two 13's just blew Paris and Normandy away in June. And PS we had fun too.