Dining out in Paris and in France is a joy, especially if you have been reared in the United States. Of course there are plenty of Americans who would disagree with me, and I do wish that they would read this post so I can explain to them exactly what it is they are missing.
For starters, l’accueil — the welcome. When you walk through the door of a French eating establishment, you are greeted and not just by the host, who is also sometimes the owner and serveur (waiter), but also by the bartender, who will raise his or her eyebrows and say, “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir.” If you are accustomed to having a 19-year-old waitress bounce up to you and exclaim in a chipper voice, “How are you folks today! Table for two?” you might miss this subtler French greeting, but let me assure you, it is there.
If you are dining at a café or a brasserie, whomever seats you will want to know if you are there to eat or just to drink. At such places, you can generally take one of the tables reserved for drinks without asking, though it doesn’t hurt to inquire first. How do you know which tables are reserved for beverages? They are often located on la terrasse (or, in winter, in the solarium) and they are never set for dining.
If you intend to eat, you must wait to be seated. Always. I stress this because it is the one mistake I often see Americans make in France and around Europe. Whether a dining room is half-empty or not, it is impolite to take a table without asking. The staff may accommodate you, chalking your ignorance up to your foreignness, but they won’t have the most favorable impression of you. In a good restaurant you will be politely asked to vacate the table. Why? Because the restaurant, even if void of customers when you arrive, is most likely booked.
Let me explain. Most restaurants in France are very small, accommodating maybe thirty or forty diners a night. Whether the place is chic or un restaurant familial (family-run, and usually semi-casual), there is one seating per night. One. And because these places don’t open their doors until eight or eight-thirty, if you haven’t already made a reservation you will be out of luck because those who have reserved will be at their tables all evening long.
This is one of the huge pleasures of eating out in France — the table is yours for as long as you want it. And in a proper restaurant, even if you eat your meal and bolt out the door in under an hour, the table will probably remain vacant after you have gone.
There are some exceptions to this rule — there are a few popular restaurants in Paris that have begun to ask people to leave after they have finished eating, but these places are generally very casual, youth-oriented, and extremely crowded, with lines out the front door, and they often lose older customers because the French, unlike Americans, are not accustomed to being given the bum’s rush. They don’t like it, and now I understand why.
During a recent trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco, I was appalled at the service in what are supposed to be elegant restaurants, the sort of places with carefully planned décors and pretentious menu descriptions that use esoteric French words in order to impress (if these menus intimidate you, just bring a French person along; they’ll point out the grammar and spelling errors and you’ll feel better). The greeting in these places is always warm. But then you are seated and the hard sell begins: Will you be having cocktails this evening? No? Just wine? By the glass or the bottle? The glass. May I recommend . . . oh, you want the cheapest red on the menu? And only one starter? To share. Okay, one starter to share, two entrées, and two glasses of wine. The waiter’s forehead is now creased in irritation as he finishes the mental calculation of his tip. He perks up later, though, in order to propose dessert, but when you decline every trace of warmth disappears from his demeanor. He brings the bill quickly, setting it on the table with a little more force than is necessary, and his perfunctory “Thank you, have a nice evening” is about as insincere as the warm greeting you received at the beginning of the meal.
Chef and author Anthony Bourdain discusses this phenomenon in his hilarious and revealing book, "Kitchen Confidential,” but from the point of view of the restaurant worker. In it, he lets us know that restaurants exist to make money. Period. Certainly, the chefs love food, and sometimes even their staffs do too, but they love making money even more. And the pressure from restaurant owners to “turn covers” is great. Thus every human who walks through the door is nothing but an eating, drinking dollar sign who will potentially increase or lower the wait staff's salaries depending on the amount of food and wine he or she orders.
This, I believe, is the fundamental problem with dining out in America, and in England (the last time I was in London, the sell was every bit as aggressive as it is in New York). So what is different about France?
First, rents are often more affordable, as rent increases are kept in check by law. It is possible, therefore, for a restaurateur to run his or her place on a lower budget. Second, les serveurs are paid real salaries. They earn decent livings and, because they receive free national health care, they do not need to worry about making money in order to pay for their hernia surgeries. Third, they do not need to butter you up in order to get a tip; a fifteen percent pourboire (tip) is already factored into your bill.
The result is that you are served by a person whose job it is to inform you of the specials, give you advice if you want it, and bring you what you have ordered. If your serveuse is nice to you, it is because she likes you or because she is in a good mood — not because she thinks she will get more money out of you at the end of your visit.
And yet most of the complaints I hear from foreign tourists in regard to France have to do with service in restaurants. I have many complaints about French service, but none of them have to do with dining out. I have encountered few grumpy or impatient restaurant workers in my time here; nearly everyone has been wonderful, pleasant, or, at the very least, polite.
For those readers who might suppose that I receive better treatment because I speak French, I must point out that when I first started visiting France, I could not string four words together without butchering them. But I could say hello, and smile, and order my food in badly accented French, all thanks to beginner French classes and a Berlitz European Phrase Book that I kept hidden under the table.
When I see Americans being treated poorly in French restaurants it is nearly always because they deserve it. Blustering through the front door, demanding a table in English, scowling if they are not seated right away, speaking loudly enough so that I can hear every word of their conversation from across the room, waving their empty glasses in the air for refills, and calling the waiter “garçon” (boy) which, bien sûr, is an insult. And then — and then! — because by this time I am fuming, they have the nerve to complain about their experience.
Ignorance is not always bliss. An anecdote from Italy, a country that has similar dining rituals to France: we were in Venice, my husband and I, at Ca’ d’Oro alla Vedova, a well-known family-run trattoria in the district of Cannaregio. It was eight o’clock and the place was nearly empty. As we had arrived without a reservation, we inquired in very shaky Italian (again, thanks to the Berlitz guide) if there was a table available that evening. The waiter, who turned out to be an Irishman living and working in Venice, switched to English and informed us that they were totally booked. But, he said, we could have drinks and chicchetti — tapas-like snacks — at the bar.
We took him up on it, and as the place started to fill up we felt very lucky to be sipping glasses of chilled Prosecco and nibbling on savory meatballs and small squares of polenta topped with slices of salami. In fact, we were so happy that we had just flagged down the waiter to make a dinner reservation for the following night when a handsome American couple entered the restaurant. They were in their mid-fifties, quite smartly dressed, and as they surveyed the dining area, I thought that perhaps they were looking for friends. But no. They spied an empty table, strode over to it, and sat down.
Our waiter frowned, went over to them, and told them in English the same thing he had told us — the place was booked, but they could have chicchetti at the bar. The couple stormed out of the restaurant, their faces flushed with anger. As the door swung shut I heard the man fuming that “they just don’t like Americans here.”
Had they behaved themselves and stuck around, this couple would have enjoyed authentic Venetian food and wine and, had they made a dinner reservation for the following night, they would have been treated to a leisurely, delicious meal that might have ended with a complimentary digestif from the waiter. Too bad, because that shot of sweet liquor would have knocked the bitterness right out of them.
In France as in Italy, good customers are rewarded; when we go to our favorite places in Paris, we are often treated to a complimentary flûte of champagne or a digestif. It is wonderful to be appreciated as a customer, but my top reason for loving dining out in France is this: you are left in peace during your meal. Once your drinks and food have been served, the staff will leave you be unless you need something else. If you want more water, you only need to ask for it. If you are ready for the check, you just let your server know. But until you ask, you will not be given the check* and you will not be interrupted.
Another anecdote, this one from Chicago: during a holiday visit with my family, I was again annoyed by American service, this time at one of those classic Chicago institutions, the sports bar-grill. I had no problem with our waitress, who seemed nice enough; it was her habit of interrupting us every few minutes to ask if we would like something else that I found annoying.
Things are very different in Paris. Last week, I met two girlfriends for an evening apéro (apéritif), which does not always mean alcohol. Here, “un apéro” can also involve coffee or a glass of juice; the term is used loosely to refer to the time of the meeting — cocktail hour. Our rendezvous was set for 5:30 p.m. at a Chez Prosper, a café near Place de la Nation that has a big terrasse and decent food. Two of us ordered Perrier, while our copine (girlfriend) ordered un thé verveine (verbena tea). The waiter brought our drinks and asked us to pay right away (*this is often the case when the tables are on the street), and then we sat and talked. For three hours.
During those three hours, we did not order anything else. Many other customers came and went, though some, who were there before we arrived, remained. Our waiter never returned to “check in” on us — why would he? He knew as well as we that if had we wanted anything else, we would have just asked for it.
Another thing à aimer (and no, I won’t say the cuisine, because that would require a 1,000-page post): the professionalism of the waiters and waitresses. And I don’t mean at high-end restaurants, because one expects it there. I mean at basic, everyday cafes. I am constantly amazed at the level of service at popular cafés, which are almost always bustling and short-staffed. At La Fée Verte, a cute neighborhood joint in the 11th arrondissement, there are no more than two servers on the floor each night, and the place seats forty and is usually packed. The servers at La Fée are not life-long waiters, either; they are often college students or artists who are trying to make an extra euro. Nevertheless, they get the orders right — without writing a thing down. They pay attention. If you order steak, they remember to swap your butter knife for a steak knife and they never, ever, forget to bring le pain. They bring you everything you want and then they leave you be, so that you can do what you came to do: enjoy — your meal, the company you’re in, the atmosphere. In short, an evening out.
A final thing to love about dining out in Paris: the farewell. Even in this supposedly rude city, it is customary to say goodbye to clients when they leave (and customary for clients to say farewell to the staff). In a small restaurant, the owner may accompany you to the door. If you are a regular, he will shake your hand or kiss your cheeks. Even in a packed café, the entire staff will say “merci” and “bonne soirée.” No matter how much you spent.