Every culture throughout the world has their own way of dining. I find that when I travel, even if I do stand out like a sore thumb, I still prefer to try to blend in a little and not feel so much like I have a neon letters the size of the Hollywood sign blinking over my head that says: TOURIST HERE!
There are many customs and expectations that we Anglos have for dining out that are different from what they do in Paris. Here are a few things to avoid doing to help you feel a little more at home when dining out at a restaurant when you visit Paris.
1. Befriending the waiter
Waiters keep a respectful distance from their clients. Trying to engage the waiter in conversation is not something they generally respond to. I don’t think of it necessarily as rudeness; they are just leaving you alone to enjoy your meal and the time you are spending with your dining companions. I was once dining at a family restaurant in Florida. The server knelt down, put his elbows on the table and introduced himself by his first name to us. I must say that now that I have become accustomed the French style of service, I found that a server I really didn’t know, on his knees, face to face with me was rather intrusive.
“HE CAME BACK WITH A BOWL OF WHIPPING CREAM FOR HER. WELL, AT LEAST HE TRIED.”
2. Eating dinner before 8 pm
Typically, the dinner hour in Paris starts at 8 pm. Later than what we're used to. Some restaurants have non-stop service so you can eat earlier, but they are usually establishments that are a little more touristy. I had a dinner date with a French fellow a while back. I was making the reservation. The restaurant had one table left at 7:30 pm, which is considered an early seating. We were planning on going later. When I called him to ask if he could make it at 7:30, his response was: “Ok. We’ll eat like the tourists then.” Needless to say, that relationship didn’t go far.
3. Leaving a big tip
French people seldom tip because there is a 15% tip service charge that is already included in the total of your bill. It’s called “service compris” and you will often see these words at the bottom of the check. If you’re really pleased with your server it’s normal to add another 5 to 10%. It is common the round the bill up to an even number, even on a small purchase.
4. Asking for ice in your drink
Several cafes and restaurants don’t have ice available, even during the dog days of summer. The French just don’t understand Americans’ preoccupation with ice cubes. Their question is: Why do you want this melting in your glass and watering down your beverage? If you don’t receive ice in the drink you have ordered, you can ask for some but the waiter may just nod his or her head and not bother returning. Speaking from too much experience here. I love ice in my drink and it really is a hit or miss request.
5. Asking for cream in your coffee
The French don’t use cream in their coffee, only milk, and that is in a specialty coffee like a café au lait or a cappuccino, and these drinks are reserved for morning time only. Otherwise, if you order a coffee the standard is an espresso.
One of the clients on our Flavors of Paris tour told me when she first arrived in Paris she ordered a coffee in a café and it arrived black. She unknowingly completely confused the waiter when she asked for cream. He came back with a bowl of whipping cream for her. Well, at least he tried. If you do like cream in your coffee, it is best to ask for some milk when you order. I suggest ordering an Americano which is a diluted espresso and getting some milk on the side for something that is similar to a regular American style coffee. It is not known for sure, but apparently the French starting making Americanos for the American servicemen in France during World War 2 in an effort to make something similar to what they would get at home.
“The French just don’t understand Americans’ preoccupation with ice cubes.”
6. Ordering a coffee to go
Speaking of coffee. The French sit down and have their coffee like a civilized person and then move on with their day. How can anyone truly enjoy consuming anything while they are multitasking?
Nothing other than socks with sandals will make you look more like a tourist on a Parisian sidewalk than you walking along with a Starbucks take-out coffee cup.
7. Cutting your salad
Before cutlery was made of stainless steel the vinaigrette from the salad would make the knives rust so you had to forego the cutting the lettuce leaves. When chefs prepare salads here they don’t usually shred the leaves into manageable pieces. You will see French restaurant clients deftly folding these sheets of lettuce into smaller pieces as a carry-over from the days before stainless steel. The French are so good at it that I’m sure they could make those leaves into an origami crane if they were inspired enough to do it.
I am just not adept enough at folding the leaves and delicately piercing my fork through each layer of lettuce to maintain a compact shape. The leaves splay open on me and I look like a crazy lady with eyes crossed trying to stuff unwieldy leaves of arugula into my gob and end up splattering vinaigrette all over my face. I’ve since learned that it is more dignified to stand out as a foreigner than try to adopt a custom that you just don’t have the dexterity to pull off. So best of luck to you with this one. I’ll continue to cut my salad with my knife.
Article by Lisa Rankin, hard-core foodie, wine hound, Paris lover, and Flavors of Paris founder.