What not to say in French restaurants

A couple discover Quimper. Photo credit © BOURCIER Simon

One of France’s strong points is its fabulous cuisine, but beware: even with impeccable French grammar, you can subconsciously upset a lot of people! To avoid upsetting the waiter or shocking the chef, Annalisa Davis shares her own ideas, mostly drawn from newsworthy experiences.

Hello, complete strangers!

This routine is especially prevalent in small towns and rural areas, where it applies equally well to bars, restaurants and cafes. You will notice that a newcomer will give a general salute of “Good day ladies and gentlemen»As soon as he enters the establishment, and those already seated will answer… or not, according to their character and their nationality. As a guide, the more provincial the setting, the more expected this greeting is, so listen to it on your visit and try it for yourself.

Oh, and wherever that applies you are also supposed to say goodbye to everyone when you leave: “Goodbye, ladies and gentlemen”. Take it off and you’ll get a low-key sign of respect from the owners.

Ste Barbe Hôtel & Spa Le Conquet MGallery: Restaurant. Photo credit © LEOPOLD Pascal

Please wait to be seated

In the UK it is quite common to walk into a cafe or restaurant, identify the table you like, then sit down and look for a waiter; in France, it is more than rude. The best approach is to politely wait a moment until a member of staff appears and asks “How much are you?” (for how many people?), then leads you to a suitable table. Congratulations, you haven’t offended anyone yet.

That is to say not finger bowl

If you find yourself at a table set with ceramic plates, cutlery and small bowls, know that these are not finger bowls. To anyone familiar with French traditions this seems obvious, but for the uninitiated it can be the big surprise seeing people drinking from these little bowls. In creperies, cider is traditionally served in these bolées and for breakfast larger versions are used for hot chocolate or coffee.

Photo credit © GRATIEN Jean-Patrick

Pancakes can actually be a three-course meal

This is especially important in Brittany, home of the delicious thin galette known as crêpe. When giving recommendations for a restaurant, locals may well include a creperie or two on their list. Non-Bretons can be wrong, because we classify pancakes in the same category as waffles: snacks. For a Breton, however, the pancake is infinitely versatile and can be served as a starter, main course and dessert. The only side you need is a fresh green salad. Talking about that…

Can I have chips with this?

Asking for fries (especially with pancakes, what do you think of ?!) is like slapping the chef. If the dish is served with new potatoes or rice, there is probably a good culinary reason. Be adventurous: a side of green beans won’t hurt you.

Photo credit © GRATIEN Jean-Patrick

Lasagna + chips + garlic bread. Again, no.

British and American diners are somewhat obsessed with carbohydrates. We don’t see a problem in combining pasta (carbs) with a side of garlic bread (carbs) and crisps (carbs). It is an outrage in the French sense of a balanced meal. Where are your vegetables? And no, baked beans don’t count (carbs).

This meal was awesome / awful

You know that moment when the waiter discreetly asks you, how is your meal? Maybe you are holding your index finger and thumb in the OK hand sign, which means it’s perfect, but the shocked reaction from the waiter immediately shows that here they are taking it differently. In France, this gesture means “nothing”, absolutely zero or worthless.

Photo credit © GUILLIAMS Laurent

thank you i’m pregnant

The meal is over and you want to decline dessert, so when the waitress asks you to, you say “No thank you, I’m full”. Unless you state, “No thank you, I’m full ” you have in fact just announced that you are pregnant. Congratulations! Or, if you prefer, try the more acceptable versions: “Thank you, I have eaten enough ” Where “No, it’s good, thank you”.

They take forever …

It is well known that the French are happy to linger over their meals, but you may have found yourself waiting half an hour for the bill even after telling them you were done. France respects your right to sit, digest and chat, so you should ask for the bill when you are ready. If you just wait for them to bring it, you’ll be waiting a long time, with both parties thinking the other has time to spare!

Enjoy your meal? None of your business!

A final word on gastronomy in France. Fifteen years ago it was very unusual to see people eating on the streets (other than tourists), but now it’s more prevalent as even the French face shorter lunch breaks and eat on the go. If you sit on a park bench or other public place to enjoy a sandwich or a picnic, don’t be offended if passers-by comment “Enjoy your meal”. This is not sarcastic, they are not curious or do not comment on your choice: they are sincere. So enjoy your meal!

Photo credit © GRATIEN Jean-Patrick


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