First Impressions on Dining in France

le bistrot St Nicolas restaurant le Havre 2012 (3)

I dined out a few times in my first months in France, and here’s what I learned:

  • Don’t dawdle over the menu. Once you’re seated, you’re either given a card with the day’s specials, or you’re pointed to the “ardoise” or slate (blackboard) where the specials are listed. About thirty seconds or a minute later, the server returns and asks you, “Avez-vous choisi?” Have you decided what you’re having? I know people in New York for whom lingering over menu choices is part of the pleasure of restaurant dining and who keep asking the waiter to come back in a minute or two as they deliberate over courses. Not so in Paris. The attitude is: Here’s what we have, now let’s get on with it.
  • Seasonality plays a large part in menu choice, but you often see the same things on menus at many different restaurants around town: rhubarb crumble in the spring, strawberry tart in early summer, white asparagus in late winter. But tarte citron, or lemon tarte, is there all year long. Ditto apple tarts.
  • The French love raw meat. You see steak tartare offered at virtually every bistro or mid-priced restaurant. I even once saw someone eat chicken tartare. I don’t find steak tartare particularly appetizing, but raw chopped chicken with an egg on it was revolting. I was acquainted with the person who ordered this monstrosity, and he told me in all honesty that it was delicious (and told me later that he didn’t fall ill afterward). steak-tartare-1064652-flashStill, for me red, red meat is a tough sell. At a lovely dinner at the home of Renaud and Odette, Odette grilled a big slab of steak she’d bought from her favorite butcher. She kept it on the coals for about the length of time it takes to sing “La Vie en Rose,” and when she started to slice it, it still looked as raw as when it had been freshly slaughtered. On seeing my look of horror, she said, “Ah, oui, tu préfères le bœuf mieux cuit,” or a little more done, and she tossed it onto the grill for another half a minute, just to warm up its oozing blood a bit more.
  • Each region has particular specialties – canard and foie gras in the southwest, crèpes au blé noir (buckwheat) in Brittany, tarte flambée in Strasbourg (a thin tart covered with crème fraîche, sliced onions and bacon) – but once you’re in that region, pretty much every restaurant offers you its own version of that local specialty. Variety is by region, rather than individual restaurant.
  • The standards we think of as standards are often middling in quality. It was hard to find a decent croque monsieur (or croque madame, which has a fried egg on it) at most restaurants. I tried, and was served mainly indifferent grilled cheese sandwiches.
  • If you’re invited by a friend to dine at a restaurant, that friend pays. If you invite other people, you pay. I learned this the hard way when I’d invited my friends Pierre, Renaud and Odette to a dinner at a restaurant that looked promising, a night or two before I left Paris for the first time. When the bill arrived, Renaud looked at me and said, “C’est toi qui nous as invite, non?” – it’s you who invited us – and without further hesitation I got out my credit card and settled. (In New York, people have a habit of inviting you to meet at restaurants, often for birthday celebrations, and expect you to pay.)l-addition-s-plait-6-c4b6d0-0@1x I’m more likely to invite people over to dine now. I find that they actually prefer a home-cooked meal, regardless of how humble your apartment is, to restaurant dining. Unlike in Manhattan, where many people have a fear of either cooking or letting people see where they live.
  • Restaurant hours are somewhat limited. They’re open for lunch for two-and-a-half hours, then closed, then open for dinner at 7:30 until 11 or so. Some French friends visiting New York marveled at restaurants in Manhattan remaining open for much of the day. But dining times are proscribed in France, so you adjust.
  • People are paid to eat. Restaurants are often crowded at lunchtime in business areas, not because the French love to dine out so much – though many do – but because their meals are subsidized. Many people receive lunch coupons from their employers, with which the employees pay for lunch, either at a café or at supermarkets that offer prepared food.
  • Very few people demand substitutions. None of that American pickiness here. If it’s not on the menu as stated on the menu, you’re probably not going to get a variation. More restaurants do serve salad dressing on the side, but you’re not going to see patrons holding a restaurant hostage to their whimsical dietary demands. Three weeks after I’d arrived in Paris, an acquaintance from New York was in town, and asked me to meet him at a restaurant in the 20th arrondissement that he wanted to try (he invited me, so he paid). On being seated at our table, he said to me, “I’m now a vegan, so you have to let the restaurant know.” I did my best with my then-limited French (and I had yet to learn that marvelous French word for vegan, “végétalien”). The owner, giving me a roll of the eyes, complied, but only so far. At the entree, which was pretty much potatoes and broccoli for the végétalien, he said, “Je suis désolé, monsieur, mais on n’est pas un restaurant végétarien.” We’re not a vegetarian restaurant, so don’t expect more than this. At that moment, and with this person, I saw his point.
  • No doggy bags. You’re expected to finish eating what you’ve ordered. Most people are starving by dinner anyway, since the French tend not to eat between meals. I’d often notice a man or woman headed home at the end of the workday, gnawing the heel end of the baguette they’d just bought to go with dinner, ravenous after an afternoon of dietary restraint.
  • Once you’re there, you’re there. They may want to turn the tables over, as in New York restaurants, but they’re not going to hover around you or ask you to leave. So even though you’re expected to make up your mind quickly about what you want to eat, once you’ve been served, you can linger over your meal. Unless it’s chicken tartare.

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