Eating is my favorite thing to do in Paris. Mr. P and I usually have a first and second breakfast most days we’re there.
Here are my tips for eating out in Paris. It’s a long list but eating out in Paris isn’t hard. With the info below, you’ll feel a little more comfortable and look a teensy bit like a local!
Parisian food is more than just crepes and onion soup. Paris is an international city with a cutting edge food scene. You aren’t going to find crepes in every restaurant just like you won’t find a burger in every restaurant in the US. Paris also has fantastic ethnic food. But there’s nothing wrong with seeking out the classics. I love eating the classics and I don’t care if it’s blasé.
Eating at Cafes. The cafe culture is huge in Paris (it’s even nurtured by the government). A cafe is different than a restaurant. Cafes are where you will find the classics like steak frites, omelettes, and onion soup. Most cafes serve their entire menu all day, so any time you are feeling like tucking in for soup a l’oignon, go for it!
Carte = menu, Menu = pre fixe. The “carte” is what you would consider a menu. If you see “menu” listed and a series of dishes underneath, it means a set pre fixe menu. A menu can be a good deal so consider it!
Not all dishes will be awesome. I’ve had some mind-blowing soup a l’oignon and I’ve had some terrible ones. Just because a cafe has a classic dish on the menu doesn’t mean it will be amazing, even if it’s Paris. Think about it this way: hamburgers are a ubiquitous American food. How often have you had a mediocre hamburger or fries? The same goes is Paris.
Wine in all sizes, all the time. The French have a steady wine intake, so why not be a local? A glass with lunch or in the afternoon is very normal. On most cafe menus, you’ll see wines offered by the glass (“verre”), a small carafe, a small pitcher (“pichet”), or a bottle (“bouteille”). Wine is measured in centiliters or cL. A bottle of wine is 75cL.
You have to ask for water. They will not bring it by default. If you’d like some basic tap water to go with your meal, just ask for “un pichet de l’eau” or “une carafe de l’eau.”
Ordering. Say “je voudrais la/le . . .” and try to pronounce what you want and point to it. If you forget that, just say what you want, point to it, and say “s’il vous plaît” (please). Even if you butcher the French, attempt to pronounce it. The waiter will probably repeat it back to you in English, but your attempt will be appreciated.
The servers will leave you alone. Once the server takes and brings your order, you will be left alone. No one is going to come see you mid-chew and ask you if you like your meal. On the one hand, it can be difficult to get a waiter’s attention to ask for a refill on your wine. On the other hand, you are left to enjoy yourself and can park at a table, especially at a cafe, for as long as you like.
Don’t yell “garçon” at the waiter. It’s rude and you’ll look like a loud American who’s seen Pulp Fiction. When you need something, just make eye contact with the server, smile, maybe raise a hand, and say “s’il vous plaît.”
You have to ask for the check. See above. Just make eye contact with the server and say “l’addition s’il vous plaît.”
Make sure to have cash. Credit is widely accepted, but not everywhere. It’s not uncommon to see a cash-only cafe. Don’t expect market or street food vendors to have Square. Trust me, they don’t.
Now, you may be thinking: damn, those are a lot of rules. You don’t have to remember everything. But just like visiting any country with a different culture, it’s polite to attempt the social norms. Even though it’s chock full of tourists, Paris is no exception.
Anything I missed? Feel free to share your tips below!