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Paris: Eating and Drinking
How to Decipher a French Menu
When confronted with a menu in a restaurant in France, many people have no idea where to start. But it's really not that difficult if you take your time, consult your dictionary or crib sheet and enlist the help of your waiter! Here's a checklist of useful tips:
- Most restaurants are open from 11:30am or noon to 2 or 2:30pm for lunch, and from 7pm to 9:30 or 10pm for dinner. Many restaurants close between lunch and dinner.
- Don't jump to the conclusion that words you see on the menu mean the same thing in French as they do in English, and especially American English. The most obvious trap is the word "menu": in French the waiter hands you "la carte" for you to choose your dishes; "le menu" is a fixed-price meal of three or four courses, and usually the most inexpensive option when ordering a full meal. Another example: 'Entrées' are appetisers or starters, not main courses.
- Most restaurants give you the choice between the "menu du jour" or the "à la carte" menu. The latter allows you to make your own selection from the list of "entrées" (appetizers), "plats principaux" - main courses, frequently split into subcategories like "les viandes" (meat) and "les poissons" (fish) - followed by "les fromages" (cheese) and finally "desserts" (deserts).
Most of the time, there is also a "plat du jour" (daily special) that is usually available on either the "menu du jour" or "à la carte". This typically includes meat, vegetables and perhaps potatoes, all for one low price.
- Take your time while eating. French waiters will usually leave you plenty of time between courses, not because they are too lazy or busy, but rather because it's part of the French way of life and makes good digestive sense (it used to be 20 minutes, enough time for your stomach to tell you how full you really were).
A traditional French lunch (or dinner) includes:
- le plat principal
- le fromage
- le dessert
- le café
If you get invited to Sunday lunch by a "traditional" French family, you'll find that people may be invited for 1 pm and not leave the table until 4 or 5 pm, and the same approach carries through in their attitude to restaurant dining!
French Menu Crib Sheets
Here a couple of glossaries of French menu / culinary terms that you can consult and/or print out:
More gastronomic tips:
As you're not driving (probably) you may as well sample the local traditions! An apéritif of Kir (white wine with cassis) is popular, although in Southern France, Pastis (made with aniseed) is the the way to go. Other popular aperitifs are whisky, Martini or Porto (give me a dry sherry anytime, but then I was born in England). Champagne is served for special events as an aperitif or with dessert.
A salade verte (green salad) is often served between main course and cheese.
Le fromage (cheese) is a separate course in France. After all, they do have 365 varieties, although they're better at the softer types! A cheese plate includes at least 3 or 4 cheeses such as camembert, roquefort and brie.
Le dessert (dessert) is always offered, and frequently eaten! French desserts are relatively light compared to those of other western countries, such as a tart with fruits (tarte aux pommes, tarte aux fraises), and the portions are usually smaller.
Le café (coffee)
Usually a strong expresso that is served after dessert (thank God for the italian influence!). After coffee, why not enjoy a digestive such as Cognac or Armagnac?
Casual meal tip:
Don't bother looking at the wine list, just order the house wine, i.e. a 'pichet de vin' or 'vin du patron' - "rouge" (red) or "blanc" (white) - usually very cheap but good enough for everyday meals, sometimes surprisingly so.
If you order water, the waiter will usually bring bottled water, so if you if you just want tap water ask for "une carafe d'eau".
Small cafés or snack bars are a lot more casual than restaurants, brasseries and bistros, and typically serve fewer courses. Here it's common to simply order a sandwich such as a "croque-monsieur" (toasted ham and cheese) or "croque-madame" (the same sandwich, served with the addition of a fried egg "à cheval" or on top).
Here's a course in Café Basics from SlowTravel France for more details.