I visited Paris for the first time in 2003 for one week. I stayed with a lovely French family. They were warm, welcoming hosts who cooked dinner every night. Each day I returned to their home from long hours of sightseeing to wonderful meals: sardines one night, vegetables another, meat another, it was always something different. They casually flambéed fruit for dessert, and ended meals with a platter of various cheeses. Everyone ate at the table, and during dinner they talked about their plans to go scuba diving in Egypt or discussed politics. It was a wonderful cultural experience.
At the end of my week in Paris, I sobbed as I left from Gare du Nord, Paris’s central train station, to take the Eurostar to London. Even the security guards consoled me as I wept, telling me that I would be back. Looking back, it was probably the best week of my life and, Paris remains my favourite city.
On the other hand, Paris has a reputation. Tourists tend to complain that waiters are rude at restaurants and cafes, and Parisians are stuck up. This was not my experience, but I believe that such stories crop from cultural differences and misunderstandings. If you get bad service, believe it or not, it is possible that you were unintentionally rude first!
With restaurants named ‘Chez Jacques’ and ‘Chez Georges’, (Jacque’s place or George’s place) there is indeed a very personal connection between the restaurant staff and the restaurant. It is wise to keep this in mind when visiting restaurants in Paris. You are a guest at the restaurant, and customers are not always right, which is a concept many tourists — especially Americans — have a hard time understanding.
Before my second trip to Paris, I put some thought and research into why tourists can sometimes have bad experiences and how they can enjoy Parisian restaurants. Here are some tips that have helped me survive Paris with no problems.
1) You don’t need to speak French to enjoy Paris, but some words must be learned. In my experience, the single most important thing to do is say “bonjour” (before 6 pm) or “bonsoir” (after 6 pm) when you walk into a restaurant. Acknowledge staff and servers who greet you. Do this also at small stores. It is considered terribly rude not to greet your “hosts”. Definitely learn to say “merci” (thank you) and “s’il vous plaît” (please).
2) Try to make reservations in advance. If you are uneasy, hotels can do this for you. Reservations are especially important for dinner, and it is considered polite. On the brighter side, you are more likely to research a good restaurant early on.
3) Don’t be offended (or argue) if you walk into a restaurant with empty tables and they are unable to seat you for the night. They probably expect the arrival of dinner guests soon, and in Paris, once you are seated at a table, you cannot be rushed.
4) In general, it is wise to ask before you plop yourself down on a table. Don’t walk in and seat yourself, unless at a very informal café.
5) Tip/gratuity is included in the bill. If the service is outstanding, feel free to leave more, if you please.
6) Definitely try to learn some basic phrases in French outside of bonjour, s’il vous plaît and merci. This is a good rule no matter where you go in the world. You may not always find a carte (menu) in English, but it helps to ask, Avez-vous une carte en anglais? (Do you have a menu in English?). And if they don’t have a translated menu, chances are that someone will speak enough English to help you out.
7) Keep an eye open for “Menu Prix Fixe”, typically a 3-4 course menu at a fixed price. Substitutions may not be possible, but these are often good deals.
8 ) Paris is not inexpensive, and you will probably want to avoid unnecessary costs. Order “un pichet/une carafe d’eau” or “l’eau du robinet” (tap water) instead of expensive bottled water. It’s safe to drink the water in Paris. Coffee is pretty bad, and it is overpriced. Spend your money instead on things that are good in France, like wine and cheese, especially cheese!
9) Don’t ask for doggie bags — they don’t really have those in Paris. But this is rarely a problem because portions are pretty small.
10) Avoid wearing gym sneakers and especially shorts in Parisian restaurants, particularly at night. In fact, avoid wearing gym sneakers anywhere in Paris (other than at the gym).
11) Portions in France are smaller. With jetlag, you might find yourself hungry in the middle of the night. It is very difficult to find an open restaurant or delivery service in Paris at that hour. There might be some restaurants in tourist neighborhoods, but nothing too spectacular. Prepare by buying snacks at an épicerie (small, specialty grocery store) or something to take away. Keep them in your hotel room. You might also consider buying gifts to bring home at Le Grand Épicerie de Paris located at the ground floor of Le Bon Marche department store in Paris (38 rue de Sevres, ph: +33.01.44.39.81.00).
12) When dining with French people, you may notice a few differences. They put their bread directly on the table, not on the dinner plate. They don’t cut salad leaves with a fork and knife, but fold them gently and eat them. They leave their knife and fork in a criss-cross on their plates to indicate that they are done with their meal. Servers will not clear the plates until everyone at the table is finished.
13) For a comprehensive guide to eating out in Paris, invest in Clotilde’s Edible Adventures in Paris by Clotilde Dusolier and The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz, two of my favourite resources about food in Paris.
14) You can certainly find rude service in Paris — don’t hesitate to go to a different restaurant if you feel uncomfortable after walking into the first. The waiter at one of the first brasseries I ate at recommended that we generally avoid bars and restaurants in the Montmartre area because “they are overpriced, and the service is bad, and you will be treated like meat going through a grinder”.
15) Finally, Paris is not all about the food – it’s also the most beautiful city in the world. When I first visited Paris, I had no money and bought baguettes with ham and butter to-go, which I ate at the Jardin des Tuileries or while watching people ice skate outside the Hôtel de Ville. And I had the best time ever.
Parisian restaurant recommendations on the next page
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