As a tourist whose French is a little shaky, ordering your food and drink at a restaurant can be a stressful situation. Even if you don’t have a food allergy to complicate things, just knowing what everything means on the menu is a chore in and of itself — and don’t get me started on pronunciation.
Don’t make these mistakes when ordering at restaurants in France!
Here are my must-know French dining tips!
French dining tips
- Don’t ask for butter with bread. Bread is often served without butter and is used to soak up the sauce from your food or eaten with cheese — not with butter. Also, it’s totally fine to put the bread directly on the table cloth if there’s no room on your plate. Not all restaurants will give you a bread plate.
- If you see filet mignon on the menu, you’re going to get pork, not beef. I made this mistake once and played it cool like I knew the whole time I was ordering pork. But after, I warned everyone who came to visit that filet mignon was pork and not the tender cut of beef they’re used to at home. The pork was still very good but not what I was expecting.
- Check out the formules/menu because they’re usually more cost effective. In the U.S., prix fixe menus are often reserved for fancy restaurants, but in France, it’s really common to see set menu options even at casual restaurants. A menu, in French, is la carte, but the word menu in French is a set menu (sometimes called a formule in more casual places) that gives you a few options for the drink, appetizer, main dish and dessert (or a combo of the above) all for a set price. It’s usually cheaper than buying each part of your meal a la carte. Be sure to look through the menu for the set price options!
- A martini is not a martini. Well, probably not the one you’re expecting anyway that’s dry, clear in color and comes with an olive. In France, a martini is Martini & Rossi brand vermouth poured over ice and tastes sweet. It comes in rouge or blanc. If you want a traditional American-style martini, ask for a Martini sec. And even still, you may end up with something colorful with a fruit slice. Just go with it… 😉
- Want a Coke? Don’t say you want a Coke. In France, a bottle of Coca-Cola brand soda is a Coca. Pronounced more or less the same way you say it in English (equal stress on each syllable). But if you say you want Coke, it kind of sounds like what a French person would call cocaine. So remember, ask for a Coca. As a tourist in a restaurant setting though, the waiter will know what you’re asking for even if you do say Coke and is not going to hand you drugs. But still, it’s a Coca that you want to drink!
- If you want tap water, ask for une carafe d’eau. Otherwise, if you ask for some water you’ll get the expensive bottled stuff. At fancier tourist trap places, a simple bottle of Evian can run you upwards of 10 euros, so if you’re not picky about your water, a carafe will be just fine.
Finally, when you’re ready to leave, you’ll have to ask for the check. In most cases, the waiter won’t automatically bring it to your table. Remember that when dining in France, the French don’t tip the same way we do in the U.S., so don’t feel obligated to leave anything extra on the table for the waiter although it’s always at your discretion.
Above all, be sure to enjoy the experience!
CLICK HERE for more on dining out in France… restaurant tips to know before you go! >>
What would you add? Have you ever made a mistake when dining in France?
Great information! Merci beaucoup! 🙂
Paula H says
While traveling with friends, we saw a sign saying “saucisson Frankfurtese” and “Bifstek”….my mouth started watering at the thought of a good German sausage and my friends thought a steak sounded good. How surprising to be served a couple of hot dogs and hamburger steak! Lesson learned.
Ugh, Paula, what a letdown! It sounds so much better as a saucisson and bifstek!
All great tips!
Not sure where you live, but not a very well researched article.
I work and eat out all over France , “Formules” are very common particularly at lunch time in many restaurants,
Tipping is also common and TVA in restaurants is 10%. Mentioning that at many places the cutlery is used for the starter and main course would better information!
Hi Brian, thanks for weighing in with your opinion and taking the time to comment. I live in the Pays de la Loire region of France not far from Nantes and have eaten in all types of restaurants in many areas of France. I’m sorry you don’t think this is very well researched — I based it on my personal experiences dining in France and those of people I know (many of whom are French) and am just trying to provide some helpful info for those visiting France.
First, I think maybe you misunderstood the section I wrote on formules/menus. I am agreeing with you and said that prix fixe options are VERY common in France at both casual and fancy restaurants where there are a few options for each course and lumped together for one price. I said it’s often more expensive to order random items off the menu instead of opting for the formule. So I think we’re on the same page there. 😉
As for tipping, I wrote a more comprehensive piece on tipping (not just about tipping at restaurants) and in France the tip is included in the restaurant bill (service compris) at 15%. While you’re absolutely in your right to tip on top of that for great service, it’s certainly not the norm and at a casual place paying the exact bill is not considered rude at all (I verified this with several French people before replying here. You’re not French, right?). Also, I’m not sure what you mean about the cutlery? Of course French restaurants give you forks and knives for all courses. Never been to a restaurant that forced you to eat with your hands except an awesome Ethiopian place in Brussels. Maybe you can clarify that part for me?
Your article describes exactly my experiences, so right on!
I appreciate that you are trying to help tourists and I apologise if my piece appeared over critical.
Like you I get all over France, Nantes and Gien in the Loirette just last year, I live in the Aveyron but work from Clermont-Ferrand and have worked and eaten all over France from St Tropez to Calais, La Rochelle to Annecy and Lyon, in all sorts of places.
One of the things I’ve learned is not generalise about what the “French” do as there are 60 million of them and the cities and country are liker chalk and cheese!. There are always exceptions in every way of life and region.
I suspect your use of “casual places ” is the problem as a lot of “proper” restaurants, catering for the lunchtime trade have a Formule (s) on a board with a price, rare to see this for the evenings though and you are right they are great deals, near me they all do an aperitif, 3 courses, bottle of wine and coffee for around 13€.
The cutlery thing is very common, particularly at lunchtimes, you use the same knife and fork for the starter and the main course, if it is meat like a steak you might be given a sharper knife. You cleamn them with the bread!
Not sure what you mean about 15% service compris, TVA is 10% for most items, do you mean the price includes 15% extra for service, if so not seen this, but I rarely ask for bills.
I agree that tipping is not “compulsory” as in the US, but many people leave a few centimes extra on the table when paying for a coffee or put money in the saucer by the till, perhaps it’s becoming more common.
Oh and ask for coca you get coco-cola or Pepsi, seems to be a generic term.
Hi again! Well you live and learn! Never knew that service compris meant 15% tax included, just assumed it meant as opposed to the UK that you were not obliged to pay for the service. In in some London places they automatically add 10% to your bill unless you scrub it out.
We also tip at restaurant or pub but not as much as you. Usually, I let 2 or 3 € of “pourboire”. Just extra money for the staff