How to Eat Like a Local in France: 7 Tips for Restaurant Meals

Dispatches from the Road, Food & Wine, France, Studying Abroad — By on November 18, 2010 at 6:00 am

I spent the past weekend in Lyon eating hearty pork sausages, egg and bacon laden salade lyonnaise, creamy chocolat mousse, fluffy île flottant, and a few (uncertain) bites of liver cake. I walked across the city to a few museums just to work up my appetite for a dinner at a restaurant of Paul Bocuse, one of the most famous French chefs. Let’s face it – I was there to eat. Lyon, the capital of cuisine in France, seemed to be the perfect location for me to reflect on what I have learned about French cuisine and the art of enjoying it.

1. Take your time. Never rush a meal. A typical dinner at a restaurant lasts 2.5 to 3 hours, though you can stay longer if you like. Unlike America, slow service is a mark of quality and respect. Learn to slow down. Spend an afternoon relaxing in a café, linger over dessert and coffee at a restaurant, and make your dinner the event of the evening. At first, I had trouble adjusting to the slow pace of French life, but I have come to appreciate and enjoy it. Now, I would feel insulted if the staff tried to rush me out of the restaurant.

2. Take advantage of the menu. If you ask for the menu, you won’t get a list of dishes but a fixed-price meal. A menu is typically 3 courses off a set list of options: your choice of entrée (appetizer), your choice of plat (main dish), as well as a cheese course and/or a dessert. The menu is a great value if you are hungry, and restaurants typically offer 2-3 different menus that vary in price. Some restaurants have a formule of an entrée and plat or plat and dessert for a fixed price. If you want to order a single dish, ask for la carte. I prefer to do the menu, since I’m usually hungry and 3 courses for 10-15 euro is great value for my small budget.

3. Ask for une carafe d’eau for a free pitcher of tap water. Otherwise, you may unwittingly pay for mineral water. Water and wine are the most common drinks during meals, and I always ask for tap water – it tastes fine and it’s free. In addition, I’ll often ask for un verre de vin (glass of wine) off the carte de vins, or split a bottle between friends.

4. Watch out for these words if you aren’t interested in sampling animal organs or other adventurous dishes:
Foie: liver                                             Escargots: snails
Rognon: kidney                                  Steak tartare: raw spiced hamburger, served with raw egg on top
Cerveau: brain                                    Pâté or terrine: ground meat and fat, often liver, served in slices
Tablier de sapeur or tripe: tripe

If you’re not sure what something is, ask the server, or bring along a pocket dictionary to decipher the menu. I’ve sampled a few dishes with organs, and I liked tasting it but wouldn’t want a whole plate of it.

5. Specify how you would like your meat prepared. To American standards, the French undercook meat. Saignant (rare) is practically raw, à point (medium) would be rare, and bien cuit (well done) would be medium. If you like your meat cooked through, be sure to emphasize that to your server.

6. Try these traditional French dishes:
Boeuf bourguignon: beef stew cooked in red wine with vegetables
Coq au vin: marinated rooster slow cooked in red wine
Soupe à l’oignon: onion soup, topped with bread and cheese
Escalope normande: turkey or veal in a cream sauce
Saumon: salmon, typically served in a cream sauce
Moules avec frites: mussels served with French fries
Crème brûlée: rich creamy custard, caramelized on top
Fromage blanc: light cheese similar to plain yogurt – sweeten it with sugar or honey.
Île Flottante: floating mounds of meringue in a cream sauce

I love all of these dishes, and they can be found in any region. However, take advantage of regional specialties and don’t be afraid to try something new.

7. To ask for the check, ask for l’addition, or signal the waiter by writing on your hand like a notepad. The waiter will not bring you the check until you ask for it. No need to tip. If you’re out with friends, be sure to figure out who will pay for the meal upfront and who will owe money – checks are never separated.

Bon appétit!

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