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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

France - The Rules of the Restaurant

Caille en Sarcophage (Quail in Puff Pastry She... (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Liz Olkowicz

No holiday walking in France would be complete without sampling various forms of the regional cuisine. The good news is that there's no need to worry too much about restaurant etiquette, though a little basic awareness might help you avoid feeling awkward!
Restaurants and restaurants
In many English speaking countries, restaurant etiquette is relatively informal just about everywhere, apart perhaps from the very top-end establishments. When on a holiday walking in France, you may be pleasantly reassured to know that the vast majority of restaurants will also be relaxed and relatively informal. Of course, there will be haute cuisine establishments that bring with them certain formal conventions, but these are a relative minority. Dining is typically a relaxed affair, whether breakfast, dinner or lunch.
Yet there are a few things worth knowing!

Many foreign visitors (and some French people also) get confused about cutlery. That's because some restaurants will expect you to keep your starter cutlery and re-use it for the main course, whereas others will expect to remove it and replace it with a fresh set. This might cause you some confusion, as to whether to place your cutlery on your empty plate or not! This isn't, contrary to what you might expect, related to the quality of the establishment either - the custom just seems to vary between restaurants. Just try and casually look around to see what others are doing and follow their lead.
Restaurant staff will typically be very aware of what you're doing and will take their lead from that. So, if you're sitting there reading the menu, the chances are the waiters will leave you in peace. In other words, if you ever want to place an order rather than just be ignored, close your menu and place it on the table. And if you need help with translation - just ask! Dinner time is no time to be shy.
Apart from breakfast, meals are usually relatively leisurely affairs - at least outside of the major cities. Asking restaurants to serve you quickly because you're in a hurry may be greeted with looks of incomprehension. Try to allow plenty of time for eating, something that might be reasonably easy when you're walking in France on a guided tour, as the tour leader will build in plenty of time to have a good lunch.
Dress codes
Apart from the most up-market restaurants, most dining is now entirely casual. If you're on holiday walking in France, you may not want to pack too many formal clothes. For dinner, as opposed to lunch, people typically make some effort to look tidily smart but remaining casual.
Until 10-20 years ago, vegetarianism was seen as an aberration rather than a lifestyle choice and many restaurants made no effort whatsoever to cater for it. Today, things are changing but it might still be sensible to check ahead as to menus. For example, many restaurants may offer omelettes at lunchtime but not on their evening menu - though salads are usually plentiful and beautifully done.
The vast majority of French people drink very moderately at meals. Alcohol might be only rarely consumed at lunch and in the evenings, wine and water are usually drunk side-by-side, with the former being perhaps only a glass or two. It's customary, though not obligatory, to start an evening meal with some aperitifs and if you're feeling indulgent, perhaps a "digestif" to finish. Drinking yourself senseless in a restaurant is viewed with contempt by most local people, and is considered a sign of excess and lack of self-control.
Many restaurants operate a "service compris" tariff meaning you're under no obligation to tip at all. Whether they do or they do not, if you have been happy with the food and service, a gratuity of around 10% is relatively commonplace - or just your odd change from the bill if it's a casual lunch.
Liz Olkowicz is the Business Development Manager for Footprint Holidays, a tour operator, based in Surrey, offering self-guided walking in France holidays. Explore the countryside, beautiful coastlines and charming villages when you go walking in France with Footprint Holidays.

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