It’s impossible to talk about France without mentioning its worldwide-renowned cuisine. From the North the South, and everywhere in between, the French are proud of their regional specialties and delicacies. Food is no joke! France holds on to its latin habits as far as meals are concerned. We don’t eat much in the morning and tend to dine late at night.
What and when
France holds on to its latin habits as far as meals are concerned. We don’t eat much in the morning and tend to dine late at night.
The typical French petit-déjeuner (breakfast) consists of a hot beverage (coffee or tea — kids have hot chocolate) with a couple of tartines (slices of baguette smeared with butter and jam or honey). For the vitamins, a glass of orange juice can be added to the mix. Croissants and other types of viennoiseries (pains au chocolat, brioches…) are often had on weekend mornings.
Served in the restaurants from noon to 2 pm, the déjeuner (lunch) can be anything from the popular jambon-beurre (ham & butter sandwich in baguette bread — 3 million jambon-beurre are sold every day in France) to a sophisticated four-course meal. For most people, it consists of a light starter followed by a hot dish accompanied by a glass of wine. Careful though: Sunday lunches with the family usually last for several hours and feature all the courses one can think of, from the apéritif to the digestif.
Travel tip: The apéritif is a deeply-rooted tradition. Preceding dinner, it can be either a small glass of rosé wine with salted peanuts or a two-hour long party with friends, cocktails, beer, smoked salmon and saucisson (dry sausage). The café terraces start filling up around 5.30 pm for what the French call the apéro. A true cultural immersion experience!
The dîner (dinner) usually starts around 8 pm, but it’s not unusual to sit down at the table at 9 or 10 pm, especially during the summer. The dîner tends to be lighter than the lunch but can easily degenerate into a three-hour party if you have friends over for example. The French can literally sit down from 7.30 pm (if you start early with an apéritif) until midnight, at the same table, for just one meal, talking, eating, and drinking. It sounds fun, and it is! But it does need some practice if you’re not used to it!
The amuse-bouches are always a good surprise! You just sat down, didn’t order anything, and yet the waiter already put some food on the table. Usually served in gastronomic restaurants, the amuse-bouches are complimentary bite-sized hors d’oeuvre that aim at offering a glimpse of the chef’s style.
The entrée is the starter. If you’re not very hungry, you can order just an entrée but it is considered most of the time to be only a starter. It is the first real course of the meal.
The plat (main course) is what you came for. Good restaurants usually offer a choice of four to eight different hot dishes, almost always including meat or fish. It is more common nowadays to find vegetarian or vegan options but it’s not automatic.
If you still have some room before dessert, you may ask to have a peek at the plateau de fromages. You will then be presented with the restaurant’s cheese platter, which will inevitably feature best-sellers like camembert or blue cheese but also some of the locally produced cheeses. The waiter will present each and every one of the cheeses on the plate (pay attention, it usually is a lot to take in!) and ask which ones you will have (usually between 2 and 4 pieces).
Time for sweets! The déssert (dessert) is the last course of the meal. Options will usually revolve around chocolate and creamy desserts, and fruity, lighter alternatives. Note that some time-demanding preparations need to be ordered early.
A basket of fresh bread is served systematically as soon as you place your order. If you run out during the meal, just ask the waiter and he’ll bring some more. During some busy lunch hours, the waiter, running around frantically, might forget to provide you with bread. Don’t be shy, ask for it, he won’t mind, and don’t be shy to ask for more if you run out. Mopping up the sauce on your plate with some fresh bread is considered a constitutional right!
Regarding water, you will probably be asked if you want a carafe d’eau or a bouteille. The carafe is a jug of tap water, and it is free. The bouteille is bottled mineral water and you will pay for it. If you go with the bouteille, you’ll be asked if you want plate (still) or gazeuse (sparkling).
Travel tip: The French drinking water system is 100% safe and thoroughly monitored. Drinking water from the tap will never cause any problem. In the rare occasions where a source of water is not drinkable (some fountains on city squares, for example), a clear sign will state it.
Travel tip: Watch out for false friends! In French, la carte is the menu, the written list of what you can order from starters to desserts. In la carte, you’ll usually have 2 sections: Les menus and À la carte. Stick with me, this is where it gets tricky. Les menus are two or three-course meals at a fixed price. Restaurants will usually have a lunch menu and an assortment of dinner menus. Les menus are the best value for the money, but if you don’t like what’s included, you can jump to the À la carte section, which is the list of all the dishes the chef will be glad to cook for you.
Boy, that main dish was way more generous than you expected and you can’t manage to finish your plate? Feel free to ask for a doggy bag. Since 2016, French restaurants are bound to provide doggy bags if asked to. When coming for your plate, just inform the waiter that what’s left will be À emporter (for takeout)!