10 Common Ordering Mistakes People Make in Paris

steak, "Tuscan-style"

The other night I was sitting at Le Garde Robe, minding my own business, trying to get down a glass of natural wine. Being seven o’clock, naturally, in addition to being thirsty, I was starving, too.

And the lack of food (and sulfides) must have started affecting my brain because I started thinking about how I often hear tales from visitors, such as when they told a Parisian waiter they didn’t eat meat and shortly afterward, were presented with a plate of lamb. Or they ordered a salad, that was supposed to come with the sandwich, and was actually just a single leaf of lettuce. Hoo-boy, and yes, I’ve made a few gaffes of my own, too: I once ordered a glass of Lillet (pronounced le lait, which isn’t well-known around Paris) and the perplexed café waiter brought me out a long, slender glass of le lait (milk), presented with great panache, on a silver dish with a nice doily. Of course, everyone was staring at the grown man who ordered a tall glass of milk. And I don’t think it was because of the starched doily.

Anyhow, I was scanning the chalkboard at Le Garde Robe, looking at the various charcuterie and cheese on offer, and noticed filet mignon, and thought, “A steak is a funny thing for a wine bar to serve, especially one that doesn’t serve hot food.” Until I remembered what it is in French. And if everyone wasn’t already staring at the idiot at the wine bar, nursing a stemmed glass of milk, I would’ve kicked myself for thinking that’s a big, juicy steak. Which it’s not, in France.

1. Mixing Up the Mignons

Mignon in French means “cute”. And to my pork-loving friends and readers, that can only mean one thing: pigs. French people think cows are attractive.

So much so, that they’ve even issued stamps with various cow breeds depicted on them. But in this case, a filet mignon is pork tenderloin, not the lean, thick-cut steak that you might be used to.

Which doesn’t explain why Le Garde Robe, which doesn’t have a kitchen, had filet mignon on the menu. Which means I have to go back to the wine bar. Oh well…all in the name of research. Of course.

2. Don’t Order an Apéritif in a Restaurant

Apparently, no one orders a kir anymore. (Update: Or maybe so?) A refreshing drink made with aligoté white wine and a dapple of cassis, before I found out I’m not supposed to drink them anymore (the memo must’ve blown off my porch, or something..) a kir makes a nice apéritif on a warm spring or summer evening—at a café. Because I was recently informed that they are no longer in fashion, I suppose it’d be best to cut them out entirely. (And yes, that means the sparkly kir royal, made with Champagne, too. Merde!)

Which brings me to ordering an apéro in a restaurant, which is something you very rarely see in Paris. Most people go to a nearby café for one, perhaps to sit on the terrace, before heading to a restaurant. So when the waiter asks, “Vous desirez un apéritif?”, you don’t have to feel obligated and say, “Bien sûr!”, especially since a round of four will set you back at least €25 ($36 at today’s exchange rate), and a round of kir royals is likely to set you back a whole lot more than that. And there’s likely a fairly good bottle of wine you could get for the same price. Like Sancerre. Sancerre rocks, and if I could only drink one wine for the rest of my life, it would be Sancerre.

3. Drink in only the sights on the Champs-Elysées

It boggles my mind when people come to Paris, and have a soda at a café on the Champs-Elysées, then go wild when they get the check. Image going to the most expensive hotel in New York City or Los Angeles and ordering a Coke. You’re standing on some of the most expensive real estate in the world on that street and you’re going to pay for that privilege if you choose to park your backside in one of those chairs.

If you want to sit there and enjoy the view, fine, order that €8 Coke, and suck it up. (Watch your belongings!) But I advise skipping a drink on that boulevard (and really, you should be drinking wine, like Sancerre, instead of soda in France anyways..), unless you’re really, really thirsty. In which case, hit the supermarket at the end of the street, number #52, to be precise, and grab a beverage there.

4. Stop Fishing for Scallops

I fell for this once, a long time ago in Switzerland, and ordered the escalopes, thinking I was going to be tucking in some fork-tender, round nuggets of under-the-sea goodness. Hardly. Instead, I was presented with a few thinly-pounded pieces of leathery veal. It wasn’t all that bad, in a chewy-meat kind of way, but I was definitely not getting misted with that dewy, salty spray of the sea.

In French, escalope refers to any kind of boneless meat or poultry (and fish, although rarely) that is thinly-sliced and usually pan-fried. If you want those sweet scallops, order the Coquilles Saint-Jacques, a moniker which has been commandeered by Americans as a dish with scallops served in their shell, with a bunch of other stuff mixed in to fluff it up a bit.

In France, though, the term just means the fresh scallops, sold in their shells, which can be prepared in a variety of ways. Just ask your friendly waiter. Without the shells, they’re called Saint-Jacques or sometimes noix de Saint-Jacques, even though they don’t have any noix (nuts) in them. Perhaps you have to go to a triperie, or a place that specializes in offal to find scallop nuts.

5. Ban the Butter, or Be Breton

I love French butter. Especially the amazing salted butter from Normandy and Brittany. But you’ll never find it served with bread, except in upscale restaurants, in Paris. Bread is meant to be an accompaniment to a meal, not a before-the-first-course course, grabbing for the rolls as soon as the bread basket hits the table. And the French don’t pick up a slice of bread and yank a wad off with their teeth. Bread is meant to be eaten by pulling off a mouth-sized piece, and placing it between your lips. Your teeth should not be showing in public when you eat bread. Which is why, as soon as I get in the elevator of my building alone with a fresh baguette, I rip my incisors into it like a savage beast.

Butter isn’t normally spread on bread except in three instances: 1) Salted butter goes on rye bread, eaten with oysters from Brittany or elsewhere, 2) At breakfast, bread is spread liberally with butter, because it’s from the day before and needs it, and 3) With sausage or cheese, especially bleu cheese. It’s good. Try it!

Waiters are semi-used to being asked for butter by my compatriots, so if you want it and they give you a snarl, tell them you’re from Brittany, a region filled with French people that aren’t as enamored with cheese as they are with butter. So just tell the waiter J’ai besoin d’amann, which is butter, in Breton. I don’t know how to say “I need…” in Breton, so anyone out there who speaks that mystical language is welcome to enlighten me.

6. Don’t Turn Off the Tap

People. The French Middle Ages are long-past. They haven’t sent anyone to the guillotine since 1977 (er…) and people don’t use rags to clean the streets anymore. (er….) and yes, the tap water in Paris is fine to drink. It truly is and live to tell you about it.

Just like there is a movement in other places to stop drinking water in plastic bottles, it’s time to cut down on this folly, which is a huge waste of money and resources. (Disclaimer: I buy water only for my espresso machine and for traveling. But to balance it out, I don’t always flush when I go #1, and sometimes resort to other water-saving measures.)

Even though by now you’ve probably lost your appetite, by law, in a restaurant in France, if you ask for tap water, they have to give it to you. Sometimes it takes a few times for it to sink in that you’re not buying water, and to get the free stuff, but don’t be bullied. And you know those waiters who you don’t want to think you’re a cheapskate order tap water when they go out to eat, too. (Just like those queens with the perfect stubble and 28″ waists at Gucci who sneer at you because you can’t afford that €385 shirt. I never feel bad because if they didn’t work there, they wouldn’t be wearing a €385 shirt either.)

Never feel intimidated into ordering a bottle of water, either just because you’re in Europe and you think you’re supposed to, or because you’re afraid of French water. Just say “Non” to bottled water, in any language.

iced rosé

7. Bring On the Rosé

For some unknown reason, some visitors think it’s very downscale to drink rosé. But much of the rosé in France is pretty good, especially in the summer. And in fact, rosé has overtaken white wine in France and I’m proud to say I’ve done my part to help tip those scales.

Unlike those sugary pink wines from, well, you-know-where, you will rarely come across a sweet rosé in Paris: few people here like drinking sweet wine. So you can order rosé with impunity and not feel like a cheapskate or a dolt. Heck, I even put an ice cube in mine. Just like they do in Marseille. And Parisians know better than to mess with les Marseillais.

But just in case, I included a picture of a carafe that was served to me in Marseilles last summer, which you’re welcome to print out and carry around with you, like I do in case anyone gives me a hard time about putting ice in mine.

salad at le nemrod

8. When is a salade Not a Salad?

I read on one of those travel bulletin board where everybody whines and complains (I’m always, like, “Dude, get a blog. It’s awesome!”), from a furious hotel guest in Paris who ordered a hamburger which the menu said came with salade, and…damn those cheese-eaters!…there was only one leaf of lettuce on his or her plate.

In French, the word salade on its own means lettuce, as in either a head of lettuce, or by-the-leaf. Usually a meal-sized salad is called something like salade Parisienne and can have all sorts of wonderful things on it. Like the salade œuf mollet, above, with bacon, crisp croûtons, and a warm poached egg from Le Nemrod, which I couldn’t resist showing you. (You don’t have to print it out if you go there. They know it already.)

If you want a green salad, ask for a salade verte, a simple “green” salad. Which goes ecologically well with that “green”-minded tap water you’ve ordered, I might add.

9. Hold the Veggies

Some veg head friends of mine came to Paris and went to a vegetarian restaurant up near Montmarte. The next day, they told me how stunned they were that there weren’t any vegetables on the menu. Yes, being a vegetarian can pose a challenge in Paris, although I’ve seen more and more vegetarian restaurants coming across the radar lately, and cafés and other casual places often feature vegetarian dishes, too.

However in regular restos, some non-meat eaters are surprised when they tell the waiter they don’t eat meat, then are presented with a salad…oops, I mean asalade, piled high with ham or bacon. France has an interesting way of categorizing things (and if you don’t believe me, let me tell you about my last appointment at city hall) and at a butcher shop, you’ll find beef and lamb, and sometimes pork. Chicken is at the volailler, although in butcher shops, too. But at a charcuterie, you’ll find pork products and fresh pork, but you won’t find fresh beef or lamb, and not chicken. And if you’re looking for horse to eat, you’ll have to go to a chevaline.

So if you say you don’t eat ‘meat’, that can be translated in a variety of ways. But just to be safe, I’ve memorized how to say that I don’t eat horse in every conceivable language. (Except in Breton. But I think I’m safe.)

Hey, where’s Number 10? Oops, I guess I just made a mistake, too. Okay, so I told you some of my foibles and mishaps in Paris restaurants and cafés. Got any of yours to share, or any to add to this list?

222 comments

  • wow! it has been difficult to find a spot to leave a comment! (guess i need to learn to read to the end of things….)

    just received your latest explaining why you live overseas. being a long-time expat (only hitting the US for university)–i can relate to your comments, especially about how few americans get the “view”. Living overseas gives you an outlook (and sometimes, a horrifying perspective) of how americans can “see and be seen”. Love your blog and your cookbooks, somehow my visits to paris never coincide with your walks or classes, but i will persevere.

    thanks for sharing.

    debra in doha (qatar)

  • I would love to try Sancerre. What is your favorite?

  • Denise: That the French are assumed to ‘hate Americans’ and would treat you accordingly (which you personally found to be untrue) is unlikely for one very important reason: a typical Parisian cannot identify an accent, so any Anglophone could be from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales OR the USA. Any bad attitude usually results from (a) as harried city dwellers, they are very busy or (b) any non-French person is unworthy of their time. In fact the French love Americans (not the “ugly” ones) & America, especially now.

    Nicole: For those who read your comment and might cringe at the thought of eating “fried foie gras” (sounds like it’s loaded with buttermilk coating & dripping with oil – a heart attack waiting to happen), I would like to offer a correction. “Foie gras poëlé” is sautéed, which is not quite the same as ‘fried’. If prepared correctly, the sautéeing is done on very high heat for approx 30 secs/side – so that it has a sweet crust with a creamy center. It is indeed heavenly and should not be missed.

    Nancy: The restaurant guests who could not get spoons were treated poorly – not because they didn’t speak French – but because they didn’t start off with “bonjour” (which you mentioned). Without officially “opening” the conversation to a French person (waiter, gendarme, salesperson), one is deemed invisible or rude.

    Maya: You asked about “plain black tea”. For the “plain” part, the word is “nature”, which means “in its natural state” or “without anything” (milk, sugar). The rest is simply “un thé noir”.

    Emily: That “escargot” pastry was so named because it was a swirl of pastry, similar to a snail’s shell. Just FYI.

    As for food-related gaffes, here goes:

    Many years ago, my husband saw “fraise de veau” on a menu, and, thinking it must have been a veal dish with strawberry sauce, decided to order it. In fact “fraise de veau” is veal tripe. Somehow he managed to eat it anyway.

    An American friend in Paris went to the hospital with severe pain. With a very limited knowledge of French, she pointed to her abdomen and said “rognons”. As the doctor was about to pump her stomach (for food poisoning), she somehow managed to explain that she had kidney problems instead. The word she should have used was “reins” for human kidneys. “Rognons” are from animals & are eaten by humans.

  • As a parisian, I just wanted to tell our american friends not to be so frightened about “gaffes” . Enjoy, feel free …! Want a coke with your dinner ? Order it ! After all, you’re paying for it, who cares ? Kirs are still a popular aperitif, you cant get it very easily;
    Rognons, andoullettes, cervelle ? All of this is called “tripes” and is quite tricky, I personnally don’t eat it and I’m not alone – Do not hesitate to ask for explanations when ordering : you are not supposed to know everything !
    As for bread, when I do go in a restaurant where they bring you a bread basket and some butter on the table at the beginning of a meal, well … I do eat it (and not in tiny polite bites)- Nobody’s ever looked at me in a strange way :-)
    My personnal ordering mistake took place in italy : I ordered Roasted porcini, thinking it was pork but mushrooms arrived on the table ! Of course, I said nothing and ate it .

  • I cant believe some of these comments. There is Karen complaining about the quality of McDonalds burgers in Paris. You are in the food capitol of the world. Expand your horizons. The comments about French waiters being rude is understandable, but it is why they are rude that is the point. Many americans that have either not bothered to learn a little french or feel embarrased to use it, skip the niceties of hello, please and thank you, and come across rude themselves. Imagine you are walking down a road. A car pulls up beside you and the driver starts speaking to you in French. You are most likely going to say ” sorry I dont speak your language”. If however, the same person tries a little English, with a hello or can you help me, you would immediately engage.
    In Paris the waiters do it as a career. A lot of people forget that. In England and America, waiting is what you do when you cant do anything else. But please having spent all that money to get there, stay out of starbucks and Mcdonalds.

  • Hi David. Very much enjoying your blog! I was wondering what people who do not drink alcohol do in Paris, if soft drinks etc are so frowned upon? I know that wine is a staple in France, but I am allergic to alcohol and sticking to water all the time would get very boring. Thanks!

  • No more Kir? That’s all we drank all day in Villefranche-sur-Mer with the locals.

  • Number 10 could be don’t handle the produce!

    On a recent trip i saw so many upset shop assistants – caused by shoppers handling the wares without asking.

    THE FRENCH DON’T LIKE IT.

  • David,
    I’m coming to Paris in August and have found your blog entries REALLY useful. Thanks!!

    But I have a question and haven’t seen it addressed anywhere. I’ve heard it’s uncommon to dine alone in Paris and that if you show up alone to a restaurant, you may not get seated. Is this true?

    Will I get better service if I find some dining companions??

    thanks

  • Louise: You’re right! I have a whole chapter on that in my Paris book. One of my friend’s had a guest pull a cake out of a bakery window and bring it to the cashier. Yikes!…

    Michael: Dining alone is much more common in Europe than in the states and since they’re not turning the tables so fast, it’s not usually an issue. Just be sure to reserve, so you get a nice welcome.

    My friend Alec Lobrano advises to order an aperitif before dinner, so it makes you look like a spender so they treat you more seriously. Of course, much depends on where you’re dining. But it’s generally ok..

  • I went to Paris in the late 1990′s. I was uneasy because I heard that the French, especially in Paris, could be rude. I read somewhere that if you preface any request or conversation, especially with a stranger, with the French phrase, “Excuse moi de vous derange”, “Please excuse me for bothering you”, it helps. (Sorry for the poor spelling) I found that to very much be the case. People I went up to who were frowning at me suddenly smiled and became very helpful even given my poor French. It made a great difference. I found everyone very kind and helpful.

    Another suggestion regarding food, especially if cost is an issue, is to order the plait de jour for lunch. I had some great meals for not too much money.

  • Too funny. When I was in France 10 years ago, I was a vegetarian. The best explaination/translation I could come up with for this was “I don’t care for meat,” as if I didn’t like the taste or something. My host family could understand disliking the taste of something, but not the concept of avoiding meat for personal preference. My very first meal in Paris was totally priceless – at the hotel, I had ordered the non-meat option for dinner in advance, and guess what it was? A huge plate of french fries. That was it. I didn’t care; I was starving and the fries were tasty, but I thought it was pretty funny at the time.

  • I don’t speak French, hailing of a more South African origin and speaking English, Afrikaans, Dutch and Zulu (very handy in London!).

    So my first trip to Paris at the age of 18 was somewhat daunting. I vividly recall my fellow diner leaving to use the facilities in a bistro and asking me to order the bill and a couple of coffees.

    No problems there, until the coffee arrived and no sugar. Sucre and sucer wouldn’t be easy to mix up you’d think but I managed, and in a flustered state promptly asked for a blowjob from the waiter.

    As did the waiter!

  • Just remember when you go to Alsace that the Salade de Fromage is not lettuce with a little bit of cheese but rather a simple heap of grated gruyere with about a ladle-full of vinaigrette!

  • Love your blog, David — just wish I would have known about it when we spent 2 weeks living in an apartment in the St Germain area in May 2007.

    Most nights we went to the market and cooked at home (much prefer that to dining out), but we were wandering about on our last night in Paris and were enthusiastically coerced into a sidewalk cafe (I’m assuming this is a common practice with unsuspecting tourists)and were too hungry to be more discriminating in our choice. I wanted to take this last opportunity to introduce our 10 year old son to a French delicacy — escargot.

    What a mistake! It was the worst I had ever had! So, lesson learned — just because you are in a famous section of Paris does not mean they know how to prepare food properly and certainly it was not the way to introduce someone to a unique culinary experience. Next time we will be doing our homework first!

  • Great advice, although I have to take issue with the alleged potability of Paris tap water. On my first trip to Paris as an impecunious student, I stayed with a French friend in his two-room appartement on the fifth floor. Having carefully read all the Don’t Drink The Water! advice, I was relieved to discover that Pierre stocked bottled water in his fridge, which I happily guzzled. Only to discover that he was actually refilling the bottles from the tap. Quelle horreur!

    I hoped I might get away with it. I didn’t. Which wouldn’t have been other than the usual annoyance, except that Pierre’s two rooms didn’t include a toilet. He shared one, one floor down, with three other flats. It was Turkish-style (i.e. a squat toilet). It was filthy. And oh yes, the door lock was broken.

    All of that was about as exciting as you can imagine. It was, however, an incredibly useful life experience: for many years after, if in a stressful situation, I would ask myself “Is this as bad as having diarrhoea in a filthy, unlocked Turkish toilet?” If no (and it was mostly no) I sailed on serenely.

  • My husband recently ordered some meat ‘viandes’ in a restaurant. He didn’t bother to read the rest of the description. He was very hungry as we had been walking all day.
    It was chilly too, so we sat on the terrace. Presently the waiter brought our orders and what we thought was a mini heater (chimnea) for our table. Only wasn’t. After munching his way through almost a plate of raw meat (yes, raw or bleu I should say) my husband realised the ‘chimnea’ was really a briquette, and he was supposed to grill the meat. He turned totally pale (we are normally vegetarian at home) and was convinced he would get food poisoning!! It took a while to reassure him – only after we had called up my daughter who baldly told him that the French like their meat that way did he calm down.
    But this experience taught us to read the menu more carefully in future, and ask if not sure of anything – never assume where food is concerned in France!

  • Ok, finally I feel vindicated. If you can ask for a lillet then I don’t feel like such a peasant. I made this mistake at Laurent (we were eating our way thru all the old establishments first) and when I asked for this, the entire wait staff ( at least a 10 people) came and stood in front of my table to ponder my request. Our parisian friends informed me this was a peasant style of drink.

    Needless to say, I was purple at this point and want to crawl under the table.

    Great site, love your posts.

  • THANK YOU for rule #6: too many of us buy water in plastic bottles when we travel. (ahem.) As such, and with respect, I feel compelled to add that a STERIPEN is all you need to eliminate fear of water while traveling, David. Saves money and the environment and is kinda cool and fun, to boot. I don’t leave home without it. (And I leave home a lot.) Simple genius, that thing.

    Now on terra firma from soapbox…

    David, thank you for enriching this chocophile’s Parisian adventures this summer with your chocolatier picks and for more generally enriching my foodie perspective.

  • I know I’m late to the party (just discovered this blog today and have spent hours reading because I love it so much), yet had to share this one. This is secondhand, but a British neighbor of mine in Paris told me that when she was studying in Toulouse as an undergraduate, she went to McDonalds with another male British friend. Forgetting the word for straw in French, he pulled an anglicisme (kinda) and asked the female for “une pipe”. I like to imagine that either hilarity or a good smacking ensued.

  • David, that’s quite a fair bit to remember .. oh boy!

  • Just wanted to add one item. You also butter bread when eating radishes. (Seriously.) Great blog subject, as an expat here there is no end to the number of things one must learn in order to dine without being stared at. Particularly when dining chez la famille. Love laughing with you—