10 Common Ordering Mistakes People Make in Paris Restaurants

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. Fish (a little) 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 were ages ago. 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?

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  • Natalie Thiele
    January 24, 2010 7:24pm

    I fell for #4, too. I was dining alone in a cafe in Milan. When the escalopes came I was horrified. I hadn’t eaten meat since I was a teenager, 14 years before. The waiter was very nice, took it away and brought me something else. When I got the check, I noticed I didn’t have any money with me. Again they were very nice and let me go back to my hotel and get money. When I got back to my hotel room I found that I had had money in my purse the whole time. I did have the sense, however, to keep that fact to myself when I returned to the cafe and paid for my meal.

  • Owen Rubin
    January 24, 2010 7:26pm

    I think just to be safe, on my next visit to Paris, I will print out this entire post and just carry it with me. Always good to have picture to point to when one’s French tends to come out more as Spanish. And, to quote Steve Martin, its like you guys have a different word for everything!

    Great post David.

  • January 24, 2010 11:25pm

    Never been to Paris and I don’t even try to speak French anymore, but this was a fascinating post. And also great to know someone else who doesn’t always flush. :)

  • January 25, 2010 5:02am

    Such wise and true words David!!! I am living in Paris for 5 months now and will heed your advice! I might add one more: Don’t ever ask the waiter (in a seemingly harmless, friendly way which is not well understood in France) ‘What do you recommend?’ (when faced with the option of so many delicious dishes, like I would often do in NYC). They will simply look at you as though you are insane. ‘Everything is good here’, (otherwise it would not be on the menu !?). I learned this lesson first in Corsica, and again in Paris.

  • January 25, 2010 5:03am

    Such wise and true words David!!! I am living in Paris for 5 months now and will heed your advice! I might add one more: Don’t ever ask the waiter (in a seemingly harmless, friendly way which is not well understood in France) ‘What do you recommend?’ (when faced with the option of so many delicious dishes, like I would often do in NYC). They will simply look at you as though you are insane. ‘Everything is good here’, (otherwise it would not be on the menu !?). I learned this lesson first in Corsica, and again in Paris.

  • January 25, 2010 7:04am

    I love this post but I have to say, I’m still going to order my Kirs even if they are out of fashion. And I don’t wear Guccis, Puccis, or Chanel either! Voila. Cynthia in the French Alps

  • January 25, 2010 7:04am

    I love this post but I have to say, I’m still going to order my Kirs even if they are out of fashion. And I don’t wear Guccis, Puccis, or Chanel either! Voila. Cynthia in the French Alps

  • Kim B.
    January 25, 2010 9:07am

    p.s. — I also made the scallop/escalope mistake, years ago in Venice. However, I’m embarrassed to say I responded very badly to being brought the escalope . . . I was old enough to know better, and I’m still ashamed. Hopefully you will save someone else the embarrassment with your having thought to include that here in your advice.

  • Dick Kahane
    January 25, 2010 12:04pm

    If you feel diffident about asking for l’eau du robinet, you can always request Château de la Pompe 2010. That will bring the same tap water, and probably a smile, as well.

  • NickMontreal
    January 25, 2010 1:14pm

    I agree 100% with you that Sancerre is a superstar of a wine. My absolute favorite. If there’s a single wine pairing better than a super sharp glass of grassy Sancerre with a big plate of fruits de mer, I sure haven’t found it yet.

    (If you haven’t tried Vincent Pinard’s Sancerres yet you absolutely must)

  • NickMontreal
    January 25, 2010 1:21pm

    Oh and regarding kir being out of fashion. People can say what they like, but I consider it the Chanel gown of les apéros. It will always be in fashion.

    It’s also lovely in a glass of fruity red wine too you know. I believe when one does that it’s called a Cardinal.

  • winegeek
    January 25, 2010 2:30pm

    My number 10 would be something to the effect of, “At least try to speak French, and don’t forget to laugh when you make a serious grammatical error.”

    I must share a somewhat unrelated cringe-worthy moment I had many years ago in the small town of Oloron Ste. Marie. My junior high school French was nowhere adequate for the type of questions I wanted to ask a winemaker and his wife at a local wine fair. A little tipsy, I decided I needed to know if the wine was barrel aged and if what I was sensing was due to how long the barrels were “toasted.”

    Since I couldn’t recall the word for “toast” at that moment, I used what I thought was the word for “fire.” But, instead of saying “How long do you fire the barrels?” I asked him, “How long do you F**K the barrels!”

    His jaw dropped. His wife blushed. I nearly shat in my pants. My non-French-speaking spouse knew something was very, very wrong especially when we all burst into laughter, tears streaming down our faces!

    Good times!

  • January 25, 2010 5:29pm

    I drink tap water all over Europe (as opposed to here in the US!). If you keep refilling the same bottle, you don’t have to waste any plastic. Now I feel really guilty when I travel to a place and buy plastic bottle after bottle. Recently I went to Turkey and didn’t want to risk it. My carbon footprint is still in the doghouse over that.

  • Flora
    January 25, 2010 5:55pm

    Oui, oui, oui! Sancerre rocks!

  • January 25, 2010 7:17pm

    Oh boy — ordering a coffee, espresso or any other caffeine drink is a challenge for non-natives! This should certainly be your #10.

    Un café is essentially a large shot of espresso
    Un café noisette is the aforementioned with a dash of cream
    If you are longing for a bland watery American coffee, order un café Americain
    Un café crème – strong coffee served with a pot of hot cream
    If you order a café au lait, and they can tell you are foreign — you will likely get a monstrous bowl of hot milk with a shot of coffee mixed in.

    “Avec du sucre” – with sugar
    “Sans sucre” – without sguar

    There are many other ways to order your coffee, but alas, I am not an expert.

    The darned thing about French waiters is that they make assumptions for you if you are perceived to be a foreigner. They assume you want the American equivalent and not the real deal. Ask the locals how to order and practice some great French body language — like the indifferent head toss coupled with the “pfff” lip trill. You’ll be all set!

    And above all … drink the tap! Ask for “une carafe d’eau” –the unmistakable order for a carafe of tap water.

  • statgrrl
    January 25, 2010 7:22pm

    The last time I was in Paris, I wandered into a sidewalk cafe on my last afternoon in town, to order some hot chocolate. I said “Je voudrais du chocolat, s’il vous plait”, thinking that meant “I’d like some hot chocolate please”. Unfortunately the waiter heard “deux chocolats”, which means “two hot chocolates”, and brought me a huge pot of chocolate, which was actually big enough for at least 3 people to share, and cost about $20. The hot chocolate was so amazingly rich and creamy, and I was so embarrassed at my foible, that I drank the whole thing. It was wonderful at the time, but I paid for it later when I had some, er, intestinal difficulties the next morning on the plane to Istanbul. Now I will always always order “UN chocolat”.

  • January 25, 2010 10:58pm

    Hello David, When I ate in an authentic French restaurant in Paris as part of a tour, several of the ladies at my table drank Kir all through the meal! I had the Kir as an apero, white wine with my escargo and red wine with the duck (I have no idea what we had for desert!) My mother drank very little.

    On Mother’s second trip, sans tour, she finally gave up trying to get a ‘decent’ cup of coffee (too many ‘cafe American’s were made with instant coffee.) I drink tea; wonderful. She did find good coffee at McDonald’s and Starbucks.

    About McDonald’s; the WORST sandwich in Paris is their Big n Tasty. The French version is greasy and gooey. (It’s good in the US.) After Mom and I each ate one, I looked longingly (?) at a baguette sandwich in a window and knew it was the better choice.

    So number 10 is eating American food. no, no, no.

  • Germaine Vogel
    January 26, 2010 2:35am

    lol. Love it. I think one other thing to add is for female travelers to France. I learned this one the hard way. I was traveling with another friend, but we were only 17. We made friends with a couple of locals our age, and we were chatting at a cafe. One of the boys playfully grabbed my arm, to which I responded “Leche moi!” (“Lick me!”) oops. The whole restaurant looked at me, and the French teenagers found this hilarious. Of course, I had just mispronounced the very similar “Lache-moi” (Let go of me!). Similar, yet different. hmmm. Remember, ladies. LACHE-moi.

  • January 26, 2010 7:26am

    Hilarious!!! David you made my day.I really love your WTFand humor-infused posts. As a Frenchie who spent a few years in the US, it’s a real delight to get to read you. Please keep up the good work!! (and yes Sancerre is a délice!! mmmmm Too bad it is not praised as it should).

  • Kellye
    January 26, 2010 9:16am

    Oh! I have one. I moved to Paris about 10yrs ago. On the day of my arrival, I and a bunch of other exchange students, visited the nearest cafe and ordered a few beers. I asked the barman, in my best French (not saying much at the time!), for “une glace” for my beer. He looked at me a bit sideways and disappeared. A few minutes later he reappeared with a bowl of ice cream! I was too embarrassed to say anything.

  • Caitlin
    January 27, 2010 12:32pm

    I have loved everyone’s comments almost as much as the post. Though this does make me a little anxious since I am vegan and will be going to France within the next year or so. However, I have no problem with the thought of living off hot, fresh baguette and good wine.

  • January 27, 2010 4:49pm

    I too love me some Sancerre. When I was in Paris a few years ago, I was traveling with a friend who liked a little nap around 4 pm. My version of the nap was heading to the little cafe near our apartment, getting a small carafe (or two) of Sancerre and watching the people go by. And I ordered a bottle of beautiful Rose at a really funny charming restaurant in the Maraise. It was the dead of winter and the people at the table next to me, very kindly, tried to explain that it was really a summer wine. I explained to them that it was my first time in Paris and I certainly wasn’t going to allow my wine palate to be limited by the seasons. They were delighted and we had a lovely toast!

    P.S. In almost every place we ate, the wine was far more reasonably priced than the soda was and it was far, far, far more reasonably priced than in NYC.

  • January 27, 2010 5:04pm

    Also, in the people at the table next to me category, at another restaurant I made what was explained to me by my neighbors as a terrible, terrible mistake. I asked the waiter what something on my plate was. It was a vegetable puree that was so sweet and delicious that I had to know just what was in it (turns out it was just perfectly cooked carrots). I told the waiter how delicious I thought it was. When he left our table, the Americans next to me felt compelled to tell me about my faux pas. Imagine my delight when the waiter returned a few minutes later with a whole bowl of those delicious veggies. I’m sure there are plenty of snobby waiters out there but I was blessed with a week full of great service by people who truly loved their food.

  • Kathryn
    January 27, 2010 10:21pm

    There are two ordering mistakes that stick out in my mind from when I lived in France last year. One is the restaurant in Strasbourg where I thought “jarret” was a traditional dish made with sauerkraut. (It was a pork knuckle served with sauerkraut—bad choice for someone who doesn’t eat pork.) The second was ordering my duck well-done. I love duck, but the time I tried to order duck in Bordeaux, the waiter was absolutely horrified that I wanted it well-done. I may be a tasteless American, but I wasn’t too keen on the idea of raw poultry. Duck can be cooked all the way through and be lovely. The duck I got in Bordeaux was burnt on the outside and bloody on the inside. I think I’ll stick to making duck at home or eating it in a Chinese restaurant.

  • CnSeattle
    January 28, 2010 12:24am

    Andouillette = good ol’ fashioned chittlins! Or chitterlings for you non-Southern Americans. Almost made that mistake until I checked my phrase book.

  • innaphog
    January 28, 2010 3:39am

    At the risk of horrifying all of you…I have asked for a doggy bag on more than one occasion. I’m in my 70’s and, like a lot of people my age, I can seldom finish all the food on my plate. It seems such a waste. The first time I asked for a doggy bag was probably one of the last places on earth one should do it–Michel Bras! I was served a huge cut of beef filet (about 4x4in). As it was served I noted to my waiter that I would never be able to eat all it. And I couldn’t….not even half. As it happened, we travel with our dog and we were staying at the restaurant’s beautiful hotel. I love this restaurant…I love my dog even more (he’s quite large, with a matching appetite). So I gathered my courage and discretely asked the waiter if he could put it in a bag for my dog. No problem! As we were leaving he handed me a chic-looking paper bag with my meat wrapped inside. It’s a classy restaurant. I’d just spent almost $500 dollars at their table. My dog was in heaven. And the waiter (who got a nice tip) treated it all as the most natural thing in the world (as he should).

    By the way, I do know that people consider this a faux-pas. But I’m not sure it really is. I’ve lived in France for 35 years and I kind of suspect the doggy-bag no-no may just be tourist lore. And I still drink a kir before dinner.

  • January 28, 2010 8:12am

    innaphog: I have two female friends in Paris, who get doggy bags, too. And one of them actually has a dog! When we’ve been out to dinner, they give her the whole plate, wrapped in foil; since she lives nearby, she can return it.

    Of course, both of them are nice-looking women. And with French waiters, I think that helps! ; )

  • hillaryn
    January 28, 2010 10:29am

    We go to Paris and all over France at least yearly. Often just my sister and I are the travelers. One area you missed is the where to sit in a cafe issue. We kept doing it wrong at first. If you just want a drink do not sit at a table that is set for a meal. Especially outside of Paris, lunch is not served after 2pm, so if you sit a a set table trying to get a drink (if you can find a place open at that time) you will be completely ignored. If you sit at a set table at mealtime and do not want to order a meal, you will likely be unceremoniously asked moved. If you see an open unset table at lunch, they will not serve you lunch no matter what you say, even if all the other tables are taken.

    We always order une carafe d’eau and for lunch usually un demi-pichet of whatever the house wine is. It’s always nice enough for the price. We have totally taken up the rose thing, too, especially in the south.

    Also, it is NOT rude to place your bread directly on the table between bites, even in someone’s home. Bread is used for getting that last drop of delicious sauce, and the French are not embarassed to do so. Once, in a creperie in Sens, with French friends, we watched a very well-dressed woman pick up her plate and lick the remains of the sauce from her dessert crepe!

  • January 28, 2010 11:45am

    When my Pakistani-Afghan father was 26 (early 70s) he went to Paris for an interview with a large international development organisation based in Washington DC. he had never left Pakistan before. he saw the menu -being surrounded by all the stuffed shirts and Big Whigs from the org he was interviewing with- and felt uneasy- he could not read French, but he obviously felt at home when he saw the word ‘steak’.

    He ordered the it- the lady sitting next to him said, are you SURE you want that? are you SURE you know what that is? He nodded, yes, yes, of course I know what it is. When it came, it was a steak tartare- he was aghast- probably wanted to vomit (yes, he said he almost vomited). But like a good Pakistani boy, whose dream was to get into this International organization (which he achieved), he ate every single piece of that raw meat.

    Enjoyed reading each and every single one of your foibles- I will always, no matter what, want that Normandy butter on my bread, before, with, and after dinner. Bien sur.

  • meg
    January 28, 2010 3:51pm

    Another instance of butter on bread is the sandwich jambon beurre. This was one of my favorite lunches when I lived in France. Who knew butter and ham were so fitting together?

  • January 28, 2010 5:04pm

    So much of what’s customary is regional! I live in the south of France, and in my town you NEVER leave any sort of tip. And because it’s often hot, a carafe of water appears on your table without you even needing to ask. People here would give you a funny look if you asked for a kir, but in Burgundy they’re likely to give you a funny look if you don’t ask for one. Lillet is a Bordelais drink, so in Bordeaux no one will blink an eye when you order it, although once in Burgundy I had a French woman tell me that Lillet must be American because she had never even heard of it. Don’t expect France to be the same all over, the regional influences are very strong, and what’s normal in Paris might not bear much relation to what’s considered normal elsewhere.

    I don’t have an ordering faux pas, but my husband sure does. When we first came here he had the habit, being from Atlanta, of ordering Coke with meals. Boy did he get over that in a hurry! It’s okay to order a Coke at 5:00 as an apéro, but don’t order it with a meal unless you really want to pop some eyes.

  • innaphog
    January 29, 2010 4:56am

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned here about the way we Americans like to eat with our hands–sandwiches, hamburgers, fried chicken, french fries. I don’t think the French like touching their food, although sandwiches and hamburgers seem to be touchable for a growing number. I do love gnawing on a chicken leg. Not pretty, I know, but so much more efficient.

    By the way, I don’t think the French are immune to coke. I see plenty of it on the tables here in Avignon. (And these are locals–not tourists.) And don’t even get me started on ketchup. It’s a standard condiment on many of the more casual restaurant tables. One of my French friends tells me that the French don’t order ketchup at a nice restaurant, but at home it’s de rigueur.

  • January 29, 2010 5:17am

    innaphog: I was once served a hamburger, which only came with the top part of the bun! I guess that was a less-than-subtle hint that it wasn’t meant to be picked up. And yes, in spite of everyone criticizing American’s who use ketchup (I’m not a fan, personally) there is plenty of it in France.

    Abra: I was surprised when I first started coming to Paris that few, if any, people knew what Lillet was, since it’s rather popular in San Francisco, which is 6000 miles away. I always tell people not to order Coke in Paris, unless they really, really want one. The only people here who can get away with ordering soda with a meal are people under the age of 12. Thankfully, I have a preference for wine, myself.

    hillaryn: It’s amusing to watch visitors scanning the table, looking for a bread plate to park their bread. Until they finally just try to balance it on the edge of their plates. I’ve had people ask me, “Can you ask for the waiter for some bread plates, please?” (I guess assuming it was an error they made when setting the table.)

  • January 29, 2010 5:45am

    Since my son goes to a school by the name Fénélon, I was prompted to investigate. Found this: “Apéritif originaire du Quercy, à base de vin de Cahors, d’eau de noix, de crème de cassis. L’on dit qu’il y a autant de recettes de Fénelon que de consommateurs…” Wow, sounds like they weren’t sure what to put in there. Now I’ll need to try it. Have you?

  • January 29, 2010 8:08am

    The whole French and finger food thing is really funny to me. I have hosted numerous French exchange students over the years and usually at the beginning they are at least semi-horrified at Americans eating with their fingers, but they warm up to it quickly, (except for corn-on-the-cob and the French view of it as something for animals only). I am afraid I am responsible for several French cheeseburger addictions and one serious bagel and cream cheese addiction (who gets asked to bring a suitcase full of bagels and a couple of bars of Philly to France?)

    I love Sundays in the Marais watching Parisians walk and eat falafel with the little plastic fork. (For my money L’As du Falafel is the best falafel outside of Israel). They are really quite adept, while I tend to use about a thousand napkins and still have sauce all over me. Must be like the scarf gene.

  • January 29, 2010 2:45pm

    I once asked for a jouie d’orange instead of a jus d’orange. I was completely mortified to learn that I had asked for an orgasm rather than a juice. Thankfully it was in Belgium and not France. The last time we were in Paris we had dinner with the host family I stayed with 10 years prior and everyone had a kir to start, so they can’t be too out of fashion.

  • January 30, 2010 10:09am

    Great piece. Distant relatives (a couple in their 50’s) told me a story about their first trip to Paris in the 80’s – and with a straight face. They went to La Serre, and asked the water to choose the wine that would go best with their meal. When he brought a very dry red, my unnamed relative took out a Sweet n Low to put in the wine because she thought it wasn’t sweet enough. Then, she claimed the waiter was so rude and beligerant to her. Wonder why?

  • January 30, 2010 10:29am

    Michelle: I had a friend asked for the jouie d boeuf at Chez Michel and the look on the waitresses face was priceless. It wasn’t on the menu that day, thankfully.

    annice: Omg! That is h-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s! I am going to have to retell that one. Merci!

  • Faraday Cage
    January 31, 2010 1:22pm

    Interesting note on apartment or dwellingspeak… In France, if you see a flat listed with a “cuisine américaine” or “American kitchen,” that means the kitchen is very tiny and may have only a hot plate or grill, perhaps not even an oven. Which is ironic since most kitchens in America are far larger than even normally sized French ones.

    Perhaps it is like the old saw where the French call a condom an “English overcoat,” and the English call the clap “the French disease.”

  • nick
    January 31, 2010 10:12pm

    Cant believe you all missed the joke/play on words with the restaurant name!! In medieval times a ‘garde robe’ was the LOO in a castle! (or at the very least a ‘closet’)

  • Kathleen
    February 1, 2010 3:25pm

    David, with respect to the milk debacle, people probably just assumed you were Dutch. Here in NL at every business lunch we are served a pitcher of milk and a pitcher of karnemelk (buttermilk), delicious and healthy!

  • February 2, 2010 4:52pm

    This was very informative to read! I won’t get into any of these situations easily though, as I’m used to head to the local supermarkets to see what’s available :)

  • Tina
    February 2, 2010 11:33pm

    I love, love, love you blog! I just started working for a company with offices in France and Belgium and if I ever get to go on a business trip there, I will be reading your blog and ALL the comments from beginning to end!

  • Phil
    February 4, 2010 1:23pm

    When I visited Paris last year, kir was on plenty of drink menus and the waiters were generally very pleased to serve them. I’d ignore the fashion police and enjoy your kir!

    Mojitos, otoh, are served across trendy bars from SF to NY to Miami, nothing particularly French about them… The bar near me serves them with pomegranate for an additional pink twist.

  • February 4, 2010 4:01pm

    Having lived in Paris for a couple of years, I have more than a few gaffes on which I can look back at and laugh (or cry). The one that stands out above all others was when I ordered andouillette sausage for dinner one night, expecting of course, something closely resembling an andouille sausage. I mean there’s tons of French blood in cajun country….I thought these must be practically the same thing! Right? Right? — WRONG.

    Andouillette is a sausage not just cased in intestines, but one that is stuffed with intestines, tripe, and all sorts of other internal unmentionables as well. A Brit I befriended while living there had the perfect name for it. He called it “Arse Sausage”, and that just about sums it up. When the waiter placed my andouillette in front of me, the smell alone made my eyes water, and trust me, I wasn’t crying tears of joy. Like a good soldier, I took a few bites just to say I had given it a fair shake. The flavor was so foul that it cannot be put into words. Beware the andouillette!

  • February 4, 2010 10:52pm

    Just like Oui, Chef, I also fell victim to the Andouillette Sausage. We were in Paris for a month and had taken a short trip down to Lyon, where I decided to give it a try. I barely managed to choke down two bites of it, and then decided I had better stick to the most fantastic gratin dauphinois I have ever tasted (and not just because it was being served with pig’s arse sausage). Three days later, when we returned to Paris & our laptop, I googled Andouillette, and immediately wanted to throw up or bleach my mouth and burn my toothbrush. Oh well, of all the time I have spent in France, this is really the only bad thing I have eaten. I’ll still try new things, and warn every person I know, “don’t eat the Andouillette!”

  • February 6, 2010 7:26am


    We love your site — and your latest book. This is a fun thread. (Another related interesting thread might be menu mistranslations — one of our favorites has been a salad with “slices of lawyers.”)

    Anyway, here’s another vote for kir vin blanc (sometimes we specify kir mure, for a change from cassis). But . . . we also like horse — very sweet, if prepared properly.

    Our biggest ordering mistake (there have been many) — which we experienced many years ago, and generally in the countryside — concerned our failure to apprehend the basic distinction between “la carte” (the written listing of what the establishment serves) and “le menu,” which is of course a multi-course offering — and oftentimes, in the countryside, it’s a set deal with *no* options. So, if you are asked if you want “le menu,” and you answer “oui,” you may have just ordered the three-course offering of the day! We did this only twice (and had much more than we wanted for lunch) before we learned our lesson.

    (We mention these and some similar points on our little web site, http://parisandbeyondinfrance.blogspot.com/2007/08/une-douzaine-restaurant-tips.html .)


  • February 6, 2010 9:17am

    Oui chef & Julia: I think it’s something you need to be French to enjoy. A friend was ripping into a plate of it, and I said, “How is it?” And he replied, “It tastes like sh*t.”

    Concerned, I said, “Do you want to return it?”

    Non” he said, “It’s supposed to taste like that.” When he offered me a bite, I politely declined. Although I have to say, I have had it very thinly sliced on a crêpe and it isn’t bad that way. But like Haggis, blood sausage, and derma, I don’t feel the need to have a big, steaming bowl of it.

    Jake Dear: Thanks for those tips!

    Faraday: I thought cuisine américain meant it had a very high counter, and was open to another room. Why the counter needs to be high, I don’t know. The ‘open kitchen’ is something that you see in a lot of American homes, but I didn’t realize it was an American concept until I moved to Paris.

  • Julie
    February 6, 2010 9:15pm

    This made me think of my dinner gaff with my host family 20 years ago when I was trying to tell them that I was full and couldn’t eat another bite. In my junior french I said “je suis pleinne” and the parents were aghast as I had announced “I’m pregnant” rather than full! ;-)

  • February 7, 2010 8:45am

    Re: “It tastes like sh*t” / “It’s supposed to taste like that.” That’s not a bad description, based on my three experiences with that dish over the past 11 years. (I’m on a once-every-five years schedule — after a while I forget how odd it is, and I try it again, just to see if I’ve developed an appreciation for it . . . .)

  • debra swingholm
    March 7, 2010 1:02pm

    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)

  • Ellen G
    March 7, 2010 4:44pm

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

  • Mara
    March 7, 2010 6:12pm

    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.

  • isabelle
    March 8, 2010 1:38pm

    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 .

  • eggnostriva
    March 10, 2010 8:38am

    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.

  • Katie
    March 13, 2010 5:50am

    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!

  • April 2, 2010 5:02pm

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

  • April 11, 2010 2:23am

    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.


  • Michael Donovan
    April 12, 2010 12:04pm

    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??


  • April 12, 2010 12:44pm

    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..

  • Joan K
    April 27, 2010 7:19am

    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.

  • Katie
    May 12, 2010 2:00pm

    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.

  • Niall
    June 8, 2010 10:48am

    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!

  • Ana
    June 8, 2010 3:20pm

    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!

  • Christy
    June 10, 2010 10:39pm

    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!

  • Gavrielle
    July 15, 2010 9:35pm

    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.

  • Deni
    September 6, 2010 2:15pm

    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!

  • michelle g
    October 28, 2010 6:08pm

    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.

  • Jessica Ferraro
    October 31, 2010 7:36am

    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.

  • Jujube
    October 31, 2010 8:30am

    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.

  • January 30, 2011 4:20am

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

  • Mallika Henry
    February 7, 2011 6:15pm

    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—