Greeting dear readers and friends! Here we are… vacation time! The beaches are filling up, and honestly, it’s difficult to get any work done around here. I’m not officially “on holiday” yet, but seeing all the tourists coming and going, spending our weekends by the sea, and having a few “extended” apéro hours in the evening, has definitely put us in vacation mode.
And I imagine that there are many of you planning trips to Provence, or France, this summer… or perhaps you have it on your wish-list for summers to come.
Whatever your travel plans might be, I thought it would be nice to share a few tips for ordering in French restaurants. Truth be told, I was so intimidated on my first trip to France way back in 2005 (plus I didn’t speak any French) that I stuck to restaurants that were “flagged” as friendly to English-speakers in my guidebook. And crêpes, I ate a lot of crêpes on the go.
Here are a few of our tips for ordering in France:
-You don’t have to be as formal as you think.
The French can come off as a bit reserved, especially when we think of the common stereotypes we’ve heard about the culture, but actually, this is not quite the case. They might be a bit private in their personal lives, but when it comes to dining and eating out, they like to live it up as much as the rest of us. All this to say, you don’t need to be super formal when ordering in a French restaurant.
I started my French restaurant experiences by practicing over and over again, “Je voudrais (I would like) un steak” “Je voudrais un verre du vin” “Je voudrais une crème brulee”. Je voudrais this and je voudrais that basically just made me so anxious about even going to the restaurant. What if they asked a follow-up question? How to respond politely? What was next? What if I didn’t understand what was on the menu or worse still, ordered the wrong thing? Maybe they wouldn’t understand me at all or downright laugh at my pronunciation.
Since I had to eat at some point, I went ahead with my “Je voudrais…” and no one laughed or gave my pronunciation a second thought. I responded to questions, mostly mumbled through them, and no one was the wiser.
The longer I’ve lived in France, the more I’ve learned that is the most important thing is to make yourself understood – whatever form that might take.
-Stick with what makes you feel comfortable.
Keeping that in mind, I’ve found that sticking with what you feel comfortable with saying, in French, is the best way to order in a restaurant.
For example, I prefer to say, “Je prends… le steak s’il vous plaît“. I’ll take the steak please. It’s easier for me to pronounce and feels natural to me.
I have a friend who says, “Pour moi… le steak s’il vous plaît”. For me, the steak please. Which, when you think about it, is pretty ingenious. Pour moi is very easy to pronounce and very easy to understand.
You can also, simply say, “Le steak, s’il vous plaît”. I often do this myself and it makes ordering such a breeze.
And you can do this for everything you’d like to order. Le steak s’il vous plaît. Aussi (also) un gratin dauphinois, et (and) une crème brûlée s’il vous plaît”.
If you feel comfortable with je voudrais, of course that is a great expression to use as well. And why not try out a few different ways of ordering? If you’re lucky, you’ll have a lot of meals out in France!
Important to remember! When ordering a steak, you can order your steak bleu/saignant (very rare), rosé (rare) à point (medium rare), or bien cuit (well done). In France, they tend to go a bit lighter on the cooking, so if you are hoping for an “American” medium rare, you might consider asking for a steak bien cuite.
–There’s no shame in pointing.
Don’t be afraid to point to what you’d like to eat on the menu. I still do it myself sometimes if I feel unsure about the pronunciation of a dish. It saves time, is clear to the server, and lets you learn the correct pronunciation as your waiter / waitress is sure to repeat your selection aloud.
Of course it’s great to practice ordering, and an essential skill to have in French, but if you get stuck on anything just know that ye ‘ole point & show method works just fine.
-La Formule is your friend.
Most restaurants in France offer a “formule” which usually gives you a set number of dishes you can pick from at a discounted price. This is an example of a typical formule du midi, lunchtime menu:
*Sample* Formule du midi
Entrée du Jour + Plat du Jour
Plat du Jour + Dessert du Jour
Entrée du Jour + Plat du Jour + Dessert du Jour
Basically, you have the starter of the day plus the main dish and / or the dessert. Sometimes you’ll have several options to choose from, or, like the above formule, only one option for each course will be presented. Formules usually represent good value for your money – that is if you like the options that are presented.
Also, this is a fairly “cheap” formule as one of our favorite restaurants, L’Esperance in Bandol, has formules starting at €32… but if you tasted the food, you’d understand what a real bargain this is!
-Pop out your guidebook as needed.
Guidebooks are usually an excellent source for terms to use when ordering food. Do you want to ask how a meat is served – with sauce or without sauce? Maybe you’re a vegetarian – Pas de viande, s’il vous plaît, je suis végétarienne. Or allergic to gluten – je suis allergique au gluten.
Don’t be afraid to pop your guidebook on the table whenever you need a phrase to help with ordering. Likely your server will appreciate knowing what you need and glad he / she didn’t serve you the wrong dish.
*A word on food allergies
I fall into the allergic to gluten category, and even though it does raise some eyebrows when I order a hamburger (yes, I still love my American patties!) sans pain (without bread), the French are becoming more and more sensitive to food intolerances or special requests. There is even a restaurant in our town that specializes in mainly gluten-free dishes and desserts. Just make sure to tell your server up front about your request. I once made the mistake of assuming my daube (beef stew) would come with polenta and forgot that it’s also often served with pasta. The restaurant owner felt so bad he was literally beside himself and I spent the better part of the meal apologizing for my mistake.
Also, be aware that some restaurants are unable to make accommodations / changes to their dishes because they’ve been prepared in advance. For example, a vegetable dish might have been prepared with a chicken stock, a gratin dauphinois is inherently going to have cheese, and the sauce covering a coq au vin contains gluten. Normally, there are enough choices on the menu to work around these issues, but just know that not all restaurants can accommodate every request.
Finally, here is a list of helpful phrases you can use when ordering… bon voyage et bon appétit!
Helpful phrases for ordering in a restaurant (via http://www.leaflanguages.org)
Nous sommes … (number). : There are (number) of us.
Une grande table, s’il vous plaît. Nous sommes dix.
A big table, please. There are ten of us.
Je voudrais … / J’aimerais … : I would like …
Je voudrais une salade niçoise, s’il vous plaît.
I would like a Salade Niçoise, please.
Je vais prendre … / Je prends … : I’ll have …
Je vais prendre les moules frites.
I’ll have the mussels and french fries.
Je suis allergique à … : I am allergic to …
Je suis allergique aux cacahuètes.
I am allergic to peanuts.
Je suis diabétique. : I am diabetic.
Je ne mange pas de viande; je suis végétarienne.
I don’t eat meat; I’m a vegetarian.
Je suis végétalien(ne). : I am a vegan.
Je ne mange pas de fromage; je suis végétalien.
I don’t eat cheese; I’m a vegan.
Je ne mange pas de … : I don’t eat …
Je ne mange pas de champignons.
I don’t eat mushrooms.
Santé! : Cheers!
Tchin-tchin! : Cheers!
L’addition, s’il vous plaît. : The check, please.