Dining in France can be an oh so magical experience.
No matter which corner of the country you visit, you can rest assured you’ll get to taste something unique and absolutely delicious.
If you don’t believe me, I dare you to read all about France’s regional cuisines and tell me your mouth isn’t watering by the end. Go on, I’ll wait.
Now that we’ve agreed on the amazingness of French food, let’s move on. The fact is, food is such an important part of French culture that they’ve filled their language with common food idioms too fabulous to be missed.
For visitors, getting to the magic of French dining is often complicated when they don’t have all the right words at their disposal. It’s also a challenge if you don’t fully understand the uniquely French dining experience.
From finding the right spot to enjoying your pain perdu (French toast which is usually served for dessert) and paying the bill, this post covers everything you’ll need to make sure your French dining experience is exactly what you want it to be.
French for Foodies: Your Essential Guide to French Restaurant Vocabulary
Choosing the right place to eat is your first step.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be tough if you know what you want. You’ll just need to know what to look out for.
If you prefer making reservations in advance, check out reviews and even make reservations online with lafourchette. For restaurants where calling is required, there’s no need to feel intimidated.
Easier said than done, right?
Finding the Best Places to Eat
I’ve got just the trick for you.
It’s a trick that I always use when I have to make a phone call in French that I’m nervous about.
I sit down and write out what I’m going to say when someone answers the phone. I might not use it, but it never fails to improve my comfort level. Here’s an example of what you could say to schedule your reservation:
Bonjour monsieur/madame. Je voudrais faire une réservation pour deux personnes samedi 7 mai à 20 heures.*
(Hello sir/madam. I would like to make a reservation for two people Saturday, May 7 at 8 pm.)
*Note that while you can say the time using either a 12- or 24-hour clock and you’ll likely be understood, the 24-hour clock is the more formal way to express the time in a restaurant setting.
If you’re not making a reservation in advance, then knowing what you’re looking for and what’s available at different types of dining establishments can make a big difference. Let’s get started by reviewing some of the most common types of eateries in France.
Le restaurant — This is where you go when you want un grand repas français (a big French meal) at a regular mealtime.
Le bistro(t) — These smaller, typically more casual restaurants often serve high quality food for less money than a traditional restaurant.
La brasserie — This is a brewery. If you’re looking for good beer and/or hearty food, this is your place. Full meals and snacks are usually served throughout the day until late at night.
Le café — This is your everything spot. Full meals, quick bites, just a drink. It can all be had right here. Don’t forget the fabulous people-watching!
La crêperie — As the name implies, come here when you’re in the mood for delicious savory galettes and sweet crêpes.
Le bar — If you see this sign outside, you should be able to grab a drink without eating anything.
Le bar à vin — Wine bars run the gamut from serving an array of food to serving only small bites and charcuterie. But one thing you can be sure of is that the wine will be delicious. Then again, when is it not? We’re talking about France after all.
If you’re looking for more detail on different options for dining in France, check out this Wikipedia article.
Just getting accustomed to French restaurant vocabulary? Use this exercise from TV5MONDE to practice the basics.
Getting Your Table
Once you’ve chosen where you’d like to eat, the next step is getting a table.
To do this, it’s good to first be clear about what you and your group are looking for (drinks and/or food) and then to make sure you tell the restaurant exactly what that is. Here’s what you should come prepared to tell the host, unless you’ve already made a reservation.
1. Your group size
This is straightforward enough—there are two ways to talk about your group’s size.
On est trois. / Nous sommes trois. (We are three.)
The difference between the first option (on) and the second option (nous) is a question of formality. You’ll probably want to go with nous at a restaurant. At a café, on will be just fine!
2. What you’re there to consume
This is actually pretty important, as they’ll often seat you in a different location depending on your answer.
Pour manger (to eat)
Pour boire (to drink)
Pour le petit-déjeuner (to eat breakfast)
Pour déjeuner (to eat lunch)
Pour dîner (to eat dinner)
3. Where you’d like to sit
Again, you don’t have to think too hard about this one!
Je préfère l’extérieur. (I prefer the outside.)
Je préfère l’intérieur. (I prefer the inside.)
4. If you have a reservation
On a une réservation pour Walters à 20 heures. / Nous avons une réservation pour Walters à 20 heures.
We have a reservation for Walters at 8pm.
The way you’d choose between using on and nous is the same as when you talked about your group’s size. Pay attention to your surroundings and you’ll always get this right.
Deciphering the Menu
While meals in France can be lengthy affairs, ordering itself usually happens towards the beginning of the meal and is a relatively quick event.
If you’re in a nicer restaurant, your waiter may ask you if you’d like an apéritif (pre-meal drink, usually alcoholic) around the same time he’s handing you the menu.
More often, all the ordering of food and drinks (not including dessert and coffee) will happen at the same time.
La carte, le menu et la formule (3 French Menu Types)
While la carte refers to what we call “the menu” in English, le menu and la formule refer to set menus where you may or may not have a choice between the number of total dishes you consume and what you have for each course.
In addition, there may be une dégustation, which is similar to a tasting menu. Depending on the restaurant, you may have a cheese course included in le menu, in la dégustation or you might be offered one separately.
When it comes to la carte, here are some of the main categories you can expect to see.
Les entrées (appetizers)
Les plats (main courses)
Les fromages (cheeses)
Les desserts (desserts)
Les boissons (drinks)
La nourriture (Food)
French food vocabulary is quite extensive, so here are a few key French food and drink words to keep in mind.
La salade (salad)
La soupe / le potage / le velouté (soup)
Le bœuf (beef)
Les escargots (snails)
Le lapin (rabbit)
Le poulet (chicken)
Le porc (pork)
Le veau (veal)
Le poisson (fish)
Le légume (vegetable)
Les pâtes (pasta)
Le riz (rice)
Les frites (fries)
Le pain (bread)
Le beurre (butter)
Le fruit (fruit)
Le biscuit (cookie)
La crème caramel (like a flan)
Le gâteau (cake)
La tarte (pie)
La glace (ice cream, ice)
Les Boissons (Drinks)
Le vin (wine)
La bière (beer)
L’apéritif / l’apéro (cocktail, pre-meal drink)
Le jus (juice)
Le café (coffee)
Le thé (tea)
Placing Your Order
Once you’ve made your decision and closed the menu, your waiter will likely come over and say one of the following things.
Avez-vous choisi ? / Vous avez choisi ? (Have you chosen?)
Je vous écoute. (I’m listening.)
Qu’est-ce que vous voulez comme boisson ? (What would you like to drink?)
Qu’est-ce que vous buvez ? (What will you have to drink?)
To all of these questions, here’s the most common response.
Je vais prendre… (I’m going to take…)
You’ll be less likely to have options to choose from in France once you’ve ordered, though if you’re ordering a steak you may get asked about the doneness. Here are some general guidelines to follow for your answer.
Bleu / saignant (very rare, though saignant is slightly more cooked)
À point (medium rare)
Bien cuit (well done)
Now that you’ve ordered, it’s time to sit back, relax and enjoy your surroundings. Maybe even try to use some of these everyday phrases to impress your table neighbors.
The End of the Meal
So now you’ve finished your main dish and your server approaches you for round two of dinner conversation. Here’s what you’ll likely hear.
Terminé ? / Vous avez terminé ? / Avez-vous terminé ? (Have you finished?)
The correct answer here is usually just a simple oui, merci (yes, thanks). If you’re at a nicer restaurant, you may also get asked if you’ve enjoyed your food.
Ça a été ? / Ça vous a plu ? (Did you enjoy your meal?)
I often go with a brief oui, c’était bon (yes, it was good), but if you were amazed by your meal you could up it to something more enthusiastic like oui, c’était vraiment délicieux (yes, it was really delicious). Next you’ll get asked about dessert and coffee.
Vous désirez un dessert ou un café ? (Would you like dessert or coffee?)
If you would like a little something sweet or caffeinated to finish the meal and the server hasn’t already brought the dessert menu, just mention that oui, je voudrais la carte des desserts, s’il vous plaît (yes, I would like the dessert menu, please).
And if you change your mind once you see the list, pas de soucis (no worries)! Just let them know rien pour moi (nothing for me). If you do decide to get dessert and coffee, remember that in France coffee typically comes at the end of the meal after dessert. So don’t worry that your coffee has been forgotten just because it’s not there when dessert is.
Now that your meal is over and you’re ready to take a moonlit stroll along the Seine, it’s time to get l’addition (the bill).
This is a challenging time for many non-French people. That’s because, depending on where you’re from, you may be used to your server automatically bringing you the bill. This isn’t the case in France, where at most restaurants you’ll have to flag down the server and ask for it.
If you’re watching your server walk back and forth and waiting for him to make eye contact, try a simple s’il vous plaît to get his attention. Once you have it, all you need to say is l’addition and you’ll be set. If it takes an eternity for him to return to your table after he’s dropped off the check and you’re not in a particularly fancy establishment, feel free to just walk up to the bar or register and pay there. It’s common practice in France, especially in cafés where servers often have a very large number of tables to wait on.
And with that, I’ll leave you to your moonlit stroll along the Seine. After that, might I suggest a night on the town with some of these useful phrases or an evening at home with a French movie from Netflix?
Jamie Walters is a freelance writer and the owner of Pure Paris, a travel planning company that provides personalized daily itineraries to help travelers see Paris like a local. Originally from Seattle, she and her husband now live in Paris, where they have immersed themselves in la vie Parisienne.
And One More Thing…
What’s the best way to learn French vocabulary?
I’ll give you a clue: It doesn’t involve hours of staring at a textbook.
If you want to learn French by seeing and hearing it in action, you’ve got to try FluentU.
FluentU lets you learn French from real-world content like music videos, commercials, news broadcasts, cartoons and inspiring talks. Since this video content is stuff that native French speakers actually watch on the regular, you’ll get the opportunity to learn real French—the way it’s spoken in modern life.
One quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content found on FluentU:
Love the thought of learning French with native materials but afraid you won’t understand what’s being said? FluentU brings authentic French videos within reach of any learner. Interactive captions will guide you along the way, so you’ll never miss a word.
Tap on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more. For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what appears on your screen:
Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU’s learn mode to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video with vocabulary lists, flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”
As you continue advancing in your French studies, FluentU keeps track of all the grammar and vocabulary that you’ve been learning. It uses your viewed videos and mastered language lessons to recommend more useful videos and give you a 100% personalized experience. Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.