Hands up if you’re hungry!
From chantilly-stuffed pastries to matured cheese and baguettes, the French certainly know cuisine.
Sampling some of the local delights is one of the best parts about introducing French culture into your life.
So if you want to think and speak like a local, it pays to know what you’re talking about when it comes to food.
Whether you’re searching for something traditional, local or completely new, chances are that the French town where you’re staying will have a dish unlike anything you’ve ever tried before.
And armed with this complete guide, entering a restaurant in France can be one of the most exciting (and tasty!) ways to practice your French—not anything to fear. So let’s dive into the food, shall we?
How to Order Food in French: The Hungry Learner’s Guide
Selecting the restaurant
The world of French food is vast and across the French speaking world, there are many types of places in which you can eat. Depending on the kind of meal and experience that you want to have, you can choose from any number of eating places; from the fancy to the very casual, the French have you covered.
If you’re in rural France, it’s likely that you will come across an auberge or an auberge de campagne. Typically small in size and attached to a local hotel or bed and breakfast, the auberge is similar to an inn, serving rustic, rural food at relatively low costs. Food is normally prepared from local ingredients, so if you’re really looking for a way in which to go native, an auberge could serve you well.
When you conjure up an image of eating in France, you might first think of a traditional brasserie, with tables spilling out onto the city streets. One of the best known types of French eating establishments, the brasserie can be visited from late morning right up until late at night, and will most likely serve every type of meal. From coffees and wines to three-course feasts, the brasserie always has something ready to serve.
If you’re on the hunt for something a little more formal, head to a French restaurant. Typically specializing in one type of food (although it’s not always the case), the restaurant tends to have separate services for lunch and dinner, closing in between so staff can clean down and prepare for the next influx of guests. Although price ranges do vary a lot, you can expect a slightly more formal experience than other types of eating places.
This news clip will give you a look at French restaurant restaurant culture and how tipping works (and might change) there. Better yet, since that video is available on FluentU, you don’t need to worry about missing a word.
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Making a reservation in French
After you’ve selected your eatery for the evening, you might need to make a reservation. In larger cities, restaurants are generally more likely to fill up, especially if it’s a weekend. Booking ahead can save you a lengthy waiting time or disappointment.
When you phone the restaurant, simply enquire, “Bonjour, je voudrais réserver une table, s’il vous plaît” (Hello, I would like to book a table, please). The person taking the booking will likely respond with “Pour combien ?” (For how many?), to which you can respond with the number of people. For example, you might respond, “Pour quatre personnes” (For four people).
Next, you will be asked, “Pour quand ?” (For when?) to which you can answer the date and time of your reservation. If you would like to eat that evening at the restaurant, you can say, “Pour ce soir à 20h” (For this evening at 8 p.m.). Finally, you will be asked for your name (A quel nom ?) to which you need to respond with your surname.
Finding your table
When you get to the restaurant and you have a reservation, approach the maître d’ and let them know that you have a table waiting:
J’ai réservé une table au nom de …
(I have reserved a table in the name of …)
Alternatively, they might ask you, “Vous avez une réservation?” (Do you have a reservation?), to which you can answer “Oui, au nom de….” (Yes, in the name of …)
If you don’t make a reservation ahead of time, it’s very possible to eat out in France and find yourself a table on the spot. You might hear French speakers saying, “On est deux” (There are two of us) when they enter the restaurant. They are simply letting the maître d’ know that only the two people present will be dining and there will be no further additions to the table.
If you’re entering into a brasserie which serves both food and drinks, you can let the waiters know where to seat you by specifying either of the following:
On va juste boire quelque chose.
(We will just have a drink.)
On va manger quelque chose.
(We will eat something.)
The world of French takeout is vast, and there are dozens of varieties to choose from if you don’t want to dine out. If you’re searching for places that do takeout, look for a vente à emporter (buy to take out) sign on the door. Alternatively, you can pick up a menu from the restaurant and phone them from home; they will take your order and address and you will have to pay when the delivery is made.
If you don’t feel like talking to anyone on the phone but still wish to order food, there are many takeout websites through which you can order your food. Larger websites like Allo Resto connect with many eating places in your city, enabling you to browse a number of different menus according to your preferences.
From the dropdown menu, you can select votre ville (your town) and make your selection from there. Next to this, you can select when you would like to receive your food. J’ai faim (I’m hungry) indicates that you would like to eat now, while aujourd’hui (today) will let you select a time frame later in the day.
After this, just select what you want to eat, fill in your address and payment details, and your order should be there within the hour!
Navigating a French Menu
French restaurants work in much the same way as restaurants around the world. Typically, you are seated by the maître d,’ who will then direct a waiter or waitress to take your order.
When it comes to interacting with your French waiter or waitress, there is really nothing to be worried about. Maintaining a polite tone of voice and always thanking your waiter is all you need to do to receive great service in France. Attract your waiter’s attention by saying “Excusez-moi ?” (Excuse me?), and remember to say “S’il vous plaît” (please) after you have made your order.
Here are some helpful words for navigating the menu:
- La carte — Menu
- À la carte — From the menu
- Prix fixe — Set menu
- L’entrée — Appetizer
- Le plat principal — Main dish
- Le fromage — Cheese plate
- Le dessert — Dessert
- Le digestif — After-dinner drink
In French dining, there are two types of menus from which you can select your meal: à la carte and prix fixe.
- Literally meaning “from the menu,” à la carte selections can consist of any type of meal combination of your choice; you can select whatever starter, main and dessert that you wish.
- The prix fixe consists of a set menu which contains a number of different meal combinations at a specific price. Although there are fewer options on this kind of menu, they normally come at a cheaper price, and it can be a great way to sample an authentic selection of French foods.
If you see the words du jour (of the day) following an option on the menu, it means that the type of dish changes every day. So in that case, it’s a good idea to ask your waiter what’s being served that day. The soup du jour is often a popular choice, and there are normally a number of flavor options available.
Quenching Your Thirst
Before you make your meal order, you might want something to drink first. Once you’ve perused les boissons (drinks), this phrase will come in handy:
Je voudrais boire quelque chose pour commencer.
(I would like to drink something to start with.)
Here are some words you might see in the “drinks” section of the menu:
- Le café — Coffee
- Le thé — Tea
- La bière — Beer
- L’eau — Water
- Le vin — Wine
French restaurants tend to have wines either from around their region or from elsewhere within France, so dining out is a great way to sample what the country has to offer by way of a tipple. Once again, your waiter will normally be well educated on the types of wine available, so don’t hesitate to ask for recommendations.
When ordering water with your meal, there are a few options to know about. Simply asking for a carafe d’eau (jug of water) will get you a pitcher of water taken from the tap at no extra cost. It’s very rare for a restaurant not to serve tap water, so it’s always worth ordering some if you want a palate cleanser after your wine. If you do want a bottled water, you can select either plate (still) or gazeuse (sparkling). If you don’t specify, your waiter will normally ask you which one you would prefer.
After dinner, it’s very common for French diners to let their food go down with a café. Ordering a café in France will bring you an espresso, so if you want something with a little milk or something extra, you will need to specify it. Un cappuccino will bring you, unsurprisingly, a cappuccino, while un café crème will bring you a white coffee—somewhere between a latte and a cappuccino. The much loved café au lait tends to refer to the bowl of milky coffee that French people drink at breakfast time, although ordering it will get you a coffee with milk.
Understanding the menu options
So you have a menu, and your waiter has just taken your drink orders. Now it’s time to get reading and select what you’ll feast on. While choosing between French dishes might seem impossibly hard, you can always ask your waiter for a recommendation: “Qu’est-ce que vous recommandez ?” (What do you recommend?)
Here are some foods you might see on the menu:
- Le fromage — Cheese
- Le pain — Bread
- Le poisson — Fish
- Le bœuf — Beef
- L’agneau — Lamb
- Le poulet — Chicken
- Le porc — Pork
- Les légumes — Vegetables
- Les pommes de terre — Potatoes
- La glace — Ice cream
- La pomme — Apple
- Les fraises — Strawberries
- La banane — Banana
- Le riz — Rice
- Les pâtes — Pasta
- La soupe — Soup
Like most other countries, a French menu will normally contain a dish with each type of meat option and one or two fish plates. Knowing how these dishes are cooked can sometimes require a little further investigation. If you read that something has been cooked au four, then it has been prepared with an oven, and will normally be presented as a roasted dish. Foods which have been fumé, however, are smoked, which can lend the main dish a much different flavor.
If you want a steak, you might notice that some places serve their meat haché. This simply means that the meat has been minced, or ground, and that it will have a slightly different texture (and possibly a cheaper price) from traditional beef steaks. Eating in France during the fall or winter is a great way to sample a dish cooked à l’étouffée. Presented as a stew, this is a great way to sample local delicacies, as many towns use different recipes for their stews, depending on the region.
If you’re worried about remembering foods, you can always bring along a French phrasebook, such as the “Lonely Planet French Phrasebook and Dictionary.” Lonely Planet at large is filled with phrasebooks and regional travel guides that will help you know what to expect when ordering food and eating abroad.
Food allergies and dietary restrictions
If you have any food allergies or dietary requirements, here are some phrases so you can let your waiter know:
- Je suis diabétique — I am diabetic
- Je suis végétarien(ne) — I am vegetarian
- Je suis végétalien(ne) — I am vegan
- Je suis allergique à … — I am allergic to…
While French food is some of the best loved in the world, it could be more difficult to find vegetarian or vegan options at certain places. If you can’t see any dishes on the main menu that don’t contain any meat, then it’s likely you could have some of the starters adapted to meet your needs. Many places will either allow you to select a number of smaller dishes to be brought out with your party’s main meals, or will serve you a starter in a bigger size, charging a little more so that you can eat it as a main dish.
Ordering your meal in French
Now that you’ve successfully ordered drinks and selected from the menu, it’s time to order that food. Here are some phrases that will help throughout the rest of your meal:
- Je voudrais — I would like
- Je prendrai — I will take
- Je n’ai pas choisi — I haven’t chosen
- Une minute encore, s’il vous plaît — One more minute, please
- Qu’est-ce que vous recommandez ? — What would you recommend?
- Quelle est la spécialité du jour ? — What is today’s special?
- Rosé — Rare
- À point — Medium
- Bien cuit — Well done
- C’est terminé — I/We have finished
- L’addition, s’il vous plaît — The bill, please
If you order a steak, your waiter will ask you “Quelle cuisson ?” (How would you like your meat cooked?) While rosé, à point and bien cuit will get you a rare, medium and well done steak respectively, it’s worth noting that a lot of French cooking will present meat which is a little less well done than you might be used to elsewhere.
So a medium steak in France might be more like a rare steak for you, while ordering “well done” could be closer to medium. If you like your steak really rare, you can order it bleu; fried in the pan for the briefest of moments. Steak cooked like this is very bloody and popular among the natives.
Finishing your meal
At the end of a meal, the process in French restaurants is a little different from elsewhere in the world. It’s very rare for a French restaurant to offer a doggy bag service, so if you don’t finish your meal, you probably won’t be able to take it home with you. While some places might oblige your enquiries, many French eaters assume that if you don’t finish everything on your place, then you didn’t want to eat it.
As far as tipping is concerned, tipping at the end of a meal in France is not the same as tipping in the USA. Most restaurants in France will include the service charge on the check, meaning that your total bill is all you need to pay. If you would like to leave something as a gesture of goodwill, however, it’s generally accepted to leave €1 for every €20 that you spend. This is not obligatory, but can be done if you really appreciated your service and waiter.
If you’re lucky enough to visit France or a French-speaking country, then sampling the local food is a fantastic way to practice your français while keeping your taste buds happy. Use this guide to eat out in France with confidence—it might just be one of the best things you do when you’re abroad. There’s a whole other world of food out there to be tasted, so get out there and start ordering!
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