Café Culture: Tips & Tricks for enjoying meals in Paris!

When going overseas, we often forget that there are several small cultural differences we do not realize. The Mars and Venus relationships can be applied to a French and American union creating a lasting relationship with a little extra effort. While dinning seems like a ‘no brainer,’ below are a few unwritten tips that should help you out. That seemingly standoffish waiter may offer you the most valued memories if you practice some French etiquette, ensuring a better experience and treasured memories.

The dream all Parisian tourists have, is to sit in a café and enjoy the view. Café Culture is unique and enjoyed by all. Most seats face out at the street, so you can enjoy the fashion show as it passes. Be certain that you are being evaluated as you walk the runway as well.

There are always heat lamps, because even on a snowy day, Parisians treasure there right to sit outdoors. Chances are you’ll encounter a rain storm that will make those lovely little terraces crowded and amicable as you share the common goal of staying dry. Nothing brings cultures together faster than a common enemy and the weather always triumphs.

There is an unusual overabundance of tropical cocktails offered that I do not recommend. Stick to the wine, it is cheap and very good. Don’t be afraid to order the house wine in a carafe despite the cost being so low that you fear it may be bad. It will surprise you. If it is a particularly hot day, indulge on an Aperol Spritz witch will most likely become your next favorite drink. You’ll recognize the orange colored drink on many tables when the weather permits.

Generally, you will want to make eye contact with the waiter hovering nearby and indicate your wanting to sit. At a vacant table. Greeting and thanking the people that you come into contact with is crucial in France. They will most likely gesture to any seat you are near and offer a menu. If the table is set with napkins and flatware, you are expected to order a meal of sorts. If there is nothing on the table other than an ashtray, your safe to lounge and enjoy a café or adult beverage if you choose.

The outdoor seating area is called, the terrace. It is so popular and ingrained in the city that even McDonalds has a terrace. Generally you can claim your spot and enjoy the entire day if you wish. It becomes very popular after work when the American concept of Happy Hour starts. This will go between 2 -6 hours if you’re lucky and they usually give you a small bowl of olives or nuts.

You will have a marked difference in service if you add a few simple but well-meaning phrases such as ‘Bonjour Monsieur/Madame,’ when the waiter approaches you. After greeting formally, which should be done in all restaurants, shops and hotels, begin the transaction with your request. “Une café s’il vous plait,” will get you an espresso.

If you prefer a regular coffee, it is called an “Americano.” If you are wearing sneakers and a Logo T-shirt, they will most likely know you are American and verify that a café you are ordering is an espresso. Be warned, this is not Starbucks, do not expect them to list off dairy or sweetener alternatives and there is almost never ice tea.

When the coffee is brought to you, be sure to offer a “Merci.” They will respond kindly and they will most likely be a bit nicer to you because of the effort your making. If you actually want to have a light snack or a meal, you can ask for a menu when ordering your beverage. They will understand your English perfectly, but always try to start your interaction with some French. No matter how bad your French skills are they will be very complimentary to you because they appreciate your effort. They will even go so far as to tell you how well you speak despite the reality of you being awful. Generally you will be eating and drinking in an areas where there are many tourists. The majority of waiters speak enough English to be very accommodating when you don’t understand the menu.

Enjoying a café is the best way to gain access to a restroom in a city that is notoriously bad for having many public facilities. After you order, feel free to seek out the restrooms, which are almost always upstairs or downstairs toward the back of the restaurant. You will generally run into a staff member that will point the way if you do not see a sign for WC or Toilet. This is not America, have a paper napkin just in case, and don’t be surprised if there is a urinal outside of the restroom or a hole in the ground when you open the door. You can always find free restrooms in McDonald’s and Starbucks which are always in close proximity of major attractions, but there will be a line and it will be a bit dirty.

As unusual as it seems, ordering a café at the bar is almost half the cost of sitting at a table. Please note that you cannot bring your coffee to a table after you are served, if you order at the bar you're expected to drink at the bar, and that usually means standing. This is a great option if you need the restroom and don’t really want to hang out. Just motion that you’ll be right back after you order. Obviously not ideal if you're with other people or children, but as a solo traveler it is a nice option.

You will most likely find it odd that sitting a café you can’t pay your bill. They tend to bring you your drink and disappear. They are not eager to bring you the bill unless you get there attention and ask for it. Generally the international sign language of you holding your hand up to write on with an imaginary pen will work fine. If you get up and head toward the bar where the cash register is, they will promptly calculate your bill. If you’re in a high volume tourist area, they will usually put the bill on a little metal coaster immediately because they know people are not familiar with the French café customs.

If you can use your French and say, “L’addition s'il vous plait,” which means “the bill please.” They will be very impressed and kindly accommodate. It is lovely that you can sit and write postcards and watch people and not be rushed, but don’t stay all day or they may lose patience with you, especially if it is lunch time or dinner when they would like the table to generate some money.

France loves the Happy Meal concept. They call it a “Formule.” Everyone from Starbucks to high end dining venues will offer you this option and it generally is a good value. It usually offers two options and can seem complicated. Typically you will see: Entrée + Plat Principal + café/boisson. This is where you may think in terms of the English language, Entrée, is not a main dish, it is an appetizer. The plat principal is the main dish. The Café or drink can be all nonalcoholic beverages.

The other option is Plat Principal + Dessert + café/boisson. The French people have a sweet tooth, therefore it is a popular option. You can always add dessert if you choose the first formule; but never fear, there are always sweet treats within a few steps of each café or restaurant.

To ensure that the meal you have is the best and you can't figure out all the options, I recommend you choose to the “Plat de Jour.” This is “the dish of the day,” meaning it is the freshest item offered. With the abundance of rich food you’ll enjoy on your travels, your stomach might be a bit on edge and require a little caution.

The water is safe, be sure to notice the fountains to refill water bottles all around Paris. If you prefer bottled water, both options “plat ou à gazeux,” will be offered, meaning still or sparkling. If your comfortable drinking tap water ask for a “carafe d'eau,” which will be a glass bottle of tap water they usually have chilled for you.

Tips are included in the check, but a small coin is always appreciated. While a coin is not expected from an American, be careful not to over tip which can be just as bad. You’ll see that some coins are actually 2 Euros, which may be more than the coffee. Tip in cash, or the server may never see your generosity. At dinner you can leave an additional 5-10% in cash if the service was great. Same goes for a Taxi, Uber, luggage handlers and room service. NEVER tip if the service was bad.

If you chose to pass up dessert at the café or restaurant, be sure to check out the Boulangeries. If you see a gold wreath on the window of a boulangerie, this means they have won an award, and you must go in and try something. Even if it is not what they won the award for, chances are everything they make is worth trying. They have contests for everything, so the prize may be for a baguette or a Gallete des rois, which generally is only available during the holidays. The wreaths may display a year passed, but be sure they are still very good even if they do not have the current year’s award.

If you would like to enjoy a baguette, be sure to order the traditional. This means that by law it must have been made on premises and that day. Often they are still warm if you make your purchase during peak hours, and don’t mind waiting in line with the working folks heading home to dinner.

Stop at a shop and buy some cheese, a bottle of wine and head to the river for a little snack. Often they have a bottle opener at the register, don’t forget to ask! They do not give fines or tickets for drinking in public, but it is not entirely legal. On a warm sunny day, you will be joined by the masses to enjoy this Parisian custom. Watch the péniche (boat) pass and listen to the chatter of happy youth, and sometimes you’ll have a bit of music to make it a magical moment.

If you prefer a real seat rather than roughing it on the cobblestones, you can go to Péniche Marcounet along the river Seine. Here you can order lovely snacks and a variety of drinks in the center of town and even sit on the boat itself. There are several boats next to each other that you can choose from, if one is too crowded and doesn’t offer you the optimal view.

As lovely and easy as this all sounds, beware of a few things to avoid. If there is a waiter in front of the restaurant trying to convince you to come in, keep walking. Good food doesn’t need to be convincing and mostly you will have good food everywhere. This is a typical practice in very high volume areas for tourists. The prices will also be higher and the quality inferior.

It is a law that a menu be placed outside of a restaurant so that you are not surprised by prices once you sit down. Do not be afraid to read the menu before committing to a restaurant or cafe. A staff member may approach you to see If you need help which is different from trying to convince you sit and order.

If you see the menu in more than two languages you must leave quickly! An English translation with the French is common, but if it also has Chinese, Spanish and German, chances are the food is not going to be as interesting as the menu. Same thing for the type of food being served. If they are serving Italian and French cuisine, neither one will be very good. Stick to one nationality when you choose your meal.

Avoid eating crepes off the street carts and same goes for the sandwiches, they don’t have the same rules for insuring the food is stored properly. It may be tempting, but try to go to a real restaurant or market if you want to grab something fast. Your safer enjoying ice cream and drinks from walk up counters and carts.

Berthillon Glacier is the most famous Parisian ice cream and the name will be displayed proudly if it is being served at the location you pass by. The actual main shop in on the l'Île Saint-Louis, just a stone’s throw from Notre Damme. Even if it is winter, you can enjoy a scoop in their unbeatable Hot Chocolate Affogato, which is like a hot chocolate buffet complete with Chantilly and nuts.

Not all crepes are created equal, search out a traditional Bretons Crepe. A reliable chain of restaurants throughout Paris is BREIZH Café, but be prepared for a line. Personally I prefer to go to Marché Bastille and enjoy while browsing the stalls on a Thursday or Sunday before 1pm. When you order here, you will see there are two distinctly different batters for sweet and savory crepes.

You are not going to find this at a street vendor. Look for the yellow and white stand with the line. The menu will have English translation under the French and you can add to make your crepe custom. Don’t forget, crepes can be savory too, and personally adore the salmon and goat cheese with an egg and caramelized onions. The Marche is also the best place for souvenir shopping, far less expensive than the other areas of Paris.

Avoid the dining cruises on the Seine that offer a banquet style meals which is generally a waste of money and not worthy of your limited eating opportunities in this gastro paradise. Enjoy a drink on the boat and save dinner for before or after. I recommend you do the cruises at night, the lights on the Eiffel Tower and other monuments are best seen after dark. Most of the time you can bring a bottle of wine onto the boat with you or purchase drinks on the dock before departure. There are always markets close by the river, just be sure to have a bag to smuggle your goods onboard, don’t forget a couple of plastic cups or you can play wine-o sharing the bottle with your partner in crime.

Dinner in Paris is usually at 8pm and reservations are required for the better spots. While Japan is getting close, Paris still has the largest number of Michelin Restaurants and some are very affordable. You can go onto the Michelin site to make reservations that often offer a discount or deal. Don’t be ashamed, even the French use this. Though Yelp is not as popular in France, you can check Google for review on most places to eat and easily type in “best lunch/dinner” in the area you’re in and it will yield many great options. WIFI is free in monuments and parks, but google maps works offline and offers great navigation thru the winding streets to that hidden treasure.

Now that you are safely prepared to make the most of your dining experiences in the city that created cuisine, be sure to share your knowledge to help your fellow travelers along the cobblestones. If you are looking for something special or unique, be sure to send me an email and I’ll be happy to share a couple of my favorite spots with you. With several restaurants on each street, I am always learning and share more secrets that can benefit us all. I look forward to your emails and visits and hope we can share the city together soon.

Bon Appétit!


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