So many people carry with them the stereotype of the rude French waiter who snobbily looks down on the English speaking tourists. He sneers at them as they order their salad dressing. Rolls his eyes as they request their steak cooked to order. They get their food, but they also get the cold shoulder. The innocent tourists don’t know what they have done to offend, they are just ordering the way they know how! Aren’t you supposed to tell the waiter how you want your food..?
We’ve all heard the horror stories, or worse, lived them. So here it is, the beginner’s guide to not fucking up your Paris bistro experience.
First and foremost, no substitutions. No sauce on the side. If you don’t like it, don’t order it. Actually, do order it. You’ll probably like whatever sauce or dressing was giving you apprehension anyways. Food tastes different here.
When you ask for changes you are in a sense telling the staff they built the dish wrong . That you know the menu combinations better than they do. That you think this dressing would be better then the one they chose. This isn’t America. Places do not freely mix and match dressings. Each sauce is meant to compliment the specific salad or dish. You don’t choose to alter a dish because you are not the expert in the situation. The waiter is. The chef chose what combinations he thinks best, because he knows best!
Don’t like that sauce? Don’t order that dish
That leads right into the second tip.
Waiters are the experts, not you. This is the complete opposite of the USA where we generally treat waitstaff like shit. They get ordered around, told what to do and demeaned while having to remember endless combinations of dressings and substitutions.
In a Parisian bistro this is not the case. The staff know more about the wine, the sauces and the menu then you can ever hope to. This isn’t meant to intimidate you. He or she is a fantastic resource. Ask what wine would go well and you will likely get a lovely pairing. Ask what’s in season and fresh today, they know the answers. Don’t be condescending, don’t over do it, make sure to have respect for the waiter.
A great way to get your foot in the door and treated just a bit kinder then the obnoxious family seated next to you: Speak French.
Not fluently, of course, but enough to say some restaurant basics. Hello. How are you. Dining in. Table for Two. It’s very good. Where are the restrooms. Thank you. Making an informed effort goes a long way.
How to Start Speaking French
The Lingua Franca of today is the English language.
That sentence makes almost no literal sense. “The French Language of today is the English language” is the actual translation.
French was once so widely spoken that the phrase “Lingua Franca” became synonymous for a common, international language used by people from all across the globe.
Academic conferences, scientific research and the language of international business all used to be conducted in French.
Today English fills that role.
We take it for granted that anywhere you find tourists you can find English speakers. It is easy for us to only speak one language and never learn another tongue. There is no practical need. The knowledge that wherever you go you will likely be hearing your own language, that the world runs on your words, and people across the globe all learn to speak like you, not the other way around lends itself to some haughtiness and arrogance. The remnants of that feeling are found in Paris. Many French think it rude to come here and not even attempt to speak to them. I would agree with that.
On the flip side, you are given more credit if you can make a valiant effort to respect the history and pride that comes with such an illustrious language.
French and English have very different origins. It is often hard for one to pronounce the language of the other. It is very hard to perfect either language, English for its endless spelling varieties and illogical “rules” and French for it’s nasal tone and the letters you don’t say. That’s what many English speakers don’t grasp: the French unpronounced letters leave their effect on the vowels you do say.
English derives from a Germanic origin associated with Northern Europe. It shares characteristics with Dutch and German. French comes from a Latin root, like Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, near the Mediterranean. Knowing some Spanish absolutely makes it easier to understand French. Saying “Tray Bee-en” would mean the same thing in both languages for an example.
As an intro to French vowels, take the English words “Wood” and “Door”.
Both have “oo” in the middle but those “O’s” are pronounced differently. Try saying “Wood” or “Door” without the ending “d” and “r” respectively
You can hear the difference in vowels. Those extra letters on the ends of French words help guide the pronunciation of the letters you do say. To say “Bonjour” do not pronounce the last “R”. Use that “R” to gently guide how to say the end of the word. “Jue” not “Jer”.
Say the “ou” in Bonjour as if there was an “R” at the end, but do not say the “R”.
French Phrases to Know
You do not need to memorize all of these. Pick a few that apply and reference back when you want to say more. These are guides to how I was able to generally communicate and order in French without being made fun of for a horrific accent. It’s not a “How to Speak French Flawlessly” guide or a substitute for a French language class from an actual expert but it is a start for us English speakers who want to try to respect this illustrious language.
Bonjour [Bon-jue] “Hello” We’ve all heard this one yet there innumerable ways an English speaker can mess it up. Listen to how others say it, copy them. In fact, that’s the best advice on language here. Listen to others. If you know how to say “jus” as in “Au jus” like the dipping sauce, there you go! Bon-jus is a close enough start.
Oui [Wee] “Yes” Easy peasy.
Non [Noh] “No” Another essential. Use those vowel pronunciations to say it as if you were saying the “N” at the end, but don’t. Like you are saying the English prefix “non-” as in “non-essential” without the second “N”. Its not “Noe” its more like “Nan”
Merci [mehr-see] Thank you! Use often, as you would at home. Do not emphasize the middle “R”
Bonsoir [Bon Swa] “Good evening” Once the sun sets, switch to this one. Somewhat easier to pronounce than Bonjour. You can also see the pattern, “Bon” must mean “Good” where “Jour” and “Soir” mean “Night” and “Day”. When learning a new language look for little patterns like that to help yourself out.
Je Voudrais un… Croissant/Vin Rouge/Bière [Jay voo-dway oon… cwah-sont/veen ruezh/be-ir” I would like… one croissant/one red wine/one beer”. This is how you order in French! For rouge blend the Z/G/H sound as best you can all into one.
S’il Vous Plait [See Voo Play] “Please”. Sometimes abbreviated S.V.P as in Répondez S’il Vous Plait, Please Respond, which is where we get R.S.V.P. from.
Ca Va [Sah-vah] “How are you/How is it?” General greeting and also a way to comment on things. Kind of like “How are you” in English, said without reflex or thinking most of the time.
Ca Va Bien [Sah-Vah Bee-en] “Things are good” Common response to “Ca va” greeting, but also used to say you enjoy something. “I’m good/It’s good. If you know Spanish you basically know how to say Bien.
C’est Tres Bien [Sey Twey Bee-en] “Its very good” We toss around compliments like “Its fantastic” and “I love it” in the USA to mean something along the lines of “Its better than average, I enjoyed it” but many other cultures do not do this unless they truly loved it. This is a great in-between phrase where both French and English speakers will be on the same page, you can add the “Tres” for more emphasis or not.
We can see that “C’est” means something akin to “It is”. From further above we know “Bon” means “Good”. Let’s put those together for another common complimentary phrase.
C’est Bon [Sey Bohn] “It is good” Means I like it more than normal. Can also be a question “It’s good? C’est bon?” You can respond by saying “Oui, C’est bon”. Saying “It is good” in English would almost seem like an insult to some. We tend to exaggerate a lot here whereas other languages speak more literally. Think of this phrase as “It really is good, I’m not just saying it!”
C’est Fanstatique [Sey Fantast-Eek] “It is fantastic” Don’t overuse it, this is a true compliment not a phrase to just throw around. If you truly mean it, it may inspire a sense of pride to whoever you are complimenting, especially when referring to food or wine they serve you.
Manger [Mon-jay] “To Eat” But it functions as “We would like to eat food here” as opposed to just getting drinks or coffee. It can also be posed to you as a question when you enter a restaurant by the staff. You can respond with, “Oui, manger. Yes, to eat.”
Por les Duex [Pour Lay Due] “For two (of us)” Adjust for however many people you’re with, Jamie and I used this all the time. Por les Trois, [Twah] for three. Por les Quatre [kwah-truh] for four, Por les Cinq [Sank] for five. Etc.
Où sont les toilettes? [Ooh son lay toy-let] Where are the restrooms? Crucial for any language.
Learn enough to make an introduction and then kindly tell them you speak very little French. It worked for us every time. Then, take a seat at a table that suits you. Waiters aren’t typically assigned sections like in the States.
Once you have your seat, ordered and your food is here, take your time! Meals are not meant to be rushed.
Enjoy some house wine.
Savor each course.
Plan your next meal.
Food is an experience, not simply a necessity. Allow each course to land, don’t scarf it down like some cheap hotel buffet.
Try to make sure you don’t order something you have to send back due to a language barrier.
Use your phone to translate menus beforehand to make it easier if you are able to. Not every menu is online and the plate of the day will likely change, well, daily hopefully. The sign outside that says “Plat du Jour” means plate of the day [remember from above jour means day] and it is probably the best way to go. Translate the short menu on your phone real quick if you don’t recognize what you’re about to enjoy.
You may pick up on what certain phrases mean after awhile. Some places will have menus in English inside if you ask. They key for us was to avoid places with English menus on display outside, they are outwardly attracting the non-French to eat there. The food they serve may be altered to appeal to a more international pallet rather than a local one. If you want a true experience find a place with as little English as you can manage and trust the waiter.
And for the love of god never eat where someone has a full time job standing outside flagging tourists down to fill tables. This applies to Europe as a whole, not just Paris. Any decent restaurant will not need to do this to sell good food.
Sometimes the waiter will be outside taking a smoke break or the owner enthusiastically talking with some of the tables, I’m not talking about them. I mean the guys with the plastic menus chasing after every decently dressed tourist offering them a prime table out front. No respectable establishment does this. The service will be horrible as the staff are all chasing down new customers instead of paying attention to you or your food. It doesn’t matter to them if you like it, hate it or will never be back. There is an endless stream of tourists pressured to fill your seat. You’ll never be back and the locals already know to avoid it but foot traffic guarantees they are always busy serving mediocre microwaved dishes. If you find an entire street full of these places, run, Far.
Avoid eating near tourist sites in general. Those places garner foot traffic without having to do anything, there is no need for them to put out an excellent culinary experience. There are always exceptions but in general if there is a horde of tourists traipsing through the same spot day in and day out, the food on that route will suffer. There is no motivation for putting out a quality product.
Do wander off the main streets and find the spots on Google Maps that are highly rated. Look up why they are rated so high. It is English speakers from the tour boats? Are the 5-star reviews in French? What’s causing people to walk over there when the easy spots are right here?
Ideally your perfect sweet spot will be a restaurant in a known food neighborhood just off the beaten path. One that you need to walk a few streets to get to. Something not so obvious that average Joe wanders in because TripAdvisor told him. A place that has lots of 5-star reviews written in French specifically about the food, not the “atmosphere” or “location”. That was my recipe for memorable meals across this huge metropolis.
Paris also offers the revolutionary Prix Fixe style menu. There isn’t a comparable experience where I’m from. Affordable multi-course meals for lunch are the way to go. Get the plate of the day you won’t regret it. It is very affordable having lunch even at high end at bistros. Sure you don’t get to choose from the entire menu but the selections are likely classics that you’ll want to try at some point anyway.
Eating out in Paris is nothing like eating out in L.A. or San Diego. Prix Fixe denotes Pricey at home. Not so in France. The idea of an affordable yet luxurious lunch is something I deeply miss.
Finally, and maybe most importantly of all, do not be afraid to challenge yourself!
There is a wider range of culinary options available here than you might be used to.
French cooking is more varied than its American counterparts. Duck, rabbit, livers, raw salmon, tuna and beef tartare, animal parts you never thought to eat are all common here. They know what they’re doing. I dare you to challenge yourself and order something traditional, something born out of poverty, that has been perfected over the years.
Steak Frites are fine but please, also get the pate. Try the raw beef.
The quality and freshness is so much higher here. Food standards are kilometers above those in the United States.
Enjoy your time here, learn some of the beautifully seductive language, respect the staff, challenge yourself and you’ll thrive.
Santé, enjoy Paris!
Follow us below for more food and travel adventures:
[Check your spam folder for a confirmation email if you do not receive one]