Delicious food is by far the best thing about being in Paris. Sure, it’s a beautiful city, and there’s lots of stuff to do. But c’mon, that’s what we all really look forward to.
And since Paris is a big, international city, rules for dining here should be just like it is chez vous, right? Mais non.
We’ve spent a fair amount of time learning from our rookie mistakes, so I thought I’d pass on a few words of wisdom. This is in no way meant to be an exhaustive list: there are lots of sites that can advise you when to order a café crème (only in the morning) and how not to order your steak (well done), lest you humiliate yourself.
This Is A Basic Paris Eating Guide
Do Your Homework
This is by far the most important thing I can convey to you! There are a lot of truly bad meals to be had in Paris–especially in touristy neighborhoods. But there are also a lot of amazing restaurants, often right next door to the terrible ones. So whenever possible, I strongly advise you to google reviews of the restaurant in mind. We trust the ratings from TheFork.com the most, as they’ve never led us astray (anything rated 8 or higher is almost guaranteed to be great). Hungry for Paris offers reviews of restaurants around the city and is constantly updated. Or you can also check out my recommendations.
Don’t arrive in Paris, expecting to stick to your diet. Just don’t. Eat all the croissants and foie gras your stomach can hold.
Don’t expect American-style service, especially if you’re from the Midwest. Your expectations very likely will not be met unless you’re dining in a fancier establishment. I’ve found that it’s better to set the bar really, really low and go from there. If you need to get your waiter’s attention at any point during the meal, you must make direct (even if fleeting) eye contact–which they have been expertly trained to avoid.
Tipping In Paris
You don’t have to tip 15%. Service is always included in the menu prices, something I think is much more practical than having to calculate it out at the end. If you think the server did a particularly stellar job, leave a euro or two for him.
You Must Ask For The Check, Always
It’s considered quite rude here for a waiter to bring your bill before you’ve asked for it. The only exceptions are at cafes where they bring you a check for each thing you order (e.g., a round of drinks)–then add them all up when you’re ready to go.
Expect To Ask For The Check Multiple Times
When I first arrived, I complained to a Parisian that the evening before, we had been forced to ask for the bill seven times. He considered what I said and then shrugged, as if to say, that’s not so bad. If you’re short on time, be sure to budget a few extra minutes to be given the opportunity to pay for your food.
But the good news: it’s totally cool to hang out all day or night! Because the waiter’s livelihood isn’t dependent on your tips, he’s not in a rush to turn tables. So feel free to linger as long as you’d like. Even if you just want to hang out in an outdoor cafe and read all afternoon, ordering a single coffee, juice, or small bottle of mineral water will suffice.
Call In Advance
Parisians tend to make reservations, especially for dinner, even if it’s just the bistro around the corner. If there’s a place you definitely want to try, consider calling a week or so in advance. If you see a spot you like during the day, consider stopping in and asking if they have a table for you later.
Locals dine around 9-9:30pm. If you go to a restaurant at 8pm, don’t expect a lively atmosphere. If you go before 8, expect to see people still finishing their afternoon coffee and snacks. The only exceptions are more touristy cafes or bistros where people from all over the world are trying to eat at a reasonable hour.
Clean Your Plate
Think of going to a Parisian restaurant like going to someone’s home. If you don’t eat (mostly) everything, the waiter or chef will likely get concerned that you didn’t like it. If you just can’t manage to finish, be sure to assure the waiter that it was very good, but you’re full/saving room for dessert.
Save Foom For Dessert
Because, why wouldn’t you? You’re in Paris. Unless you’re in a nicer place, I’d go for the desserts that are labeled “maison” (homemade); we’ve been served half-frozen gâteau au chocolat more times than we can count.
Get The Formule
Dining out in Paris can be expensive (and that’s compared to New York City, so I don’t even want to know what the sticker shock is like for everyone else). If you’re on a budget but looking for a good meal, consider trying a formule, a prix-fixe menu that most restaurants offer (especially at lunch, which is when you get the best deals from more expensive restaurants). Usually, you have to pick from a more limited menu, but it’s by far the most economical way to get a good meal.
Use Booking Services
Use TheFork.com. This website allows you not only to make online reservations but also to browse deals that selected restaurants are offering–up to 50% off the total bill. It’s a seamless process: once you arrive at the restaurant, just say you made a reservation through LaFourchette, and the final bill should then reflect the promotion.
Drink Tap Water
Don’t be afraid of tap water. Unless you have a particular penchant for mineral water, feel free to order a ‘carafe d’eau’ (pitcher of water) for the table. And if they don’t bring it, ask again using your finely-tuned eye contact skills.
I think that’s it from my end. Does anyone else have any helpful tips to add?