When Mitch and I took our first trip to Paris eleven years ago, we knew that we would need to surrender to their culture or suffer the consequences. We took it as a personal challenge to try to understand how they do things – no matter how differently – and savor the experience. One of the very first shocks for us was how they ‘dine’. For us in the United States, dinner out can be a fun time with family or friends but there is almost always one constant – we want our service to be quick. A long meal might be an hour to an hour and a half. After that we want our check so we can get the hell out. In France, however, things are quite different. I think this is a source of many complaints from my fellow citizens when I talk to them about their trips to France. ‘The service was so slow’ and ‘The service was terrible’ are two of the most common things I hear. And while looking at it from their perspective, this may actually be true, if you look at it from a French perspective, the service was actually excellent and exactly as it should be. So let me take you through a normal dining experience for us in a French restaurant.
Upon entering the restaurant, we are greeted with a warm and welcoming ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Bonsoir’. We are asked in French if we have a reservation and if we do the book is checked to confirm where you will be sitting and if not, the book is check to see if there is a seat available. We are then escorted to our table and seated. A minute or two later someone comes to the table to give us our menus and the wine list – if they have one – and again welcome us to their restaurant. We are left in peace to talk and look over the wine list and menu to make our selections. After several minutes, the waiter comes to the table and welcomes us again. He/she asks if we would like an aperitif before dinner. If we do, we order it, and a few minutes later it is brought to the table. We are then are allowed ample time to enjoy it while continuing our conversation. Upon returning, the waiter asks if we have made our choice for dinner. If not, we are givin as much time as we need to do so. After ordering we are asked what we would like to drink with dinner. We usually just have water simply because we don’t drink that much. The waiter thanks us and off he goes. A few minutes later he brings us a carafe of water and glasses and sometimes a basket of bread. Again, we are left to peacefully continue our conversation. Our appetizers arrive first as expected and we are left to enjoy it and discuss it and other topics at our leisure. I finish first but Mitch is still enjoying his so we are left alone to enjoy ourselves. When it is clear that we are both completely finished, the waiter then comes to clear our plates and ask if we enjoyed it. We ask for another carafe of water and receive it in a few short minutes. Continuing our conversation, we notice that for the entire restaurant of 50 or so, there are only two waiters and two bus boys and yet it is not chaotic at all. Everyone is moving with a purpose but it is not crazy. We are allowed to let our appetizers settle and then the main course arrives. Again, we are allowed to enjoy it at our own pace and nothing on the table it touched until we are both completely finished. The transition to desert is the same and after we are asked if we would like a digestif. Coffee for us will be perfect and then we sit and talk and talk over our coffee. When we are done with our coffee the waiter clears the cups away and asks if we would like anything else. We say no and off he goes – not to get our check, but to leave us alone to continue our conversation. 20 minutes later I ask for the check and the waiter brings it over a few minutes later. I take out my credit card and a short time later the waiter arrives with the wireless credit card machine to complete the transaction. We chat a little bit with him and then he thanks us again and wishes us a good evening. After a few minutes of wrapping up we collect our things and leave.
Now I know there are some who could barely manage to get through that description without screaming ‘WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG?!?’ or some version thereof. In France, dining is something to be savored and enjoyed and never, ever rushed. It would be considered extremely rude for the waiter to rush us to order or clear plates before everyone is finished eating. Also, the concept of ‘turning tables over’ is missing here. Your table is your table for the night which is why there is no need to rush you out. From your initial greeting to your last goodbye, the dining experience is designed to be enjoyed at a gentle pace.
Going into a restaurant in France with American expectations and demands with regard to both service and food, is nothing less than rude and is often met with a curt response from the restaurant staff. It is not that they are rude, it is that they are responding in kind to what they perceive as rudeness. Remember that you are in their country and they way they do things is the way they do things.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and yes, you can get a bad waiter, but it is not the norm. Waiters and Waitresses here are not doing it pay for their other career choices, they do it because they love it and many spend their entire lives as such. It is a respected vocation that when well done requires a tremendous amount of training and skill. A good friend of ours, Christophe, who we have known for ten years now, is a well respected Head Waiter here in Paris. Once when having lunch with him, we explained to him the expectations of Americans when they come into a restaurant. They want their menu right away, they want to order and eat right away. The look of ‘Now I finally understand’ that came over his face was amazing. He really never got why it was like that and now he did.
Given this, try to remember the The Art of Dining – French style if you ever have the opportunity to visit. You will be rewarded with an experience that will stay with you long after you have returned home. The gallery below is of some of the meals we have had recently. They were just as delicious as they were beautiful. I hope you enjoy.