FAQ About French Food, Coffee, Wine, and Tipping

June 27, 2019
Carole Pinto

A typical French lunch consists of a starter (“une entrée”), such as a mixed salad, soup, some terrine or pâté, and bread. A main course (“le plat principal”) is typically a choice of meat or fish with potatoes, rice, pasta, and/or vegetables; a cheese course (often a selection of local cheeses); and/or a dessert. A “café gourmand” is a very tasty and inexpensive option as you are served three to five small desserts, such as crème brûlée, mousse au chocolat, baba au rhum, macarons, etc. Some menus give you the alternative to choose either an “entrée” and “plat principal” or a “plat principal” and “dessert”.

When should I eat out?

Make sure you arrive at the restaurant around noon and no later than 1:30 p.m. if you haven’t booked a table, as you will be told that the service is over. The French have lunch at noon and finish around 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. if they go out for lunch on vacation. The same thing applies to dinner: the service starts at 7:00 p.m. and stops around 9:30 p.m., but you can stay as late as midnight, depending on the restaurant.

What if I don’t eat everything on my plate?

Have good table manners. No doggy bags please. Doggy bags are not a usual thing in France and some waiters may give you the evil eye if you ask for one. However, if you haven’t finished your meal, you’re entitled to ask for a doggy bag. If you ask the waiter nicely, there won’t be any problem—mostly in large cities. The French don’t know what a doggy bag is in small towns, or in the province, as we call it.

What do the French have for breakfast?

The French mostly have coffee (with or without milk), tea, or hot chocolate with bread/brioche and butter/jam or pastries such as pain au chocolat, croissant, or pain aux raisins. Or, sometimes they also have a yogurt and a glass of juice. French people usually do not eat cheese for breakfast or anything savory. Brunches have become very popular over the last 15 years, but they can be quite expensive. Check the menus and prices before making a decision, as some places are “attrape-touristes” (tourist traps).

What is French coffee like?

“Une noisette” is the French equivalent of the Italian macchiato. It’s a shot of espresso with a drop or two of milk or cream and served in the same espresso cup that café is served in. Noisette is French for hazelnut, and this coffee is named this way because of the hazelnut color the espresso and cream make. A latte is called “café au lait,” but most people drink espressos, which have nothing to do with American coffee. It is served in a tiny cup and it can be fairly strong. Don’t drink more than a couple a day and never after 4:00 p.m., or you will start shaking and you will have trouble going to sleep.

How do the French drink wine?

In France, drinking wine is linked to eating food or enjoying it with a selection of cheese and bread or “charcuterie” in cafés. You seldom drink wine just by itself. It is not set in stone, but there is definitely a time after lunch, and too early before dinnertime when it’s not really customary to drink alcohol in France. Beware of the price! Most of the money caterers earn comes from the wine they sell and not the food itself, which is sometimes industrial. If you are proposed a giant menu with more than four “plats principaux” and 15 “entrées” or “desserts” at a fairly cheap price, you can be sure it is industrial and not cooked in the kitchen.

Do I tip in France?

Tipping, and figuring out the tipping system, is one of the most confusing things for visitors. There is no fixed amount, but if you wish to leave a tip for good service, think of it as a gesture, not an obligation. Once again, it is not necessary but it is appreciated for good service. Don’t leave 10€ in a restaurant; a couple of euros will do, maybe 20 to 50 cents for a coffee. This won’t change the way you are served, as waiters and waitresses have fixed wages and share the tips which they place in a bottle or a cup behind the bar. It should be noted that actually the real “tip” of 15% of the bill is included in the tab. In “expensive” restaurants, it is customary to leave 5 to 10 euros extra.

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