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Avoiding French Restaurant Pitfalls

After having found your perfect apartment or villa in Nice with Attika, you’re going to want to be dining out in France! Here are our top tips for negotiating the cultural and linguistic minefield that is a French restaurant!

1. The tablecloth

If you’re just looking to have a drink, don’t sit at a table that has a tablecloth, or an annoyed waiter will swoop down and shoo you away. The tablecloth is the code for knowing which tables are ‘restaurant’ and which are ‘bar’.

2. Getting the waiter’s attention

No matter how many times you’ve seen it in films, nobody calls the waiter by snapping their fingers and shouting “Garçon!”!! Better to say “s’il vous plait?” or “Monsieur”.

3. The thumb

Whilst back at home you may use your index finger to signal ‘one’, the French use their thumb for this. Therefore, the gesture you make at home more often than not will be interpreted as ‘two’ over here, which can cause much confusion, from asking for a table for one to ordering one coffee!


4. Water (and ice)

If you just ask for water they will bring you pricey bottled water; the code word for tap-water (which is perfectly drinkable) is “une carafe d’eau”. Also, ice is not automatic, you generallyhave to ask for it (“…avec des glaçons”)!

5. Ordering an aperitif

This is the first thing that your waiter will ask – do you want a before dinner drink? Just know that a regular cocktail (scotch and soda, gin and tonic) is shockingly expensive here (you pay twice: once for the pricey shot and then separately for the mixer); locals will more often order a less expensive kir, glass of rosé, beer, or martini… which, by the way, is Martini-and-Rossi, a fortified sweet wine (white or red) served on ice. American-style martinis (un martini Americain) are only served in high-end hotels.

6. Wine

In the South of France, locals drink almost exclusively red or rosé, and almost never drink white unless it’s a really nice bottle. If you were going to order white, go local and try a rosé from Provence instead!

7. Ordering: ‘menu’ vs ‘carte’

To see a menu ask for ‘la carte’; the ‘menu’ is the fixed-price set-menu with several courses.

Here are a few other common menu mistakes:

  • ‘Pâtes’ means pasta, not pâté
  • An ‘escalope’ refers to a veal scallop, not sea scallops (which are noix de saint-jacques or coquilles de saint-jacques)
  • Ris de veau will get you sweetbreads, not veal with rice

8. How to order meat

Our biggest tip here is to order your meat one degree above what you would order it at home! For example, if you like your steak medium-rare then order it medium otherwise it will come out rather pink!

  • The Frenchword for rare is ‘bleu’
  • Medium-rare is ‘saignant’ (which means bloody)
  • Medium is ‘à point’ (means just right)
  • Well-done is ‘bien-cuit’
  • Really well-doneis ‘carbonnisée (burnt to a crisp!)

9. Bread and butter

Just so you know, bread only comes with butter at breakfast so if you want it at lunch or dinner then you have to ask for it! Only in the more expensive restaurants will you find a bread plate; most people just put their bread on the tablecloth!

10. Fingers vs cutlery

In restaurants, pizza, chips and chicken drumsticks are usually eaten with a fork. Mussels, on the other hand, are eaten using your fingers! Use the empty shell as if it were tongs.

11. Done!

To get the waiter to remove your plate, the signal is to put your knife and fork together across the dish. Otherwise, if there is any food on it at all, they will wait, assuming that you want to eventually mop up the sauce with your bread (perfectly acceptable). Also, there is no custom of doggy-bags in France, and if you ask, everyone around you will be aghast.

12. Dessert and coffee

In France, these are two separate courses, and even if you ask for them to come at the same time, the waiter will just assume he misheard you. The one exception to this is the ‘Cafe Gourmand’ which is an espresso served with 3 mini-desserts.

13. Getting the bill

You think you’re being ignored, but it is actually a very nice courtesy to insure that you never feel rushed… You need to ask for the check (“l’addition s’il vous plait”) or it will never come.

14. Tipping

All restaurant prices are “service compris” — they include the tax and the tip — however it is nice to leave a couple extra coins on the table, maybe 2-3%, but it is not expected (unless the restaurant is tourist-based), especially if you pay with a card. European credit card processing doesn’t provide for leaving a tip, so if you don’t have any coins with you, don’t stress: French people often don’t leave anything extra when they pay with a card.

15. Timing

The earliest you can get a table in most restaurants is 7pm or 7:30pm, and most diners arrive around 8pm.


For some of our favourite restaurants in Nice read our blog here