French dining: Mind your manners

By Celia Canning

A guide to surviving at French restaurants.

A tip: Always order cheese before dessert and never have it served with crackers. Photo / Thinkstock
A tip: Always order cheese before dessert and never have it served with crackers. Photo / Thinkstock

Tired of being addressed in painful French English before you've even opened your mouth?

Sick of being considered an easy catch by disconcertingly efficient and condescending waiters who know that foreigners still believe that tipping is an obligatory 10 per cent?

Well, it's time to shake the scent, fool the hounds, to meet the Parisian eye-to-eye. And talking of eyes, don't be misled by the Parisian's apparent haughtiness. This is, in actual fact, due to a slight divergent squint developed over time since the introduction of the pet dog: one eye is trained on the footpath, watching out for dog excrement while the other looks ahead.

The tourist, however, is recognisable by a gentle, unflustered, upward gaze (unless he/she has just walked in dog poo).

Survival tips

Dinner time. No Parisian, will ever turn up at a restaurant before 8pm.

If you're invited to someone's place to dinner, the same rule applies.

The menu. Before entering the restaurant, check the menu in the window. If it's laminated, typed and translated into several languages, it's clear they're catering for the tourist with zero culinary curiosity. Move on.

Look for a smaller restaurant with a handwritten menu on a blackboard - chances are the menu is changed regularly. Too much choice is always suspicious (expect frozen food heated in a microwave). Long and fancy names suggest the chef is making an effort.

The waiters. Never assume the restaurant personnel will be amicable. A disdainful look on entering is a safe start. This will give you time to measure up the situation. A bit like two dogs meeting. First there's the growl, followed by a hair bristle, ending up with a bottom sniff and a tail wag.

Same goes for the French, who like to know who they're dealing with (sniffing the waiter's bottom is optional).

Seating. Madame does not have to feel the feminist movement is being insulted if Monsieur opens the door and pulls the chair out for her. Old-fashioned gallantry and women's lib cohabitate well in France. The rule of thumb is that the fairer sex is seated facing out, over the restaurant.

Choosing the food. It's tricky choosing from a menu if you don't understand a word and you don't want to let on you're a foreigner. The safest option, if proposed, is "le plat du jour". As its name suggests, this will be meat or fish freshly bought on the day and cooked according to the chef's fancy. Unless it is the "plat du jour" or a fish restaurant, avoid the fish. Something white, sticky and flavourless with an equally flavourless ball of rice is probably what you'll get.

If you're really stuck you can let on you're a New Zealander and subtly drop the magic word "All Blacks". You may suddenly find yourself being kissed, cried upon, let into the intimacy of the wait staff's dream to be in New Zealand for the World Cup. You can be assured that your waiter/waitress will be bending backwards to translate the menu into English. Problem is, you still don't understand. Don't insist. The French are highly complexed about their foreign language skills. Just point out an entrée and a main (always ordered together). The cheese and dessert menu will be back later.

Bread. Do NOT order hot bread, or worse still, garlic bread to nibble on while you're waiting. Garlic bread is a new world invention and a baker's insult. Bread remains a biblical feature of the French table.

Water. Unless you ask for tap water - "une carafe d'eau"- you will be given expensive bottled water. Tap water is no longer a health hazard, except in Brittany where the local water is polluted, a consequence of intensive pig farming.

Wine. The automatic choice of a Bordeaux as a guarantee of quality will blow any respect you've gained so far. Far more chic to go for a small vineyard from the south.

The bigger glass is for water, the smaller one for wine. The cork has not yet been replaced by the screw top, so beware of the corked bottle.

Meat. The French like their steak only just dead. Be precise and very firm if you don't want it walking off your plate - "a point".

Never ask for a doggy bag. You shouldn't need to, they're not big on loaded plates.

Cheese. Always before dessert and never served with crackers. The biggest challenge lies in the cutting. Your education, social and intellectual status will be judged on it.

The rule of thumb for this is to cut like a tart, cutting from the middle outwards, so each person gets a bit of creamy centre and crust, be it a square or round cheese. No rules for dessert.

Coffee. Oddly enough, the notion of "plaisir" doesn't apply to coffee. It varies from just drinkable to awful. They don't do scalding hot, so no point complaining. There is little choice - espresso, allonge (watered-down), noisette (with a drop of milk) or decaffeine.

The bill. There's a certain flexibility with tipping, depending on your appreciation of the meal, the service and the environment. It's not really necessary at a casual lunch, it's about 10 per cent of the bill for something more upmarket or an evening meal. Then again, it's not expected because you've paid €150 for a meal for five that you're going to leave a €15 tip. Bon appetit!

- NZ Herald

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