It seems like I’m not alone feeling a little self-conscious at times when dining in French restaurants. I know that even after eight years in Paris I still make some faux pas and yet I stubbornly refuse to let go of some North American dining habits because I just feel more comfortable doing things that way.
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The first article that I published on this topic, 7 Things Only Tourists Do In French Restaurants, struck such a chord with folks that I decided to do a follow-up post on the topic, however, I know the list could go on even longer.
So here are some more items that have made the list of things that we Anglos are guilty of doing when dining out in France that you will never see the French do.
Switching Hands When Using Cutlery
I must admit that switching your utensils back and forth in your hands every time you have to cut a piece of food doesn’t seem to be the most efficient or elegant way of eating. This technique seems to be a uniquely North American thing.
Not only the French, but all Europeans and Brits keep the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right hand and they stay in those hands for cutting and carrying the food to your mouth.
I’m used to the North American style and it is much more comfortable for me but only because I am used to it. I do try to do it the European way because it’s a good exercise for your brain to do habitual tasks a little differently from time to time, like brushing your teeth with your left hand if you usually do it with your right.
Eating Everything with a Knife and Fork (Almost)
If you order a pizza or a hamburger here, you will definitely stand out if you pick it up with your hands and start chowing down. The pizza here is made with a thin crust so trying to pick it up will be a bit of a challenge because it will flop and sag and the toppings will end up on your plate, or possibly your lap. I find that it is just more practical to eat it with cutlery so I didn’t have an issue with adapting to this.
However, when it comes to the ubiquitous hamburger, this is where I draw the line. The Parisians are mad for hamburgers and you will see them on almost any cafe menu in the city. I have tried on several occasions to eat them with a knife and fork and have thrown in the towel on this one. I find that I just can’t do it neatly. The interior layers of my burger end of shooting out from between the bun across the table. After turning a lovely shade of crimson from embarrassment, and I manage to meekly gather the ingredients up back onto the plate, it’s useless to try to reassemble it because I will just end up in a vicious circle once I attack it with the knife again.
So I have come to terms with the fact that this is a technique that I sadly will never master. I just cut the burger in half, eat it with my hands, and live with the fact that I will never fully blend in as a local.
One exception to the rule is asparagus. This one I have no trouble managing with cutlery, but for some reason, it is “de rigueur” to eat it with your fingers.
Drinking Soda with Your Meal
You will never see the French drink anything with their meal except for water or wine. The only exception that I have seen for this is in fast food restaurants. Soda is not a big thing in Paris. I don’t drink a lot of soda but I like one from time to time. When I do have one it’s usually as a treat on a warm day. It is one of the few times that a cafe will serve a drink with ice, and if often comes with a wedge of lemon and a tall spoon in the glass. The soda arrives in a little glass bottle alongside the glass and its accoutrements. It’s a classy way to enjoy a soda, but when I do this and look around at what others are having, I am almost always the only one. If the Parisians want a cold non-alcoholic drink they will most often opt for sparkling water or sometimes a juice.
Using Side Plates
This is another one that I still can’t get used to. They serve bread with everything here, but rarely give you side plates. If you go to a cafe for an apéro (a before dinner drink and snack with friends) and order some charcuterie, the server will bring you the platter, a knife and a napkin along with a basket of bread. I like to put the napkin on my lap, but I also want to use it to place my bread on because I can’t bear putting the bread directly on the table, even if there is a table cloth. So what to do, what to do?
Asking for a Doggy Bag
Generally, the portions in the cafes and restaurants in Paris are reasonably sized so it’s not difficult to polish off your plate and feel like you have eaten well but aren’t stuffed. In restaurants where they do a lot of take-out, it is not a problem to ask them to take away any leftovers you may have, but in more cafes and exclusively dining-in restaurants, they don’t always appreciate someone asking to take a doggy bag. However, with people being more conscious of food waste these days, servers are becoming more considerate if you ask.
Unless they are ticked off about something, the French speak quietly amongst themselves. We Anglos are more boisterous and normally talk at a higher volume. If I am dining in a restaurant at home in Canada and a large group is seated at a table near me, I cringe because I know it’s going to get loud and if I want to have a conversation with my table mate, I will have to struggle to talk over the noise.
I’m not sure how they do it, but I never notice when there is a large group of diners seated beside me when dining out in Paris. The Parisians have a gift for managing to communicate, even with so many of them at a large table, without getting overly loud. You’ll also notice that few restaurants play music, unlike in Anglo countries.
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Calling The Waiter “Garçon”
Not many people do this anymore unless you are an elder as it’s quite old fashioned to call a server garçon. It means boy which sounds quite derogatory in English, but it’s not quite as bad as it sounds in French since it originated as a means of calling a waiter “garçon de café". However, there are more and more female servers today and it’s pretty outdated so I advise against using this term today. Just catch the server’s attention by saying "s"il vous plaît". It’s easy and very polite.
Have any of these things happened to you or do you have others that you would add?