The 105 Words You Need to Order Food and Understand French Menus

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Ordering food in a French restaurant can be stressful.

How should you order? What does entrecôte mean? How do you ask for water? Do you need to pay for it? Should you leave a tip?

The answer to all these questions is in this article.

After reading it, you’ll know exactly what each item on a French menu is, how to order food like a local and whether you should leave a tip or not.

How to choose the right French restaurant…and avoid bad surprises

French restaurant

France is well-known for the quality of its food and its amazing restaurants but behind this excellent image lies a dark truth.

Many restaurants in touristic areas are mediocre at best. They serve you the same frozen pizza you could buy in the supermarket for 3 euros and dare charge you 14 euros for it.

Luckily, recognizing and avoiding these awful restaurants is fairly easy if you follow these 3 simple rules:

Avoid touristic areas like the plague

Most restaurants in touristic areas only have one goal: to make money from unsuspecting tourists.

These restaurants often have a waiter outside trying to convince passersby to choose their “authentic” French food.

They advertise “typical” French dishes that the French rarely eat (I’m looking at you frog legs and escargots) and serve galettes (savoury buckwheat crepes) that are nothing more than crepes with salty ingredients.

An easy way to spot them? Speak French to the waiter and see the utter surprise on his face as he wonders what a French person would do in such a ridiculously fake French restaurant.

Don’t be afraid of restaurants with no English menu

Lots of delicious French restaurants don’t have any English menu, particularly in less touristic areas and small cities.

These are often the best restaurants and you would be missing out by not eating there.

Don’t worry! You’ll learn all the food vocabulary you need to understand French menus in the second part of this article!

Avoid restaurants with huge menus

Often, the only way a restaurant can offer lots of options is by using frozen food, which is why you should always be suspicious of restaurants that offer a ton of options, especially if the restaurant is small.

 Check online reviews

French restaurant reviews
Positive restaurant reviews can’t always be trusted but negative reviews can give you an idea of what to expect.

It’s hard to tell whether a restaurant is good or not just by looking at its menu, so don’t hesitate to check online reviews, particularly negative ones.

No restaurant has perfect reviews only and checking negative reviews first helps you quickly spot places that serve frozen food or have dubious hygiene standards.

Here are a few places you can check:

  • Yelp
  • The Fork (you can also use it to book some restaurants online, no talking on the phone, yeah!)
  • A restaurant’s Facebook page

You can also look for Michelin and Gault&Millau restaurants as these awards are usually reliable signs of quality.

However, don’t get fooled by restaurants with Tripadvisor or Yelp stickers on their door.

In most cases, these stickers simply mean that said restaurant is listed there, not that it has great reviews.

Have you chosen a restaurant? Perfect! Let’s discover the menu!

À la carte or fixed menu: the key differences

Most French restaurants offer you the choice between two options:

  • À la carte: this is the free-choice menu. You’re free to choose any combination of food and drinks.
  • Le menu/la formule: this is the fixed menu. You choose one of several combinations that may or may not include drinks depending on the restaurant.

Here are the different categories you’ll usually find on a French à la carte menu:

These items will also be available with a fixed menu but you won’t have as much flexibility. In fact, you’ll most likely have to choose how many courses you would like to eat:

  • Entrée + plat : starter + main dish
  • Plat + dessert: main dish + dessert
  • Entrée + plat + dessert = starter + main dish + dessert

Know what you order: the vocabulary of food in French

You now know how French restaurant menus work and how to choose the right option.

Now let’s look at the yummy food you’ll typically find on a French menu.

A guide to the drinks you can find in a French restaurant

French drinks

Before eating with friends or family, the French like to drink un apéritif (often shortened apéro) while eating a light snack (nuts, olives…).

Drinks of choice include kir, champagne, pastis or even whisky but you can, of course, choose a non-alcoholic drink.

You can perfectly skip l’apéritif and drink while you eat but this is a nice tradition to be aware of.

Here are drinks you’re likely to find on a French restaurant menu:

Unlike restaurants in some other European countries (Germany, Denmark…), French restaurants offer tap water for free.

Simply ask “une carafe d’eau s’il vous plait” (a jug of water please).

If you simply ask for water and don’t say “carafe”, you’ll most likely get a bottle you’ll have to pay for.

How to order meat and fish in French

meat in French

Once you’re done with l’apéritif and drinks, it’s time to choose your food.

French food typically includes meat and fish so let’s look at the different kinds you can find in a French restaurant and their cooking style:

Let’s get you some greens: an overview of French fruit and vegetables

French vegetable

You didn’t think you would be able to avoid eating vegetables, did you?

While most French dishes are rather light on vegetables, you’ll still find some on your plate.

Here are a few you’re likely to see on the menu:

Choose your cooking style

The French love to be creative in the kitchen and you have the choice between lots of cooking styles, here are a few you’re likely to see on the menu:

It’s not all about baguettes: a guide to French grains

cereals

Everyone knows that the French eat lots of baguettes but did you know they also love couscous?

In French, couscous refers to the North African dish using  semolina, sauce, meat and vegetables.

The French love it so much that it was voted French people’s third favorite dish in a survey by polling organization TNS Sofres.

And couscous is just one grain in a long list of grains the French love. Here are a few others you can find in French restaurants:

The yummy world of French herbs and spices

French spices

Even though it’s not known for its spicy food, French cuisine does use its fair share of spices and yummy sauces.

Here are a few common ones:

Meuh: dairy products and eggs in French

France is Europe’s second largest milk producer and it shows!

Most French restaurants offer a variety of dairy products, including cheese of course.

Desserts are the best part of a meal in a French restaurant

macaron

There is nothing I love more than a dessert to end a meal in a delicious French restaurant.

Here are a few you should try:

Ok, writing all this made me hungry. I’ll be right back…

How to order food in French

Alright, so you know what you want to eat.

Now let’s discover a few sentences you can use to order food in French!

And of course, don’t forget to regularly use “merci” (thank you” and “sil vous plait” (please).

If you have allergies or dietary restrictions, it’s important to mention them even though the food doesn’t seem to contain anything you’re allergic to or don’t eat.

Salads often contain “lardons” (bacon strips) for example and it’s not always written on the menu.

Here is how to tell the waiter about your allergies and preferences:

It’s becoming rarer and rarer but waiters may occasionally think that “végétarien” means you still eat fish in which case you can say “je ne mange ni viande ni poisson” (I eat neither meat nor fish) to clarify.

How to congratulate the chef and say it’s delicious in French

Did you enjoy your food? Great!

Here are a few sentences that’ll come in handy:

French waiters won’t rush you and you could spend hours in a restaurant if you wait for them to bring you the bill so when you’re ready to leave, simply ask “l’addition s’il vous plait” (the bill please).

As for tipping, there is no rule.

You can leave a tip but you don’t have to because waiters are already paid a living wage.

In France and many other European countries, the bill includes a service charge. This is not the same as a tip.

Restaurants owners can do whatever they want with the service charge. They can share it between all the waiters…or keep it for themselves.

If you enjoyed the service, feel free to tip your waiter 15% of the bill or so. He/she will appreciate the extra cash.

Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together™ to help English speakers learn the 20% of French that truly matters.

24 thoughts on “The 105 Words You Need to Order Food and Understand French Menus”

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  1. Years ago I saw a dish on a Bastille resto menu called a TOURTE. What exactly is it? i’m not sure i’ve ever seen it offered again.

    Reply
  2. Thank you! Two questions:
    What’s between ‘à point’ and ‘bien cuit’? If I order something ‘à point’, it comes medium rare.
    How do you say ‘red meat’? By this, I basically mean anything with four legs (although I realize there is disagreement which category some meats fall into).

    Reply
    • Hi Roland,
      Red meat = viande rouge = boeuf
      White meat = viande blanche = veau, mouton, porc…
      Volaille = Poulet…
      Nothing between ” à point” and ” bien cuit” for french 😉
      So :
      Saisi : just few seconds
      Saignant : Rare
      à point : Medium rare ( actually Medium rare + )
      Bien cuit : Wel done

      Reply
  3. I am trying to remember the French (on menus) meaning something like ” market price “(as in “m.p”. in English menus) or priced by portion…I think it may be ” s.q.” . If so, what is the literal meaning of that in English?

    Reply
  4. Thank you Benjamin, I found this a great refresher of all the basics but still learnt some new words and improved my understanding. Like the chef commented earlier please can we also have a more advanced class helping to decipher some more sophisticated menus. My wife always laughs at me as I am happy to take a chance and be adventurous as I claim to be able to eat anything. Inevitably I end up eating some Andouillettes (tripe sausages)!! The smell of them is more challenging than the taste actually.

    Reply
  5. Bonjour 🙂

    Je suis vegetalienne. Je ne mange ni viande ni poisson.

    Can i also say, je ne mange pas de products laitiers?

    Merci 🙂

    Reply
    • Allon should have an s at the end. Another good topic could be how to manage one’s iPhone when switching across languages without throwing it at the wall and cursing in both languages. 🙂

      Reply
    • I have never been in Guadeloupe but I am pretty sure you will be fine with the sentences from this article. There may be a few phrases that are slightly different but people will understand you.

      Reply
  6. Though I’m quite fluent in French, I’m always picking up new local and native speaker’s vocabulary. For a carafe of water you often hear a shortened “une caraf d’eau” pronounced “une cara d’eau”. don’t pronounce the “f”. and the same for decaffeinated coffees. If you want a cafe creme which is like a latte and a decaffeinated version just ask for a “decaf creme” pronounced Dayka crem. Also I concur with those who say eat when possible in non-tourist areas. I often take the metro to a city square “place” where there are no monuments or tourist attractions but have lots of restaurants as they are cheaper. In Paris it is more difficult because of the high volume of tourists and there is a lot of interest everywhere. You also have to accept that many restaurants are less likely to do a lot of substitutions in advertised meals than in North America. When leaving an establishment like a restaurant, cafe, small shop, it is polite to say good-bye in some fashion such as “bonne Journee” pronounce “bun zhoornay” and after 6 pm “bonne soiree” (bun swaray).

    Reply
  7. I like to eat in the Parisian residential districts. Great food with lower prices. Ate once at a tourist restaurant near Sacré-Cœur. Went into anaphylactic shock, probably from a bad pizza. Spent the night in the emergency room. Never again!

    Reply
  8. Thank you, Benjamin, for this very good article, which has helped me, an advanced beginner in learning French, learn the correct pronunciation of some common French foods and dishes!!! Thank you very much!!!

    Reply
  9. I am just beginning to learn French, mainly for my own enjoyment, and I think this article was extremely enlightening. I now know the correct pronunciation of some words I have mispronounced for years. I don’t think you should criticize Benjamin for trying to help a large group of people, most of whom are not chefs, by calling his article “pretty poor.”

    Reply
  10. Thanks for these precisions, I updated the article 🙂

    I actually hesitated in the case of “couscous” because I see people calling the dish couscous in English but also the grain, although it should be called “semolina”.

    Which spices and herbs would you suggest? I looked at several French menus and wrote the most common I saw but I’m happy to add more.

    Reply
  11. It looks like it’s the same in English (according to dictionaries at least) but I think “cereals” just isn’t used the same way as in French in everyday language.

    Reply
  12. I think you should explain that in French, couscous is a dish with meat and sauce, and what the English call couscous is called la graine.
    In the spices section, you are missing a wealth of herbs and flavours.
    Profiterolles are made with creme patissiere (not creme) and are not always chocolate.
    Tarte tatin is made with apples, and although it is cooked upside down, that is not how it is served.
    I know you are just giving a certain amount of vocabulary, but in this particular lesson, I think it is pretty poor, and a lot of people would still not understand menus in France.
    Sorry, I am a chef…

    Reply
  13. J’étais un peu perplexé avec “cereal.” Je suppose que tu veux dire “grains.” Cereal est une nourriture que on mange pour le petit dejeuner. Est-ce que j’ai raison?

    Reply
    • Ah oui tu as raison :), c’est parce qu’en français, “céréales” c’est les céréales du petit déjeuner, mais aussi le riz, la semoule etc.

      Reply
    • cereal in French is both. Cereals, and grains ( because your morning cereals are generally made of grains like sweetcorn, wheat and oats)

      Reply

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