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
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
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:
- 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!
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:
- Du jour : of the day. This is a dish or soup that’s only available on that particular day
- La boisson : the drink
- L’entrée : the starter
- La salade : the salad
- Le plat principal: the main dish
- Les spécialités : the specialties
- Le fromage: the cheese
- Le dessert : the desserts
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
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:
- Le vin rouge: red wine
- Le vin blanc: white wine
- Le rosé : rosé wine
- La bière : beer
- L’eau plate: still water
- L’eau gazeuse: sparkling water
- Le kir: liqueur with white wine
- Le champagne
- Le digestif: liqueur
- Le jus de fruit: fruit juice
- Le Jus d’orange: orange juice
- Le café: coffee
- Le thé: tea
- L’infusion: herbal tea
- Le décaféiné : decaffeinated coffee
- Le verre de vin: glass of wine
- Le pichet: pitcher
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
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:
- La viande: meat
- La volaille: poultry
- Le boeuf: beef
- L’agneau: lamb
- Le porc: pork
- Le poulet: chicken
- L’entrecôte: rib steak
- Le boudin: blood sausage
- Les escargots (snails)
- Saignant: rare
- A point: medium rare
- Bien cuit: well-done
- Le poisson: fish
- Les fruits de mer: seafood
- Le saumon: salmon
- Le saumon fumé: smoked salmon
- Le homard: lobster
- Les moules: mussels
- Les huitres: oysters
- Les coquilles Saint-Jacques: scallops
Let’s get you some greens: an overview of French fruit and vegetables
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:
- Les légumes: vegetables
- L’artichaut: artichoke
- Les haricots verts: green beans
- Les champignons: mushrooms
- Les carottes: carrots
- Les pommes de terre: potatoes
- Les échalotes: shallots
- Les oignons: onions
- La soupe: soup
- Le fruit: fruit
- La pomme: apple
- La poire: pear
- La banane: banana
- Les framboises: raspberries
- Les fraises: strawberries
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:
- A la vapeur: steamed
- Frit: fried
- Gratin: dish baked in the oven with cheese
- Farci: stuffed
- Fumé: smoked
- Rôti: roasted
It’s not all about baguettes: a guide to French grains
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:
- Couscous: dish with semolina, sauce, meat and vegetables
- Semoule: couscous (grain)
- Le pain: bread
- Le riz: rice
- Les pâtes: pasta
- Le blé: wheat
- Le blé noir/sarrasin: buckwheat (used for galettes)
The yummy world of French herbs and 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
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:
- Une glace: ice cream
- Un sorbet
- Une crème brulée
- Une profiterole: pastry ball usually filled with custard and chocolate
- Une crèpe: sweet pancake
- Un café gourmand: coffee with a small dessert
- Une tarte tatin: upside-down pastry with caramelized apple-
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!
- Je n’ai pas encore choisi: I didn’t choose yet
- Qu’est-ce que vous recommandez: what do you recommend?
- Quelle est l’entrée/le plat du jour ?: What the starter/main dish of the day?
- Je vais prendre: I’m going to take…
- Je voudrais: I would like
- Pour commencer: to begin with
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:
- Je suis végétarien(ne): I’m vegetarian
- Je suis végétalien(ne): ‘I’m vegan
- Je suis allergique à: I’m allergic to…
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.