French Table Manners: a Crash Course.

Do you Have Good French Table Manners?

Not sure? Well, here are the French table manners to brush up on before going to Paris...

Whether you will be dining out in a French restaurant or invited to a dinner party while in Paris, you will undoubtedly be glad you've taken this little crash course on French table manners and other mealtime standards of French etiquette!

The French pride themselves in French cuisine....or I should say, the French have a lot of national pride in many things, and French cuisine is definitely one of them. And why would they not? French cuisine has been held as an international standard for excellent food, and excellent chef training, for so long that it has basically become a stereotype.

The French like to honour their good food with good presentation and good manners. You'll find that in France, eating a quick sandwich over the sink is pretty much unheard of, and perhaps even bordering on blasphemous.

A French meal is generally eaten in courses, and will often go something like this:

Amuse-bouche/amuse-gueule which translate to 'mouth-plaything'(the latter version being a more slang/vulgar way to say it. These will generally be little one-bite treats like nuts, olives.
Hors d'oeuvres

Appetizer

Fish course
This is often followed by lemon or lime sorbet.
Main course

Salad
Usually simple and with fresh vinaigrette.
Cheese

Dessert and coffee
(Most often, just coffee.) (A coffee gourmand means dessert with the coffee.)

Not every meal will have all of these courses, of course. It's important to note that what we call 'entrée' on our English-language menus, is the main course or 'plat principal' and what they call 'entrée' on French menus, is what we call 'appetizer'.

In France, there is a certain amount of ceremony at every meal, which makes it all the more important to mind your French table manners!

General French Table Manners:

At the table in France, manners are more important. Dining is more formal, even within a family setting.

Here are 5 tips for good French table manners:

  1. Keep your hands on the table, this is very important.

  2. Eat with the fork in your left hand, and the knife in the right.

  3. Always wait for the head of the table or the host to say "bon appétit" before starting to eat.

  4. Always cheers before drinking: raise your glass and say "a votre santé" (other toasts exist in French as well, of course, but this is the one that will suit all occasions. Most of the others are just for casual settings). If the table has a host or head, this will be the person to give the toast as well as to say "bon appétit"

  5. Most meals come with bread. If you don’t have a side plate, putting the bread on the tablecloth beside your plate is fine.

Doesn't sound too hard, now, does it? You'll do great!

French Table Manners Au Resto... At a French Restaurant:

Undoubtedly, while you are in Paris, you will end up dining out in a restaurant. Here are some tips to help you know what to expect and how to deal with it.

It is considered very bad manners in France to make people feel they are being rushed through a meal. For this reason, French waiters will be looking to you to set the pace... If you are used to American style restaurant service, you may feel a bit neglected by your server.

Servers in France pride themselves on their ability to keep their presence subtle but helpful throughout a meal. They won't be checking up on you periodically throughout your meal as you may be used to in other countries, but they will be watching for a few cues from you.

Since it is very much customary in France to greet someone before speaking to them, it is quite important that the first thing you say be "bonjour" (or "bonsoir” if it is after 6pm). It would be considered rude of you if you didn't, so please remember this small detail to get your evening's server-diner relationship off to a positive start.

At the restaurant:

  1. When you are ready to order, set your menu down on the table, closed.

  2. If you need to get your server's attention and can't catch his or her eye to subtly wave them over, use "s'il vous plait" to get their attention. PLEASE don't snap your fingers (this would be a particularly rude hand gesture in France). Definitely don't use "garcon". I’m not sure why we English-speakers think French people say that...they don’t.

  3. If you must stop eating momentarily or leave your plate briefly but are not done eating, leave your knife and fork on your plate with each handle pointing out towards the hand holding it, as if ready to be picked up again.

  4. You will need to ask for the cheque when you are done. The standard hand gesture for this, is to pretend to sign a cheque in mid air.

  5. If you have gone to the restaurant with French people, don't talk about money. Don't split the bill. Whoever gave the invite for the meal at the restaurant will pay, and the understanding is generally that it is up to the other party to invite and pay next time. The subject of money is considered quite personal in France, so avoid it gracefully whenever possible.

  6. The tip (gratuity) is included but you should generally round up a little, particularly if you appreciated the service.

French table manners to be mindful of if you've been invited as a guest to dinner or drinks ('un apero') to someone’s home:

The 'rules' involved in being a good dinner guest go a bit beyond simple French table manners and onto matters of general French etiquette.

If you have been invited over for 'un apero', this is a relatively casual visit over drinks, usually meant to last only about an hour or an hour and a half. In this case, since it's not a meal, French table manners are not such an issue and all the following guidelines can be followed a little more loosely, if necessary at all...

  1. Bring a hostess gift such as flowers, a plant or chocolates.

  2. Never bring foreign wine, or any wine for that matter. Of course there are situations when this is fine, so if you do have a particularly good bottle to offer, for example, that you know from conversation they love, this would be okay to bring...but don't expect them to open it while you are there. It would be standard that they have wine picked out specifically for the evening already and will most likely put your offering aside for another occasion.

  3. There are certain rules to giving flowers, and certain flowers mean very certain things to French people, so ask your florist to be sure. Generally, flowers should be given in odd numbers, but not 13. Don’t give red roses, yellow roses, chrysanthemums, red carnations, or white flowers, particularly white lilies. This is because of their respective meanings or uses in France.

  4. If it is a big event, arrange for a flower bouquet to be sent that morning.

  5. Always show up for dinner within ten minutes late. Telephone if you will be any longer than ten minutes late. Drinks won't be served until the last guests arrive, so try not to be last!

  6. Never pour your own drink, and don't take your first sip until the host says "a votre santé" or some variation of 'cheers' thereof.

  7. Drinking water -your host will pour the first one, and then it is up to you to top up yours and others if you like.

  8. Don't start eating until the host or hostess says “bon appétit”

  9. Talk about the weather to start, or families, children, food, restaurants etc. Don't ask what they do or did for a living. Don't talk about money. And if you are going to talk about religion or politics, expect it to escalate into a heated debate. (...But then again, that can probably be anticipated just about anywhere in any social culture.)

  10. The kitchen is often off limits...even to helping to clean off the table. Feel it out. The hosts won't want you to see the prep mess in the kitchen. If you are a woman, there may be situations where it would be polite to get up and help deal with the dishes; you'll just have to feel it out, I guess. And I hate to say it, but if you are a man, it would probably seem unusual to them if you offered to help with the dishes, so it might actually be best if you don't even offer.

  11. Ask for toilets discretely at a dinner setting; just ask where you can go ‘freshen up’. Freshen up in French is “me rafraichir". Above all, please do not say "J'ai besoin de faire pipi”. I swear this is the 2nd favourite line non-French speakers like to use (first being "Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?") and will not endear you to your hosts.......most hosts.

  12. Always send a thank you note the next day, or phone to say thank you.

Hopefully this little crash course on Parisian etiquette and French table manners will help you to quickly feel confident and comfortable at mealtime so that you can concentrate on building relationships with new Parisian friends.....with fewer initial moments of awkwardness!