All establishments must post their menus outside, so study them carefully before deciding to enter. Most restaurants have two basic types of menu: à la carte and fixed-price (prix-fixe or un menu). The prix-fixe menu is usually the best value, though choices are more limited. Most menus begin with a first course (une entrée), often subdivided into cold and hot starters, followed by fish and poultry, then meat; it's rare today that anyone orders something from all three.
A few pointers on French dining etiquette: diners in France don't negotiate their orders much, so don't expect serene smiles when you ask for sauce on the side. Order your coffee after dessert, not with it. When you're ready for the check, ask for it: no professional waiter would dare put a bill on your table while you're still enjoying the last sip of coffee. And don't ask for a doggy bag; it's just not done. The French usually drink wine or mineral water—not soda or coffee—with their food. You may ask for a carafe of tap water if you don't want to order wine or pay for bottled water.
Fast Food, French Style
Many say that bistros served the world's first fast food. After the fall of Napoléon, the Russian soldiers who occupied Paris were known to bang on zinc-top café bars, crying "bistro"—"quickly"—in Russian. In the past, bistros were simple places with minimal decor and service. Although nowadays many are quite upscale, most remain cozy establishments serving straightforward, frequently gutsy cooking.
Brasseries—ideal places for quick, one-dish meals—originated when Alsatians fleeing German occupiers after the Franco-Prussian War came to Paris and opened restaurants serving specialties from home. Pork-based dishes, choucroute (sauerkraut), and beer (brasserie also means brewery) were, and still are, mainstays here. The typical brasserie is convivial and keeps late hours. Some are open 24 hours a day, a good thing to know since many restaurants stop serving at 10:30 pm.
Like bistros and brasseries, cafés come in a confusing variety. Often informal neighborhood hangouts, cafés may also be veritable showplaces attracting chic, well-heeled crowds. At most cafés the regulars congregate at the bar, where coffee and drinks are cheaper than at tables. At lunch tables are set, and a limited menu is served. Sandwiches, usually with jambon (ham), fromage (cheese), or mixte (ham and cheese), are served throughout the day. Casse croûtes (snacks) are also offered. Cafés are for lingering, for people-watching, and for daydreaming. If none of these options fit the bill, head to the nearest traiteur (deli) for picnic fixings.
Breakfast is usually served from 7:30 am to 10 pm, lunch from noon to 2 pm, and dinner from 7:30 pm to 10 pm. Restaurants in Paris usually serve dinner until 10:30 pm.
By French law, prices must include tax and tip (service compris or prix nets), but pocket change left on the table in basic places, or an additional 5% in better restaurants, is always appreciated. Beware of bills stamped service not included in English. The prices given in this book are per person for a main course at dinner, including tax (5.5%) and service; note that if a restaurant offers only prix-fixe (set-price) meals, it is given a price category that reflects the full prix-fixe price.
- 80 Degrees: Fodor's Helps You Find Your Best Beach Vacation Spots
- Fodor's Go List 2014: Where we are going in 2014
- World Cup Fever: Start planning your trip to Brazil!
- Fodor's 100 Hotel Awards: Check out the winners of 2013
- Weekend Getaways: Fodor's Recommends the Best Weekend Escapes in the US
- Great American Vacation: Find Your Next U.S. Trip with Fodor's