No-one takes food more seriously than the French—but there’s more to the country’s cuisine than steak-frites, macarons, and croissants.
Books have been written about what the French really eat. Yet most restaurants and brasseries still tempt visitors with the same staid classics: so-called regional specialties that bear little resemblance to the real deal, and dishes rendered cultural no-gos due to out-of-season ingredients. Don’t fall into the bad-dinner trap on your next trip. These are the dishes never to order in France (and what to eat instead).
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A Café au Lait
You’ll never spot a Parisian ordering a café au lait—or indeed rarely anything except a little shot of espresso, whether first thing in the morning or at the end of a meal at night. Long, milky coffees are reserved for drinking at home, if at all. Instead, get your caffeine fix with a café crème. Similar to a cappuccino, but with a smoother and glossier foam, it’s a staple at the best new-wave coffee shops in Paris. If you’re in need of a bigger kick, up the stakes with a two-shot grand crème at a cozy spot like Coffee Spoune, where laptops are banned at busy times so you can nurse your coffee with a book in peace.
The most quintessential of French treats is the worst thing to order in a café. Aside from the fact that croissants didn’t actually originate in France (they were brought to Paris from Vienna by a baker named Auguste Zang in the late 1830s), every Francophile worth their salt knows the only place to get a croissant is the local boulangerie, and ideally before 10 a.m. If you’re sitting down for breakfast, opt for a tartine, a halved portion of baguette traditionally served with salty butter and jam. Increasingly, tartines are also getting elaborate savory makeovers later in the day: at Lyon’s Pimprenelle you’ll find them topped with everything from smoked salmon to goat’s cheese and honey.
Escargots (snails) might be a Burgundian classic, but elsewhere in France they’re rarely local and often included on menus as a foreigner-friendly concession. Luckily there are plenty of delicious alternatives to following in Julia Roberts’ footsteps with a plate of these “slippery little suckers.” Embrace French tradition and start eating in the early evening at apéro hour, when bars lay on a short menu of snacks à grignoter (to nibble on) with a glass of wine. No matter where you are in the country, you can’t go wrong with rillettes. As it’s preserved, this coarse, shredded paté of pork or duck is as tasty in Normandy as it is in Nantes. That said, if you really want to limit your food miles, order it in Tours where the porky rillettes de Tours have famously been enjoyed by everyone from Balzac to Proust. Bibovino, a wine bar improbably popularizing high-end bag-in-a-box wines, brings the setting right up to date.
There’s one sure way to elicit swift and damning judgement from your server in France: order your steak bien cuit. Well done is simply not done here. In the eyes of chefs, a beautiful filet or chateaubriand should always be served saignant (literally meaning bloody, but similar to rare) or bleu (blue). Want to impress with your culinary curiosity? Go for tartare, raw steak chopped and mixed with an uncooked egg yolk, then seasoned with finely diced gherkins, capers, shallots, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce. It’s a classic brasserie dish whose success relies on the quality of the ingredients. At Lyon’s Brasserie Georges, in business since 1836, that means the finest locally reared Charolais beef prepared tableside and served with salty, crispy fries.
Bacon makes everything better. So why order a simple salade verte (green salad) when you could start your meal with frisée aux lardons (a curly endive salad with crispy bacon)? It’s an especially good choice if you’re matching dishes to heavier red wines, which mask the flavors of lighter dressings. While frisée salads are about as old school as recipes come, they’re making a comeback in Paris along with the resurgence of the city’s traditional brasseries and bouillons. Order one in the beautiful Belle Époque surrounds of Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse with a half-bottle of Bordeaux, bien sûr.
Coq au Vin
Just like escargots, coq au vin (a chicken and red wine stew) is a regional specialty made with rich reds from Burgundy—not a generic French dish. So, unless you’re dining at a bistro in Dijon, it might not be the best choice on the menu. Many regions have their own versions using local wines. In Alsace, look for the lighter, creamier coq au Riesling at cozy Strasbourg winstubs such as Chez Yvonne. It’s made with white wine and, reflecting the city’s proximity to Germany, might be served with spaëtzle rather than potatoes. Further south in the Jura you’ll find coq au vin jaune, flavored with the region’s famous oxidized wine, while west in Champagne keep an eye out for (you guessed it) coq au champagne.
France might make the best butter in the world, but ordering some to smear on the baguette served alongside your meal is a big no-no. (Although dredging bits of baguette through leftover sauce is A-OK.) Even Brittany’s most prestigious dairy artisans Beurre Bordier discourage slathering it on bread: “Just place the pat of butter on your bread rather than spreading it with a knife,” they advise, as this can, “change the butter’s texture.” Handily, there’s an easy way to get your butter fix at dinner: for dessert in salted butter caramel sauce drizzled onto a crêpe, Brittany’s other celebrated export. There’s nowhere more atmospheric to try the sweet stuff than Crêperie Le Tournesol, on the Brittany coast in the walled town of Saint Malo.
Bouillabaisse might not be what you expect. We’ve become all too familiar with the Americanized version—a simple fish and seafood soup—and plenty of unscrupulous restaurants are ready to cash in on our misapprehension. True bouillabaisse is a time-intensive two-course feast hailing from Marseille, comprising a broth accompanied by garlic-rubbed croutons and rouille, plus four or five varieties of fish presented separately and filleted at the table. If you don’t think it’s the real deal on the menu, don’t order it. There are some fantastic alternatives, even in Marseille. Spectacularly sited fine-dining restaurant Le Peron offers one of the most elegant twists, an intense soupe de poissons de roche, made with the same fish as bouillabaisse and served as a starter.
It’s not just fruit and vegetables that are eaten seasonally in France. Many cheeses are only produced and sold at specific times of year. So before you tuck into that honey-drizzled baked Camembert on a chilly winter day, consider other seasonal options. Mont d’Or is made in the Jura between August and March, when the Montbeliarde cows are brought down from their summer pastures. It’s devoured over the winter months as part of restaurant cheese courses in the Jura’s principal town, Arbois, and “hot-boxed” in kitchens across France. For the uninitiated, that means baking Mont d’Or whole in its box with a splash of white wine then serving it with potatoes, bread, and cured meats to dunk into its molten center.
White Wine Spritzers
In France, it’s generally considered sacrilege to add anything except a splash of cassis to wine. Order a white wine spritzer and expect to be met with utter incredulity. But on a hot summer’s day, there’s one exception to the rule. Whether you’re on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice or drinking on the beach at La Mandala in Cannes, it’s entirely acceptable to have your salmon-pink and bone-dry rosé served with glaçons (ice cubes), which you can drop into your glass one-by-one to keep the wine cool in the sun.
Candy-colored macarons might be the first sweet treat that comes to mind when you picture picnics by the Seine in Paris, but unless you seek out versions from the best chocolatiers, many are mass-produced. More inventive Parisian pâtisserie choices include Popelini’s cute-as-a-button choux puffs. Filled with everything from gianduja and nougat to raspberry confit and strawberry-flavored chantilly they’re just as indulgent—and equally photogenic.
Profiteroles are served in surprisingly few French restaurants. A relatively simple confection, just cream puffs drizzled in chocolate sauce, they’re overlooked by many restaurateurs who want to showcase their chefs’ precision and skill. These days, their popularity is also eclipsed by another choux-based treat that’s developing a serious cult following: the Paris-Brest. Invented by pâtissier Louis Durand to mark the Paris-Brest cycle race in 1910 (its circular shape was inspired by bike wheel), this decadent dessert is essentially a choux pastry sandwich filled with praline cream and topped with toasted almonds or hazelnuts. Of course, the most apt spot to sample one is the bakery where the Paris-Brest was first invented, Pâtisserie Durand, on the outskirts of Paris.