Bon Appétit! Why Speaking a Little French Can Make or Break Your Dining Experience in Paris

Paris is one of the best foodie cities in the world! Anyone who travels to Paris is likely going to spend a lot of time popping in to different cafes, restaurants, and bars throughout their vacation. From grabbing a croissant and espresso from a patisserie for breakfast, to sitting down for a croque monsieur or salad for lunch, to popping into a local wine bar for evening drinks, there are so many opportunities to eat delicious food during your vacation – making food and dining phrases some of the most important you can learn before your next trip. In order to have the best experience dining out in Paris, make sure that you understand key French words and phrases related to the restaurant experience, from the moment you enter the restaurant until you leave.

Key French phrases for each stage of your visit to any Parisian café or restaurant

  • Deciding where to eat: You should have no trouble finding places to eat in Paris! But, you may notice that some restaurants are open limited hours. In particular, dinner time in Paris starts relatively late compared to the United States, with dinner service starting between 6-7 PM and running until as late as 11 PM. If you’re looking for a restaurant that is open in the afternoon or earlier in the evening, look for “service continu,” meaning “continuous service,” on the signage. (Many fast food joints will also be open all day.)
  • Upon arrival at the restaurant: First things first, you’ll be offered a menu (la carte). Many restaurants, especially during peak tourist season, will have menus in both English and in French. While most tourists will opt for the English menu, try to get a copy of each if you don’t speak French – the prices may be cheaper on the French version! The menu layouts are often the same, making it simple to match up the dishes on the English menu with the prices on the French menu.
  • Ordering your drinks: While water is free at restaurants in the United States, this isn’t the case in France: you should expect to pay between 3-5 for water with your meal, same as if you were to order a soda or juice. You might be asked if you’d prefer your water “plat” (still) or “petillante” (sparkling). If you want ice cubes in your drink, you’ll need to ask for “des glaçons.”
  • Planning your meal: When you’re at a restaurant, you might recognize the names of the courses on the menu – but they actually mean different things in French versus English! An American “entree” is called “plat” in French, and the French word “entrée” refers to the appetizer course. If you remember this, you won’t wonder why your “entrée” is such a small plate of food!
  • Paying your bill: Unlike in the United States, servers in France won’t come over to your table to drop off your check at the end of your meal, nor will they take your card from you at the table. Instead, you may be able to flag down a server and ask for “l’addition,” then pay using a handheld device that they bring to you, or you may need to walk up to the host stand or the bar with your credit card and transact there. Since this differs per restaurant, I recommend keeping an eye out for what others are doing before you are ready to leave!
  • What to do with your leftovers: Leave them on the table! You should not ask to take home your leftovers from a dine-in meal, as it will make you stand out immediately as a tourist and isn’t something that most restaurants offer. (If you want to order a meal as take-out, though, that is an option at many places – look for the phrase “à emporter,” meaning “takeaway,” on the menus or signs at the restaurant.)

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Aliyah is a scientist, writer, and advocate for inclusion in STEM. She currently works in the Boston biotech scene. A fan of traveling, board games, college sports, and reality TV, you can engage more with Aliyah on Twitter @YourTurnAliyah.

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