How to Dine in France

National Cheese Day

We’re coming up to National Cheese Day and the 4th of June is a great day to break out the Brie and wish you were savoring it on the French Riviera. Dining in France, however, can be an intimidating experience. If you’ve ever had a waiter give you the evil eye in Paris or heard a soft oh non! from other diners, you know what we mean. The French have their own way of doing things when it comes to eating a meal, and if you’re from North America, chances are you’re doing it wrong.

To celebrate National Cheese Day, we’re giving you a few tips to make your next dining experience in France a little more comfortable. Who knows, you could be spending the same day next year in a café in Lyon, showing your traveling companions exactly how it’s done.

Get Used to Eating Late

The French might feed small children at 6:00 but the grownups don’t eat until at least 7:30 and many restaurants don’t even open until 8:00. The evening meal is as much about companionship as calorie consumption, so expect to be at the table for a couple of hours to enjoy a typical three or four course feast.

Keep Your Hands Above the Table

No self-respecting diner in France keeps their hands in their lap. Rest your wrists on the table when you’re not eating and keep them in plain sight.

Don’t Eat with Your Hands

Sounds like good advice at any dinner table, but the French really mean it. Use a knife and fork for everything on your plate including ribs, chicken legs, pizza and burgers. The only exception is a croissant or other breakfast pastry but tear off small chunks and never take a bite from the whole piece.

Never Use a Knife on Lettuce

This applies not only to preparing a salad but to eating one as well. Just fold any bigger pieces of greenery onto your fork and don’t use your knife at all.

Pretend There’s No Such Thing as Ketchup

If you really want to insult the chef, ask for ketchup. Dunking anything in vinegary tomato sauce will let them know you want to cover up the taste of their artfully prepared meal. You might get away with it if you’re just eating fries, but the classy thing to do is ask for mayonnaise.

 

Wine, Beer and Water

If you’re not a wine drinker, get used to eating your food with still or sparkling water. If you want ice, you’ll usually have to ask for it. Beer might get you a polite sniff but is usually acceptable. Coffee is only served at the end of the meal and can be accompanied by a liqueur. If you order a coke, you’re on your own.

Knife and Fork Together

When you’re finished eating, place your knife and fork together in the center of your plate. A good French waiter won’t pick up your plate until he or she sees this signal and will rarely ask if you’re done.

…And Don’t Mess Up the Cheese

In France cheese is often served between salad, which comes after the main meal, and dessert. The basic rule here is to leave the cheese plate looking beautiful after you’ve taken a piece. That means never hacking off the point and always taking a small slice from the side so that you keep the integrity of its shape. You can then transfer the slice onto a small chunk of bread, but if you need to cut it again, you took too much.

Enjoy National Cheese Day and if you’re in North America, go ahead and put butter on your bread. The French will never know.