Hi Frugalistas! I’ve written a lot about Paris. I’ve written about shopping in Paris. I’ve written about sleeping in Paris, and what to eat in Paris brasseries. But I’ve never written a guide to eating in Paris. Eating out Paris style can have some tricks for the inexperienced, and a bad experience can affect your confidence and your memories of your visit. But eating in Paris is one of the most fun and authentic French experiences you can enjoy, so I’ve written this Paris eating guide to make sure dining in Paris is everything you hope.
Eating out choices in Paris
Restaurant, bar, bistrot, brasserie, café……..where to start, and what is the difference?
Well, let’s start with the most simple. A bar can be a bar – basically serving drinks (usually from the late afternoon into late at night), or can be a bar/café/restaurant (sometimes it will say all three), usually open from early morning for breakfast, through to the night. Bars serve coffee and other drinks, and sometimes simple meals as well, although not always. They can a great place to sample traditional snack foods such as a croque monsieur, or for predinner drinks at a good price. They are normally very local, so are also a good place to mix with Parisians. Save money by eating at the bar rather than sitting at a table.
I’m considering bistrots, brasseries and cafés together – from a practical visitor’s perspective, they are basically the same. Cafés are a great choice for eating out in Paris on a budget. Bistrots, brasseries and cafés are where you go for traditional French specialties such as onion soup (soupe a l’oignon), a good steak frites and a good quality tart or chocolate mousse for dessert. There is no need to book, and if you sit outside there is no need to wait to be seated. It is quite OK to just order a drink without food, or to order a single course meal. Bistrots, brasseries and cafés tend to be open all day (although some bistrots will only open for lunch and dinner and sometimes are a little more formal).
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The term “restaurant” is usually reserved for what we would understand as a more formal dining experience. Normally open for lunch and dinner only, it is always best to book a table for dinner if you wish to dine at a restaurant rather than just turn up. Restaurants can still be a good choice for eating on a budget in Paris. At dinner time, restaurants open much later than we would be used to in English speaking countries. In my experience, the more upmarket the restaurant, the later the opening hour (8pm is quite common). If you eat in a true restaurant, it is expected that you will eat a minimum of two courses. Some will offer a complimentary amuse bouche (a tiny little appetiser) to start and/or a palate cleansing sorbet after your main course (entrée).
The words used on a French menu look very, well, English, but there are some tricks for young players it’s important to understand. Let’s start with the word menu, which is commonly seen in French eating establishments. But a menu is not a menu in French. In French a menu is called a carte. A menu is the very different set menu or fixed price menu (sometimes also referred to a menu prix fixe).
And the potential confusion goes on from there.
What Americans call an appetiser is called an entrée in French (non-American Anglophones can breathe a sigh of relief that an entrée is indeed what they understand is also an entrée). The main dish (a main course for we non-Americans, or an entrée for my American friends) is referred to a plat, the French word for plate. Fortunately for all of us, the word dessert is universal. Although the French do pronounce it dess-air, rather than dezz-ert.
But don’t despair that you will make a terrible mistake and order the wrong thing. Most restaurants will offer an English menu – although in my experience sometimes the translations can be a little idiosyncratic, and cuts of beef normally use the American terminology which personally I find completely confusing (I actually prefer a French menu if I think I might want to order steak).
You can find out more about reading French menus in any good phrase book that includes a menu decoder:
Guide to eating in Paris
Do try something different. Don’t think you need to live on onion soup, steak frites and chocolate mousse. An easy way to try something different with confidence is to order the special for the day (le plat du jour). You can be guaranteed to be served something seasonal and fresh. To add some variety to your dessert life, consider ordering a café gourmand – normally a trio of different desserts served with your choice of coffee. If you do want to eat onion soup, just don’t call it French onion soup – in France it is onion soup, plain and simple.
Bread will be automatically brought to the table, but water won’t be. In France bread is normally included (note this is very different in Italy, where it is almost always charged for). But if you would like water you often need to ask for it.
You don’t need to tip if you don’t want to. Most bills will say either “service compris” or something similar, meaning the service is included. This means you don’t have to tip. For good service if you leave your coin change for a drink or round up to a few Euros in the case of a meal, your waiter will appreciate it.
Be nice to the waiting staff. Please don’t click your fingers or call garcon. It’s rude where you live and it is rude in Paris too. Just make eye contact and raise your hand slightly to attract attention. In very casual places the bill will often be given to you with your order, but if you need to ask for your bill just ask for l’addition s’il vous plait (ladd-iss-ee-on sill voo play).
Go somewhere fancy at least once. Regardless of your budget do eat one really good French meal. Just remember that the very popular places need to be booked well (think 2-3months for some) in advance.
In casual venues it is quite OK to just order a drink. In very casual cafés you can also usually bring a little something to nibble on, but be tidy and discrete, and take your rubbish with you.
Look out for establishments that cater to French workers. In France it is very common for employers to provide a midday meal to their staff. Most of these are provided by way of vouchers. The vouchers are advertised on the doors of cafés and restaurants that accept them. These places are not at all grand, but will offer a good quality meal at a very competitive price. And they accept money (but not always credit cards) as well as vouchers.
Use local apps as a guide for eating out. My favorite Paris food guide is The Fork, downloadable on iTunes and Google Play. In France it is called La Forchette, but it’s the exact same app. Rather than go off the TripAdvisor ratings, I tend to use the Fork user recommendations for local insights. I’ve found some great Paris eating options that are not in any guidebook using this app.
For me, eating out in Paris is definitely one of the most enjoyable things to do in Paris. Regardless of how bad your French is, and your budget, you do need to eat out in Paris.
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