I recently read a blog post from an American ex-pat in Germany who, after visiting Paris, declared that free tap water is not available in French restaurants. Ce n’est pas vrai! In fact, French restaurants are required by law to serve tap water on request. But you have to know the secret password! And no, the secret password is not eau. If you just say eau, you will be offered still or sparkling water, both bottled, both for a fee.
After six months in France, I have reached the sad conclusion that I will never be fluent in the language. However, I can speak French Restaurant really, really well. And so, in the interest of cross-cultural understanding, here’s the secret password for tap water, along with some other tips. (And yes, I realize I am missing some accents, but they are tough to insert with my American keyboard, so deal with it.)
How do you order tap water in France?
And the secret password is . . . une carafe d’eau — pronounced “oon carafe (rhymes with giraffe) doh.” See, you don’t ask for water. You ask for a carafe of water. Totally different.
How do I order a glass of house wine?
A glass of wine is une verre (“oon vare”) de vin (“duh van”). White is blanc (“blonk”). Red is rouge. Which is pronounced like . . . rouge. But hey, you’re in France, where the wine is good and the glasses are small. Most restaurants offer pitchers (“pee-shay”) of house wine, which will be a lot cheaper than a bouteille.
Why do the snooty French customers keep giving me snooty French looks?
Probably because YOU ARE TALKING TOO LOUDLY. Use your inside voice. French inside voices are much, much softer than American inside voices.
Why are French waiters so rude?
They’re not. Well, some are, especially in Paris, but most servers are very formal. You will never get a French waiter saying the equivalent of, “Hey, I’m Jean-Claude! How you guys doin’ today? Can I start you off with a plate of our awesome foie gras?” Also, the French are not a very smiley people, at least around strangers. The French server’s job is to take your order and bring you your food while being as unobtrusive as possible. What Americans interpret as being ignored, the French value as being given space.
How do I ask for butter with my bread?
You don’t. Bread is generally served without butter or bread plate. Deal with it. There will be plenty of butter in your meal.
My dinner is done and I’ve been sitting here for half an hour! Why hasn’t the server brought me the check?
Have you ever been enjoying the end of a meal in, say, America and had a server slap a check on the table with a pert, “Whenever you’re ready!” And then you shove down the rest of the food, chug your beverage, and pull out your wallet because clearly they want you to leave? Yeah, they don’t do that in France. The French like to linger after meals without feeling rushed. Generally speaking, a server won’t present a check unless asked. Again: you are not being ignored. You are being given space. Actually, okay. Sometimes you are being ignored.
How do I ask for the check?
L’addition, s’il vous plait. (“Lad iss yun, see voo play.”)
How do I ask them to box up my leftovers?
What if I want take out?
Here = sur place (sir ploss). To go = a emporter (” ah ahm-pore-tay”)
How do I ask for directions to the restroom?
La toilette, s’il vous plait?
Are there any other secret passwords?
If you only master two French words, go with s’il vous plait (“see voo play”) and merci (“mare-see”), which you probably already know mean please and thank you. Use these words a lot. No, like A LOT. And if you’re interrupting someone to ask for their help, say “s’il vous plait” and not “excusez moi.”
How much should I tip?
In France, both tax and tip are included in all menu items — no end-of-meal math necessary. It is customary to leave a little change — one of two euros — on the table as a gesture of appreciation, but even that is not required.
Any final advice?
If it is offered, get a café gourmand for dessert. That’s an espresso with a selection of tiny desserts. Café gourmand translates to gluttonous coffee. If you can’t embrace gluttony in France, where can you?
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