• Carol Snow

How to Ask for Water in France (& Other Restaurant Tips)

I recently read a travel blog post from an American who declared that free tap water is not available in French restaurants. This is not true! French restaurants are required by law to serve tap water on request . . . but you have to know the secret password. No, the secret password is not eau, the French word for water. Say "eau," and 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 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.

How do you ask for tap water in France?

And the secret password is . . . une carafe d’eau. That's 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 de vin (“oon vare 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 (bottle). A small pitcher is 25 ml (quarter liter), or a quart ("car"). A larger, 50 ml (half liter) pitcher is a demi (pronounced like Moore . . . or maybe Lovato -- whichever accentuates the second syllable).

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 folks, I’m Jean-Claude! Can I start you off with a plate of our awesome foie gras?” Also, the French are not big smilers, which can leave Americans feeling snubbed. You and Jean Claude are never going to be friends, and you need to accept that. 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. There will be plenty of butter in your meal.

Dinner's over, 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!” You shove down the rest of the food, chug your beverage, and pull out your wallet because clearly they want you to leave. Well, 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 until you ask for it. Again: you are not being ignored. You are being given space. Okay. Sometimes you are being ignored.

How do I ask for the check?

L’addition, s’il vous plait. (“Lad eese yun, see voo play.”)

How do I ask them to box up my leftovers?

You don’t.

What if I want take out?

Here = sur place (sir ploss). To go = à emporter (“ah ehm-pore-tay”)

How do I ask for directions to the restroom?

Les toilettes, 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. (That's another reason why Jean Claude doesn't want to build any kind of relationship with you.) As a gesture of appreciation, it is customary to leave a little change — one or two euros — on the table, 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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