With its international reputation for fine dining, few people would be surprised to hear that French cuisine can certainly be very good. As a testament to this, France is tied with Japan for first place as the country with the most Michelin star restaurants. Unfortunately, it can also be quite disappointing; many restaurants serve very ordinary fare, and some in touristy areas are rip-offs. Finding the right restaurant is therefore very important - try asking locals, hotel staff or even browsing restaurant guides or websites for recommendations as simply walking in off the street can be a hit and miss affair.
There are many places to try French food in France, from three-star Michelin restaurants to French "brasseries" or "bistros" that you can find at almost every corner, especially in big cities. These usually offer a relatively consistent and virtually standardised menu of relatively inexpensive cuisine. To obtain a greater variety of dishes, a larger outlay of money is often necessary. In general, one should try to eat where the locals do for the best chance of a memorable meal. Most small cities or even villages have local restaurants which are sometimes listed in the most reliable guides. In fact, many fine dining restaurants are located in rural villages rather than in the big cities, and French people often drive to those villages to dine during special occasions. There are also specific local restaurants, like "bouchons lyonnais" in Lyons, "crêperies" in Brittany (or in the Montparnasse area of Paris), etc.
Chinese, Vietnamese, even Thai eateries are readily available in Paris, either as regular restaurants or "traiteurs" (fast-food). They are not so common, and are more expensive, in smaller French cities. Many places have "Italian" restaurants though these are often little more than unimaginative pizza and pasta parlors. You will also find North African (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) as well as Greek and Lebanese food. The ubiquitous hamburger eateries (US original or their French copies) are also available; note that McDonalds is more upmarket in France than in the US.
In France, taxes (7 per cent of the total in restaurants) and service (usually 15 per cent) are always included in the bill, so anything patrons add to the bill amount is an "extra-tip". There should not be any additions to the advertised price, do not hesitate to question such additions. French people usually leave one or two coins if they were happy with the service (but it's not mandatory). Bread is always free of charge (like tap water) and no extra price should be applied for the dishes.
Fixed price menus seldom include beverages. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water (Évian, Thonon) or fizzy water (Badoit, Perrier), at a premium; ask for a carafe d'eau for tap water, which is free and safe to drink. Water never comes with ice in it unless so requested (and water with ice may not be available).
As in other countries, restaurants tend to make a large profit off beverages. Expect wine to cost much more than it would in a supermarket.
Ordering is made either from fixed price menus (menu fixe) or à la carte.
A typical fixed price menu will comprise:
- appetiser, called entrées or hors d'œuvres
- main dish, called a plat
- dessert (dessert) or cheese (fromage)
Sometimes, restaurants offer the option to take only two of the three courses, at a reduced price.
Coffee is always served as a final step (though it may be followed by liquors). Coffee will always be served black unless requested otherwise (for white coffee, ask for "café au lait"). A request for coffee during the meal will be considered strange.
Not all restaurants are open for both lunch and dinner, nor are they always open all year around. It is therefore advisable to carefully check the opening times and days. A restaurant open for lunch will usually start service at noon and accept patrons until 13:30. Dinner begins at around 19:30 and patrons are accepted until 21:30. Restaurants with longer service hours are usually found only in the larger cities and in town centres. Finding a restaurant open on Saturday and especially Sunday can be a challenge unless you stay close to the tourist areas.
In a reasonable number of restaurants, especially outside tourist areas, a booking is compulsory and people may be turned away without one, even if the restaurant is clearly not filled to capacity. For this reason, it can be worthwhile to research potential eateries in advance and make the necessary reservations to avoid disappointment, especially if the restaurant you're considering is specially advised in guide books.
A lunch or dinner for two on the "menu" including wine and coffee will cost you (as of 2004) €70 to €100 in a listed restaurant in Paris. The same with beer in a local "bistro" or a "crêperie" around 40€. A lunch or dinner for one person in a decent Chinese restaurant in Paris can cost as little as €8 if one looks carefully. Most French restaurants offer a lunch menu that costs short of 15€.
Outside of Paris and the main cities, prices are not always lower but the menu will often include a fourth course, usually cheese. As with everywhere beware of the tourist traps which are numerous around the heavy travelled spots and may offer a nice view but not much to remember on your plate.
Bakeries (boulangeries) are something of a French institution and are to be found all over the country from the smallest villages to city streets. All white bread variants keep for only a short time and must be eaten the same day, or else saved for dunking in soup or hot chocolate the following morning. Hence bakers bake at least twice a day.
- The famous baguette: a long, thin loaf (costs around 1€ in bakeries, old fashioned baguettes can cost up to 1.40€);
- Variants of the baguette : la ficelle (even thinner), la flûte, la tradition (a baguette with a generally more delicate taste but also more expensive);
- Pain de campagne or Pain complet: made from whole grain which keeps relatively well.
Pastries are a large part of French cooking. Hotel breakfasts tend to be light, consisting of tartines (pieces of bread with butter or jam) or the famous croissants and pains au chocolat, not dissimilar to a chocolate-filled croissant (but square rather than crescent shaped).
Pastries can be found in a pâtisserie but also in most boulangeries.
Every French region has dishes all its own. These dishes follow the resources (game, fish, agriculture, etc.) of the region, the vegetables (cabbage, turnip, endives, etc.) which they grow there. Here is a small list of regional dishes which you can find easily in France. Generally each region has a unique and widespread dish (usually because it was food for the masses):
- Cassoulet (in the south west) : beans, duck, pork & sausages
- Choucroute, or sauerkraut (in Alsace) : stripped fermented cabbage + pork
- Fondue Savoyarde (central Alps) : melted/hot cheese with white wine
- Fondue Bourguignonne (in Burgundy) : pieces of beef (in boiled oil), usually served with a selection of various sauces.
- Raclette (central Alps) : melted cheese & potatoes/meat
- Pot-au-feu (found all over France) : boiled beef with vegetables
- Boeuf Bourguignon (Burgundy) : slow cooked beef with red wine gravy
- Gratin dauphinois (Rhone-Alpes) : oven-roasted slices of potatoes with sour cream and cheese
- Aligot (Aveyron) : melted cheese mixed with a puree of potatoes
- Bouillabaisse (fish + saffron) (Marseille and the French Riviera). Don't be fooled! A real bouillabaisse is a really expensive dish due to the amount of fresh fish it requires. Be prepared to pay at least €30 per person. If you find restaurants claiming to serve bouillabaisse for something like €15 per person, you'll find it to be of a very poor quality.
- Tartiflette (Savoie) : Melted Reblochon cheese, potatoes and pork or bacon.
- Confit de Canard (south west) : Duck Confit, consists of legs and wings bathing in grease. That grease is actually very healthy and, with red wine, is one of the identified sources of the so-called "French Paradox" (eat richly, live long).
- Foie Gras (south west) : The liver of a duck or goose. Although usually quite expensive, foie gras can be found in supermarkets for a lower price (because of their purchasing power) around the Christmas season. It is the time of year when most foie gras is consumed in France. It goes very well with Champagne.
- Moules marinière (Brittany) : Mussels steamed in cider or wine with cream normally served with crusty bread.
Cooking and drinking is a notable part of French culture; take time to eat and discover new dishes.
Contrary to stereotype, snails and frog legs are quite infrequent foods in France, with many French people enjoying neither, or sometimes having never even tasted them. Quality restaurants sometimes have them on their menu: if you're curious about trying new foods, go ahead.
- Frogs' legs have a very fine and delicate taste with flesh that is not unlike chicken. They are often served in a garlic dressing and are no weirder to eat than, say, crab.
- Most of the taste of Burgundy snails (escargots de bourgogne) comes from the generous amount of butter, garlic and parsley in which they are cooked. They have a very particular spongy-leathery texture and, for obvious reasons, a strong garlicky flavour. Catalan-style snails ("cargols") are made a completely different way, and taste even weirder!
Let us also cite:
- Rillettes sarthoises also known as Rillettes du Mans. A sort of potted meat, made from finely shredded and spiced pork. A delicious speciality of the Sarthe area in the north of the Pays de la Loire and not to be confused with rillettes from other areas, which are more like a rough pâté.
- Beef bone marrow (os à moelle). Generally served in small quantities, with a large side. So go ahead: if you don't like it, you'll have something else to eat on your plate!
- Veal sweetbread (ris de Veau), is a very fine (and generally expensive) delicacy, often served with morels, or in more elaborate dishes like "bouchées à la reine".
- Beef bowels (tripes) is served either "à la mode de Caen" (with a white wine sauce, named after the town in Normandy) or "à la catalane" (with a slightly spiced tomato sauce)
- Andouillettes are sausages made from tripe, a specialty of Lyon
- Tricandilles are seasoned and grilled pork tripe from the Bordeaux region
- Beef tongue (langue de bœuf) and beef nose(museau) and Veal head (tête de veau) are generally eaten cold (but thoroughly cooked!) as an appetizer.
- Oysters (Huîtres) are most commonly served raw in a half shell. They are often graded by size, No1 being the largest (and most expensive).
- Oursins (sea urchins), for those who like concentrated iodine.
- Steak tartare a big patty of ground beef cured in acid as opposed to cooked, frequently served with a raw egg. Good steak tartare will be prepared to order at tableside. A similar dish is boeuf carpaccio, which is thin slices or strips of raw steak drizzled with olive oil and herbs.
- Cervelle (pronounced ser-VELL), lamb brain.
France is certainly the country for cheese, with nearly 400 different kinds. Indeed, former president General Charles De Gaulle was quoted as saying "How can you govern a country which has 365 varieties of cheese?".
Vegetarianism is not as uncommon as it used to be, especially in larger cities. Still, very few restaurants offer vegetarian menus, thus if you ask for something vegetarian the only things they may have available are salad and vegetable side dishes.
There may still be confusion between vegetarianism and pescetarianism. Vegetarian and organic food restaurants are starting to appear. However, "traditional" French restaurants may not have anything vegetarian on the "menu fixe", so you may have to pick something "à la carte", which is usually more expensive.
Luckily North African cuisine is very popular in France, couscous is one of the most popular dishes in France (especially in Eastern France) and is widely available.
Veganism is still very uncommon and it may be difficult to find vegan eateries.
Breakfast in France is usually very light, typically consisting of a coffee and a croissant or some other "viennoiserie" at special occasions. On normal days most people have a beverage (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice) and toast of baguette or toast bread with butter and jam/honey/Nutella that can be dipped in the hot beverage, or cereals with milk, or fruit and yoghurt. The French breakfast is mostly sweet, but anything can change and you can have savoury breakfasts everywhere today.
Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, the Loire Valley... France is the home of wine. It can be found cheaply just about anywhere. Beer (lager) is also extremely popular, in particular in northern France, where "Bière de Garde" can be found. The alcohol purchase age was recently raised to 18 for all drinks, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, laws against drunk driving are strictly enforced, with stiff penalties.
Wine and spirits may be purchased from supermarkets, or from specialised stores such as the Nicolas chain. Nicolas offers good advice on what to buy (specify the kind of wine and the price range you desire). In general, only French wines are available unless a foreign wine is a "speciality" with no equivalent in France (such as port), and they are classified by region of origin, not by grape.
Etiquette-wise, you shouldn't drink alcoholic beverages (especially red wine or strong alcohol such as cognac) directly from a 70 cl bottle. Such behaviour is generally associated with drunkards (though if you are surrounded by college students, you may be OK). Drinking beer from a 25 to 50cl can or bottle is OK.
Prices of food and beverages will vary on whether they're served to you at the bar or sitting at a table - the same cup of espresso might cost €0.50 more if served at a table than at the bar, and €0.50 more again if served out on the terrace. Really, you're not paying so much for the beverage as for the table spot. Do consider the bar, though - while you will have to stand, café bars are often where a great deal of public discourse and interaction happens. In any event, cafés are required by law to post their prices somewhere in the establishment, usually either in the window or on the wall by the bar.
There are a couple of mixed drinks which seem to be more or less unique to France, and nearby francophone countries.
- Panaché is a mix of beer and lemonade, basically a beer shandy.
- Monaco is a Panaché with some grenadine syrup added.
- Kir is a pleasant aperitif of white wine (in theory, Bourgogne Aligoté) or, less frequently, of champagne (then named kir royal and about twice the price of regular kir) and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or peche (peach), or mûre (blackberry).
- Pastis is an anise-based (licorice-flavored) spirit, similar in taste to Sambuca or Ouzo, that is served with a few lumps of sugar and a small pitcher of cold water to dilute the liquor. It is traditionally enjoyed on very hot days, and as such is more popular in the south of the country but available more or less everywhere.
There is a variety of bottled water, including:
- Évian, Thonon, Contrex, Volvic: mineral water
- Perrier: fizzy water
- Badoit: slightly fizzy and salty water.