10 Tips for Enjoying Parisian Restaurants
1. Budget for a Restaurant Meal - It is true that Paris has some of the most expensive restaurants in the world, and that you can spend upwards of 200€ for lunch. However, you can also have an incredible meal - a meal that you will tell your friends at home about - for approximately 30€/person. Throw in another 10€ for a half bottle of wine for two.
Still too expensive? To put it in perspective, what would you pay for a a meal at an upscale US chain restaurant (e.g., Outback Steakhouse or Macaroni Grill) for an appetizer, entree, dessert, half-bottle of wine, and a tip? You'll be in the 30€ ballpark - and the food, drink and ambience in Paris will be far superior to your meal at home. Even if you're on a tight budget, splurge on at least one Parisian dinner out. You won't regret it.
2. Plan for a 2 -3 Hour Meal - If you're in a rush, stop in a café and order a salad or a sandwich. Eating in a Parisian restaurant is a leisurely experience. The food is cooked to order, the three courses (appetizer, main course, and dessert) are timed by the staff so they are served when you are ready (you won't receive your main course while you are still eating your appetizer), and you can linger over coffee. You won't be interrupted with the check until you ask for it (L'addition, s'il vous plait).
3. Order the Fixed Price Meal - Unless you are craving something else on the menu, do as the Parisians and order the Fixed Price meal which includes appetizer (entrée), main course (Plat principal or Le plat) and dessert (le dessert) for one price. Ask for the menu or formules. Many restaurants include multiple items for each category, so you can "pick and choose" between selections. The savings will be substantial and these meals usually contain the freshest ingredients.
A hint for ordering a three-course Fixed Price meal: You'll be asked to order your appetizer and main course. Then, after you've finished your main course, the waiter will return with menus for you to order a dessert or cheese plate.
4. Order Wine with Your Meal - Unlike in the US, you can order a great bottle of wine with your meal for minimal mark-up. The wine lists in most restaurants are huge by American standards and picked with care. If you're confused (and its easy to be confused with the multitude of choices and the differences in labeling/categories of French vs. American wines) ask the waiters for recommendations based on what you are eating. Most waiters will select suitable bottles at the bottom of the price-range - what they would drink.
Above all, have fun ordering and don't take yourself so seriously. On one occasion, we accidentally ordered a white wine with steak. We noticed "Bordeaux", but missed the "blanc" part. The waiter graciously asked if I was sure that I wanted a white wine and that a red (he named a few) would complement our food. We smiled at our mistake and ordered a bottle of his recommended red. The wine was excellent and we were glad he spoke up.
5. Savor the Portion Sizes - How do the French stay so thin when they eat such rich food and delectable desserts? The key is the portion sizes. When you first eat at a Parisian restaurant, you may be amazed at how small the portions are compared to what you are are served in the US. In the US, its almost expected that you take a part of your meal home in a doggie bag. In Paris, if you leave a few bites on your plate, the server may become distressed that something was wrong with your meal.
What you'll find is that the French chefs have a knack of creating dishes that are the "exact right portion size" so that you are full - without being too full - to indulge in dessert. It is an amazing feeling to have a three-four course gourmet meal with wine and not feel like you've overindulged.
6. Speak Softly - Very Softly - In Paris, space is at a premium, so most restaurants are small. Don't be surprised if you are seated "family" style at one long table or at a table with only a couple of inches between your table and your neighbors. Parisians speak softly - leaning across the table towards each other to be heard - very romantic if your dinner partner is a member of the opposite sex.
7. Try the Cheese Plate - Instead of dessert, try the cheese plate. Parisians are crazy about cheeses (there are over 400 regional cheeses mades in France), and after a rich meal a cheese plate can be more satisfying than an even richer dessert. At some restaurants, you pick three cheeses from a list. At others, the server presents a tray of the selections available. You choose your cheeses and the server cuts the cheese to order at the table. The cheese plate is a nice change of pace, and an offering that you will rarely find in the US.
8. Notice the Attention to Details - In most Parisian restaurants, service is taken to a professional level that is only experienced in the finest (aka "priciest") restaurants in the US. However, in Paris, this experience can be had for 30 euros for a three course meal. A few details from our most recent restaurant meal in Paris:
Upon entering, the maitre 'd took off my coat and hung it in a cloakroom, and pulled out the chair for me to sit. The table was set with crisp white linens, candlelight, and fresh flowers. I ordered a steak, and the waiter re-appeared with a small silver tray. He carefully removed my butter knife and replace it with a steak knife from the tray. Between courses, the crumbs were swept from in front of my plate. The meal was incredible, especially the made to order Grand Marnier souffle for dessert. At the end of the meal, the chef appeared from the kitchen and visited each table asking if the customers enjoyed their meal. Many of the locals asked questions regarding the preparation and ingredients in their meals, and the chef expounded on his techniques.
This experience did not occur in an expensive "starred" Parisian restaurant. Instead, at a small, family-run restaurant on Île St. Louis - a typical Parisian restaurant. The price of my meal with wine was 35 euros.
9. Females - Don't be Surprised if the Menu Doesn't List Prices - Chivalry is not dead in some Parisian dining establishments. One evening, I was paralyzed about what to order looking at a menu in an expensive Parisian restaurant. I couldn't find the prices anywhere and was afraid I might order something "over the top". My husband kept asking, "What are you going to order?" and I would nervously giggle, " A few more minutes. I'm trying to translate this menu." I was relieved and amused to find that his menu contained prices, but mine did not. In the more upper-scale restaurants, it is the norm that the females receive menus without prices.
10. Indulge Yourself - This is not time for counting calories. You've spent the day sightseeing and spending hours on your feet. Unwind, order a delicious meal, don't pass on the wine or dessert, and relax. After all, you're on vacation.