Eating in France

at the former home of a certain famous cook

at the former home of a certain famous cook

Baguettes, cheese, croissants, coffee and wine

France is known for food, and after a recent trip I came away with some new insights on what that is all about.  There are certainly some aspects of French cuisine and dining that are different from what we are used to.  Here, in no particular order, are some tips on foods and beverages for people unfamiliar with the food and dining customs of France.

Iced beverages — not

Most restaurants and cafés are happy to provide a carafe of water, even if you only order an espresso.  It will be tap water.  It may or may not be chilled.  The wait person may or may not pour water into your glasses.  There will not be ice.  Even if you order pricey bottled mineral water, which will likely be chilled, you won’t get ice. It’s just not a thing in France the way it is in the US.

Also: forget about iced tea and iced coffee.

Soft drinks are expensive

A small can of Coca Cola or some other familiar soft drink may cost as much as a glass of wine.  And there are no super-sized portions. You get a can, that’s it. I didn’t see any diet drinks, although probably someone has them.  They will be expensive.  What’s a dieter to do?  Drink plain water or bottled mineral water.

Breakfast

Many cafés and hotels serve petit déjeuner, which is breakfast. The loose standard definition is

  • hot beverage of choice, such as espresso or tea of café au lait
  • croissant and/or hunk of baguette
  • butter
  • OJ, which may occasionally be fresh squeezed

Hotels may have buffet breakfasts, which may or may not be included in the room charge.  Ask about that when checking in, if you’re unsure. If you don’t want to buy the hotel breakfast, find a café nearby and have something simple.

They don’t do coffee like we do

Yes France has this reputation for great coffee. But in fact, coffee drinking there is a very different experience from ours.  No one brews up a big pot of coffee to pour into cups. Each cup is made to order.  There are no flavored coffee creamers or whipped cream or super sized portions.  Coffee typically means espresso, unless you specify café au lait or some other variation.  Café longue is more like a cup of black coffee.  In all cases, the portions are small.

When you sit down at a table at a cafe, ordering an espresso is sort of like arranging to rent the table for a short while.  If you just needed an espresso, you can certainly drink that in about 15 seconds.  You sit because you need a break, or you want a place for conversation, or you just want to people watch and absorb the local atmosphere.

Truthfully, in my opinion, the coffee isn’t always that great. I can find more flavorful and interesting espresso in my hometown.

Gluten is everywhere (Yay!)

Bread is served with most meals. Sometimes it’s great quality, occasionally mediocre, but it’s always there.  Croissants are also everywhere, as are many other delicious-looking pastries and desserts.  Crepes are everywhere, frequently as street food, eaten as a snack.  Despite all the gluten, people are not obese and keeling over from dreaded diseases or suffering from so-called grain brain.  People with real celiac disease can get by with skipping the bread and pastries.

They do pizza differently

Lots of restaurants specialize in pizza.  The pizzas come in one size, usually intended as one person’s meal, although the sizes will vary from one restaurant to another. They will usually be thin crust, with cheese at a minimum.  You usually won’t get to choose from a long list of toppings.  Truthfully, I found the sizes too big for me to eat alone, so we usually shared a pizza and a salad plate, which worked out fine.

afternoon snack

afternoon snack

Restaurants

The phrase “service continue” posted in front of a restaurant indicates that food is served all day.  There’s usually a long list of menu items, and it’s likely many of those are from pre-packaged ingredients.  It can be convenient if you’re just hungry and it’s 3 p.m., but you probably won’t be getting a fine dining experience.  Restaurants with a talented chef in the kitchen have set hours for meals, usually 12-2:30 for lunch and 8-10:30 for dinner.  Some open a bit earlier for dinner, but in general dinner is a very late meal.  This can get confusing, because some restaurants with set meal hours are in fact open from 2:30 to 7:30/8 p.m., they just aren’t serving food.  You can get drinks or coffee, that’s about it.

Are expensive restaurants worth it?  That depends on you. The talents and imagination of different chefs are quite impressive.  We didn’t go to any star-rated restaurants, but Michelin has a category of “recommended” restaurants, and you can find other suggestions on Yelp, Travel Advisor and other rating websites.  Just remember, these are peoples’ opinions, and in some cases may be deliberately skewed.  We had a delightful experience in one restaurant despite one person’s nasty review.  That person didn’t like getting recommendations from the wait staff; we appreciated it and were glad we asked.  So there you go.

3 courses of protein

While the typical petit déjeuner can seem heavy on carbs, I found that dinners were heavy on protein.  A typical fixed price 3 course meal starts with an “entree” (appetizer), focused on paté, sausages, beef and fish.  I was surprised at the lack of simple green salads.  I ordered a salad once, and it came as greens smothered in generous slices of ham.  It was delicious ham, more like prosciutto, but nevertheless it was a lot of ham for a first course.

The main course choices are usually meat or fish, although some restaurants also include a pasta dish.  Even dessert can be high protein, if you select a cheese plate.  And when vegetables are included in the main course, they may be more garnishes than generous helpings.  So if you value vegetables and salads, be sure to check out the menu before choosing a restaurant.  If you’re vegetarian or vegan, eating in France may be more of a do-it-yourself affair.

I’ll share some other observations next week about French food and the so-called French paradox: how can they eat that way and stay thin?  Hint: walking.

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