Paris ranks high on the list of European capitals to see and enjoy and many of the “must do’s” sights are obvious – the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame. Most visitors also enjoy shopping on the Champs Elysees, strolling the banks of the Seine, browsing tiny shops and eateries in the Left Bank or enjoying a leisurely dinner cruise to see the City of Lights in all its glory.
Art lovers can spend days exploring the Louvre, National Museum of Modern Art, Orsay, Rodin, Cluny and other museums and for those interested in the history behind the art and artists a walking tour of the Marais and Montmartre Districts is highly recommended. But some say the true joy of France is the food and make it a point to return again and again for that pleasure alone. To quote a long time client and foodie
The French worship the food gods. They eat seasonally (don’t expect asparagus in October) and freshness is important. Day old bread is considered a mortal sin which is why people stop in the bakery on the way home to dinner. To have gotten the bread in the morning would have made it stale by dinner.
Reservations – For dinner always make reservations. Period. It is sometimes advisable to make a reservation in person the first time you visit a restaurant. If you do this you can get an idea of the English fluency. A phone reservation can be chancy with both sides thinking they understand what is being said and, in reality, you have just booked a table for 27 next month.
Courtesy – Turn off your phone or whatever electronic device you carry. It is extremely rude to talk on a phone in a restaurant. I have seen people asked to leave in the middle of their meal because their phone was ringing. I have also seen a man apologize to an entire room full of customers because he forgot to turn his phone off and it rang. If you can’t wait to get a call stay at home or go to Italy – they’ve got no manners.
Dinner – is a 3 course meal (starter, main course, dessert) and the prices do not include, aperitifs, wine, coffee, etc. Sparkling water is also extra but still water is usually no additional charge. By law all restaurants in France must display their offerings outside the restaurant so you can get an idea of prices/food before you go inside. There will also be “le Menu”, the daily specials that offer a few (2- 5) choices for each course for a fixed price. Usually a good deal if it meets your tastes.
Wine – Good wine is available at reasonable prices and if you don’t know what to order ask the waiter or, in nicer places, the sommelier. The important grades of wine are Domaine, Premier Cru, Grand Cru. About .1 of 1% of the vineyards in France are Grand Cru and are priced accordingly – very high. Premier Cru is excellent, not common and priced less then Grand Cru but still expensive. All the rest are just good wines. Some are blends and some are single grape. If you are serious do a little reading before you go because it is too late once you are in the restaurant. Sample wines from different regions as you eat different meals. The differences in the regions are huge and your tastes may direct you to a particular type of wine or region. Even the differences between vineyards in a local area can be significant.
Tipping – In France tips are included in the price of the meal. If you get average or poor service don’t leave anything extra. If the service is better, then leave anything up to 10% more depending on how good the service was. How helpful? Did the waiter/waitress make suggestions or guide you away from something you might not like? Did he/she go get someone else with better English? If you are in a Michelin starred restaurant then leave 20-25% unless you got poor service but that’s not likely. French credit card receipts do not have a place to add a gratuity. It would be rude to do this in their culture. The easiest thing to do is to leave cash for the tip. There are other ways but my French is not up to the task.
Language – Someone else with better English (see above) may not exist. Don’t ever make a communication failure a reason for not tipping. You are in their country. If you want things like they are at home, stay at home. Take a food dictionary and carry it with you. It will save some difficult moments. Even with a food dictionary house specialties and regional preparations may not translate. Also, learn the days of the week in French. Restaurant hours/days are usually posted on the door and frequently vary by day and many places are closed at least one day a week. Time will be military style – 2:00 pm equals 1400 hours. Most of the restaurants open for lunch and close in early afternoon and then open for dinner at 7:00 or 8:00 pm.
Paying – Getting the check may take some time. Just because you have finished eating/drinking does not mean you are ready to leave. You must request the check and it may take some time. Be patient, dinner is supposed to take 2 hours. Most places accept credit cards and display the standard VISA/Mastercard signs. A few places accept only debit cards or cash so always carry all three. The French bring a portable credit card reader/transmitter/printer to the table. It is considered rude/dishonest to take your credit card away from the table. Most of these machines have a stripe reader but they don’t work all that well. Have your credit card company issue you a credit card with an embedded chip before you travel and your card can be used just like European cards. It will work better, it is faster and the French will appreciate your consideration.
As an independent traveler, I find Paris easy to explore with mostly safe city streets well connected by a clean, well managed metro system. Most Parisians welcome tourists and are willing and able to assist in English especially if first greeted in French. So practice your “Bon jour madame or monsieur “, pack up the food dictionary and get out and enjoy! Whether you have a weekend in Paris, a week or two in France or months to explore the top destinations in Europe, all agree that Paris should be on your itinerary. Call or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like help planning your European vacation.