Here's what I've learned from experience, and a little research:
FRENCH WAIT STAFF.
A note about the wait staff in France: being a waiter is considered a dignified profession unlike the U.S. where one may wait tables simply to make money until they get a big break in another profession (like arts or theatre). Most Parisian waiters are dressed more formally, even in casual restaurants and cafes, wearing vests over crisp, white shirts or suits. At a Michelin 1, 2 or 3 star restaurant the wait staff will often dress in tuxedos. Many waiters are older and have spent a lifetime in their career of restaurant service. Take advantage of their culinary expertise and consult them. You may ask, "Que recommendez-vous?" (what do you recommend?).
LE MENU. The menu can also be referred to as a carte, but the word, "menu," usually refers to a fixed price menu (“prix fixe”) where several dishes are offered at the same price. La carte (similar to our understanding of an “a la carte menu”) refers to individual dishes of your choice each offered at different prices.
The word, “Entrée” is confusing on a menu for Americans because the French mean “appetizer” when they say, “Entrée.” What Americans consider an entrée is what the French call, “Plat Principal,” (main dish).
Many French restaurants have a “formule” (like formula) which can be a cheaper option for combining your appetizer, entree and dessert. It is similar to a prix fixe menu but they give options about course combinations, for example, Entrée + Plat Principal = one fixed price; or Plat Principal + Dessert = another set price, or Entrée + Plat Principal + Dessert = another fixed price. Often the items you can order in a “formule” are from the menu and not from the a la carte.
The French drink café au lait or cafe creme only in the morning and is unusual for lunch or dinner.
Un café is usually a short espresso sized cup of coffee, not an American sized cup of coffee. If you order café au lait, they often bring an American sized cup of coffee out along with a pitcher of hot, steamed milk for you to pour in your coffee;
If you intend to eat a meal and have coffee alongside it, do not order the coffee first! I did this and the waiter assumed we were not eating but only there for coffee. He got upset and stormed off! We almost lost our seat in this upscale, busy restaurant due to my faux pax. First, order your meal and then ask if you may have coffee alongside it. On that note, many French will go to a local Cafe to simply have a coffee or tea. This is a normal thing for French to do - enjoy a coffee alone - at a cafe. But certain restaurants in Paris will only allow this if you sit outside on the terrace. If you hear the question, "Es ce que vous voudrais manger?" they want to know if you are going to eat. If not, you may say, "non, je voudrais boise quelque chose," meaning, "I want to drink something." After that you may be told that you have to sit outside.
The French do not drink coffee with dessert, they order dessert first and then order coffee when done with dessert.
If you order water they will ask you “with or without carbonation” in French as follows: “avec gas ou sans gas?”. The assumption is that you want a bottle of water, which costs a fair amount of money, and are not ordering tap water which is free. This can be a costly mistake unless you know how to order tap water. In French you would not ask for just water but “Une carafe d’eau” which is a carafe of water. This is understood to mean that you want tap water.
BISTRO OR BRASSERIE?
What’s the difference between a bistro and a brasserie? A bistro is more casual and relaxed than a brasserie and is considered to serve “fast food” but not in the way Americans understand fast food – it’s not junk food. It’s more like sandwich fare and prepared foods such as croque monsieur, croque madame, quiches and salads. Bistros may not offer professional service as would a restaurant or brasserie. A bistro will be a smaller, mom-and-pop place and may not even have a printed menu, but rather a chalkboard with the menu du jour (menu of the day). Many Brasseries have professional service and the wait staff is dressed in suits or even tuxedos. Brasseries were originally established as beer halls – the French word means, “brewery,” and serve drinks regardless of whether you order food. In fact, if you order “une bierre,” meaning a beer, at a brasserie, you may not be asked what type as they may brew their own beer and serve you the house beer.
MEAT COOKING STAGES:
Cooking stages for beef or red tuna: understand that rare to Americans is even more rare for French. The French consider "saignant" or very rare to be the proper method of cooking red meat. I enjoy medium rare meat which translates to "a point." "Bleu" is the rarest option - your boef (beef) is still mooing, next is "saignant" or very rare, "a point" for medium rare and "bien cuit" is well done. For duck or lamb use, "rose" for rare, "a point" for medium rare or "bien cuit" for well done. I don't believe they have an option of "medium" for a stage of cooking - go figure.
DO FRENCH HATE AMERICANS?
Many Americans have had bad experiences in France and believe that the French do not like Americans. Thus, many Americans will "write off" a trip to France because of their false perception that they will be treated rudely by the French. This simply is not true. If you take time to learn a few cultural "rules" or norms, act kind and courteous and also try your best to speak as much of the French language possible, you will be treated wonderfully.
So what are the norms you need to learn? Here's proper etiquette as to how to conduct yourself in restaurants, shops, museums and public places. The French perception of restaurants, shops and stores is that they are the owner's private place, an extension of the owner themselves, and not necessarily a public place, so be respectful. View the shopkeepers and restaurant staff as experts to be consulted rather than as servants to wait on you. Don’t speak loudly and don’t be boisterous. Be courteous, kind and friendly. French culture requires formality in public and with strangers, so at first be formal, kind and reserved. Allow time for a rapport to develop and for formalities to be performed before you start joking with your waiter. We had 2 experiences where, after we adhered to these formalities, our waiter began joking around and teasing that by the end of the meal, he seemed like an old friend. Respecting formalities at first with the French serves to go a long way in getting treated nicely in France.
If you don’t speak French, learn a couple of French phrases and words which will get you better service and treatment.
If you make an effort to speak as much French as possible and not immediately greet people in English, the French will perceive your actions as favorable and not the typical rude American who expects that everyone should speak English.
ENOUGH FRENCH FOR AN ENTIRE MEAL.
Always start with a friendly greeting - you will be addressed this way as well. All day long until 6pm use, "Bonjour," (good day) and always greet the host before you make any demands or inquiries. After 6pm use, "Bonsoir" (good evening).
To ask for a table for two say, "Une table pour deux personnes, s'il vous plait." If you have a reservation you can say, "J'ai reserve," (I have a reservation) or "nous avons une reservation" (we have a reservation). If you have a reservation, they will ask for your name ( in French, "nom").
"Pardon, le menu, s'il vous plait," (excuse me, the menu please).
“S’il vous plait,” for "please," and, “merci,” for "thank you."
"Une carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait," to order tap water.
"Du vin, s'il vous plait" (some wine, please). You will be asked "rouge ou blanc?" (red or white?). You may choose to order a carafe of the house red wine: "Une carafe du vin rouge maison, s'il vous plait." Or ask for a recommendation, "que recommende vous?"
To order, say, “Je voudrais, s’il vous plait . . .” or "J'aimerais, s'il vous plait . . . " (I would like).
To get the check, say, "L'addition, s'il vous plait."
When all else fails ask, “Do you speak English, please?” by saying, "Es ce que vous parlez Anglais?" which can be shortened to, “Parlez-vous Anglais, s’il vous plait?”
When they ask if you are finished with you meal they may say to you, “termine?” (think “terminated?”), and you can respond, “oui,finit” and even give a compliment such as, “C’etait tres bon,” (that was very good), or “C’etait magnifique,” (that was magnificent), or “C’etait parfait,” (that was perfect), or “C’etait delicieux,” (that was delicious).
When all else fails, ask “Do you speak English, please?” by saying, "Es ce que vous parlez Anglais?" which can be shortened to, “Parlez-vous Anglais, s’il vous plait?”
The wait staff will not clear your plates until everyone at the table is finished eating. This is to be courteous to the slower eaters and not have them feel rushed. The wait staff usually does not come by after your meals are served to ask if everything is satisfactory or if you need something else. The French believe in eating as an enjoyable experience and there is not much of a sense of turning tables as in America.
WAITING FOR THE BILL IS A MISTAKE. If you want the check and are ready to leave, do not assume that the wait staff will bring it on their own. They will not bring it until you ask. They will assume that you want to stay until you ask for the check. When you are ready for the check simply ask, "L'addition, s'il vous plait."
LEAVING THE RESTAURANT. When you leave, say, "merci beaucoup; au revior!" (thanks very much, goodbye!).
Some of the tips above we learned from experience, and many other tips we learned from a great book by a French author, "Clotilde's Edible Adventures in Paris." http://chocolateandzucchini.com/
Written by Colleen L. Sahlas, 2009
For more great tips, read, "Lost in Restaurant Translation" by Wendy Lyn. http://thepariskitchen.com/restaurant-etiquette-in-paris-france/