Paris Restaurants: Deciphering Menus Bite by Bite


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(c) 2006 Chris Card Fuller

When Bill and Mary came to France, we took them to restaurants we knew and liked. Most of these places didn’t have menus that had been translated into English. I would usually tell Bill and Mary some of the dishes we had ordered in the past and enjoyed. Mary then would ask me to translate the entire menu. She ordered. The food arrived. She looked over at my plate and chided me, “Why didn’t you tell me to get what YOU ordered?”

If you go to a restaurant that doesn’t have English menus, PLEASE don’t ask the waitress to translate every dish (if she speaks English). Okay, I know, you’re saying “Of course I wouldn’t.” Probably she wouldn’t have time anyhow, but here’s something you might do. Ask your waiter or waitress’s advice about a dish or the day’s special.

And most important, when you ask their advice about a plate, TAKE IT! Unlike many restaurant staff in the US, being a waitperson is not a part-time job until something better comes along. This is a career. You’ll find that if you treat restaurant staff like professionals they will oblige you accordingly – needless to say there are definitely exceptions to this rule in Paris.

Here are some menu basics to get you started:

The menu is not called ‘le menu’. The menu is called ‘la carte’.

Starters or appetizers are called ‘entrée’s. (As opposed to the US where the entrée is the main plate). Main plates are called ‘les plats’ i.e. ‘Plat du Jour’ is ‘Dish of the Day’.
Menus are fixed course meals – with the emphasis on FIXED. Although you normally can order a green vegetable to replace potatoes.

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The fixed menus have their price listed at the top of the page. You must keep turning pages to get to the least expensive menu that is normally on the last page. If the menu is completely in French, you must keep your eyes open for these two words: ‘ou’ means OR ie “you have the choice of an entrée OR dessert”.

The second word is ‘supplement’. Which means the same as it does in English. If you order the omelette with black truffles, there will be a supplement for the truffles.

Rarely will you see (as you do in Florence and Venice) steak or fish prices listed with an asterisk. Then at the bottom of the page in fine print, you’re informed that the large print price for your steak is per 100 grams. (The waiter will insist at the end of the meal after you’ve polished off your plate that he served you 500 grams of fish i.e. app. 1 pound.)

In addition to the ‘carte’, there may be a ‘plat du jour’ or ‘menu du jour’ which is posted on a chalkboard at the entrance to the restaurant. This is particularly true at lunchtime and you’ll find this in some of the brasseries or café-tabacs. Normally French restaurants are required to have a ‘working person’s lunch available’ for diners who use the ‘cheques restaurant’. These are tickets they receive at their place of employment to help pay for their mid day meal.

The plat du jour is logically a good choice. Even if ordering a menu seems to be too many courses for your appetite, remember that portions in France tend to be smaller for that very reason.

What comes automatically with practically every meal? Bread. There is no charge for bread with lunch and dinner. What doesn’t come automatically?
Water and butter.

Nowadays (especially since recent heatwaves) a carafe of water is brought to the table (if you ask for it) or in some cases automatically. Needless to say, it is preferred that you order bottled water. Many French will order either Badoit or Pellegrino. (For some reason Evian is not as often available). You can usually find either Coke or Pepsi, but diet-Cokes and Pepsi’s are less common.

Ordering wine by the glass has also become much more common. Usually the restaurant will list a price for wine by the glass. Otherwise, you can order the house wine in 25 or 50 ml increments i.e ‘un quart’ for 25 ml, or ‘un carafe’ for 50 ml.
‘Un quart’ is dandy for one person. You’ll have about two small glasses of red wine to accompany your meal. It’s a good way of pacing yourself (especially for the midday meal!) A carafe is fine for two people.

The waiter or waitress will ask you if you’d like an aperitif (a before dinner drink). A popular before dinner drink is a ‘kir’. This is usually a cheap white wine flavored with crème de cassis. Hard liquor before the meal tends to numb the tastebuds. Save the gin and tonics for cocktail hour (5 to 7 pm).

If you are a large group having dinner and many of you are ordering ‘menus’ the waiter or waitress may ask you to give the orders in this way: She’ll take all the starters first and then ask for the main dish afterwards. Some desserts may need to be ordered in advance.

Normally you will be served coffee at the end of the meal AFTER the dessert. At this time of time, people have the small expresso coffees. Café au lait is typically for breakfast. If you absolutely can’t drink coffee without milk, you can ask for ‘a noisette’ which is an expresso with a splash of milk. That being said, in touristy parts of Paris, restaurant owners are used to having visitors ask for café au lait or tea with the meal – normally they will accommodate your requests without any problem. But don’t be too put out if coffee doesn’t arrive WITH your dessert automatically. These are exceptional cases.

Your dining experience is a big part of being in Paris. Make the most of it. More on this later.