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3 star etiquette and what to expect for us virgins


cabrales
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The French/Parisians consider dining out at a starred restaurant to be a serious experience. To fit in, please dress appropriately...a tie is not required usually....but why not dress up? FYI; they do not pass their dining utensils from hand to hand at each bite and always keep both hands on the table. And a bit of friendly "attitude" seems to work. A humorous description of French dining traditions is found in Polly Platt's book, FRENCH OR FOE. I have been doing business in France (primarily in Paris) for 30 years and can attest to the accuracy of her observations. :cool: JP

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saveur, welcome to e-gullet.

My son had to do a paper on France, just after completely his stage in Paris. I am reproducing part of it here as it might answer some of your concerns and questions. Much of what he wrote is based on Patricia Wells' Food Lovers Guide to Paris.

However, Bux said it best - "a love of good food and honesty of approach" works every time.

For the first time visitor to France, the restaurant scene can be both confusing and overwhelming. Firstly, the tourist needs to know the differences between a cafe, a bistro, a brasserie and a restaurant.

The French cafe serves as an "extension of the French living room, a place to start and end the day, to gossip and debate, a place for seeing and being seen....If you know how to nurse a beer or coffee for hours, cafe-sitting can be one of the city's best buys." (Wells, The Food Lover's Guide, pg. 135) Food is generally of the snack variety. Croque-Monsieur - a ham sandwich topped with grated cheese and then grilled and Sandwich mixte - a buttered baguette filled with gruyere cheese and ham are two of the most popular food items. For heavier snacks there are pork rillettes, pates, crudities and salade nicoise.

A bistro is traditionally a small neighborhood restaurant serving home-style, substantial food. It is often a mom-and-pop restaurant with mom at the cash register and pop at the stove. The menu, either hand-written or mimeographed, is brief and except for the plat du jour changes infrequently. Wine is generally offered by the carafe, and if wine is offered by the bottle, the list is usually short. Bistro food is essentially French home cooking served "family style" in generous amounts with ingredients from the local market. The decor is generally simple - a long zinc bar, tile floors, paper or red-checkered tablecloths, and thick, white plain china. The exception to this type of bistro is the Belle Époque bistro. Here, the food retains its home-like appeal, but the decor is much fancier; Benoit is one of the most famous with its velvet banquettes, brass fixtures, lace curtains and polished zinc bar.

Brasserie is French for brewery, and most of Paris's brasseries have an Alsatian connection which means beer, charcroute and Alsatian wines. This is the place to go in a large group, share drinks, stories, good times and hearty food, particularly late at night.

The restaurant in Paris is for fine dining and haute cuisine. The type of cuisine runs the gamut from "cuisine classique" which features classic French cuisine in elegant surroundings (Taillevent, Le Grand Vefour, Ducasse) to "cuisine gastronomique" which features gourmet cuisine prepared by master chefs. It goes beyond classic French cuisine in its emphasis on subtle blend of ingredients and flavors, and imaginative presentations. (Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Savoy, Arpege).

Once the restaurant has been chosen, the tourist, to have a good experience, must be aware of the traditions and etiquette of French dining. First and foremost, reservations are necessary. If you are unable to keep a reservation, cancel. Dejeuner or lunch is generally served between 12:30 and 2:00. In the evening, diner (dinner) is served usually after 8:00. Unlike American restaurants, there are no "turns", that is, there are no additional seatings of customers - your table is yours for the entire evening. In fact, it is rude to expect a meal to take less than 2 to 3 or even 4 hours. The French don't eat, they dine. They expect to spend an entire evening at a restaurant.

The direction of the meal is much the same in most restaurants. It is only good manners to follow this order. The waiter will ask if you would like an Aperitif. This can be a glass of champagne, or the house cocktail - various liqueur mixed with white wine or champagne. At the same time, the menu and carte de vin (wine list) is presented. It is important to have an aperitif as it allows everyone the chance to leisurely read the menu and slowly set the scene for what follows. With the aperitif, a small amuse or special tidbit is presented. Do not order hard liquor such as a martini or whiskey as liquor numbs the palate. For the same reasons, Coke or coffee is never ordered.

The waiter will then ask for your choices for the meal. Patricia Wells has some excellent suggestions in this regard. First, order foods that are likely to be fresh and in season. French chefs tend to be fanatics about using ingredients seasonally. Second, learn about a restaurant's specialties. It is always best to order what the chef is most proud of and for which he has gained a reputation. Third, a menu degustation or tasting menu is often available. This allows the diner to sample small portions of many different dishes. This is often a good idea on a first-time visit to a restaurant. Fourth, and though this seems silly, it is important. Do not order food that you don't like. No matter what the skill of the chef, if you don't like tripe, you won't like the dish. Fifth, remember that Entree in French means appetizer, not the main dish as it is used in the States.

After you have ordered, the sommelier or wine steward will ask for your wine choices. Ask for help if you need it. Sommeliers are knowledgeable about the wines in their cellar and willingly will help you choose the best wine for the food you have ordered. Give him a rough idea of your tastes and the price you would like to pay.

After ordering the wine, another amuse is often presented - a gift from the chef - another small tidbit which whets the appetite for the gastronomic experience to follow.

A typical French meal might look like the following:

Michel Rostang's Spring Tasting Menu

Les Asperges Vertes Roties

Le Foie Gras Chaud de Canard Poele au Parfum de Moka

Les Brochettes de Langoustines au Romarin

Les Petits Rougets Barbets "Poches, Rotis"

La Canette "Mieral" Au Sang

ou

Le "Rot" de Pigeon "Sans Os"

Les Petits Chevres et Fromages Affines

Le Choix de Nos Desserts Faits Maison

Les Friandises

Alain Duccasse's Brillat-Savarin Menu

Pate en Croute

Fine Creme de petits pois

Turbot de Bretagne

Veau du Lait

Fromages

Dessert

Confiseries et Friandises

In both menus, there are entrees, fish courses, a meat or poultry course, cheeses, desserts and small pastries. Coffee is served after the meal. It is always black coffee and is often served as a course of its own with chocolates and petits fours. Also, a digestif or after-meal alcoholic drink such as cognac or armagnac can be ordered.

There are a few other do's and don'ts that should be observed when dining in a French restaurant. Do not put ice in your wine. Wine is served to you at the appropriate temperature. Often, you will not see salt and pepper on the table. Most chefs are insulted if you re-season their food, particularly without tasting it first. It is customary to order bottled water with your meal. Most French do not drink tap water. They order mineral water plat (flat) or gazeuse (bubbly). Do not ask for a doggy bag; they don't exist in France.

Although the tip is included in the bill (servis compris), usually between 12 to 15%, it advisable to leave an additional 5 to 10% in cash, particularly if the service has been exceptional. Tipping is a very sore subject with French waiters. They insist that most of tips don't go to them and particularly with the tourists who have been "warned" about servis compris, they are often short-changed. Also, waiters in France work far longer hours than American waiters. It is not unusual for a French waiter to put in a 16 hour day. Unlike in the States, the front of the house staff as well as the kitchen staff works both lunch and dinner. (My son put this in because he was working 16 hour days and he and the other waiters did sometimes feel short-changed.)

Dining in France is an extraordinary experience. When Brillat-Savarin, the 18th century food philosopher declared that "Animals feed, only man can eat," he was not just referring to food. He meant that the act of dining provides us with nourishment for the soul as well as the body. The French dining experience does both brilliantly.

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As you can read in my recent review of Le Cinq I had some reservations about the dining experience at a 3 star restaurant in Paris, despite wide experience in the rest of France. But I was happy to report service that was relaxed, friendly while still with a certain sense of occasion. As a practical demonstration of enthusiasm for food being the best means of gaining respect, it was perfect as once we had explained that we had come to Paris for the day just to eat at their restaurant we received even warmer attention.

The main focus of good serving staff at any top restaurant should be your enjoyment and the best will adapt their behaviour to the mood that you present - if you want it more formal they will give you that, more relaxed they will give you that. I guess the key word is 'respect'

Gav

"A man tired of London..should move to Essex!"

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Saveur -- Don't be overwhelmed, there are really very few rules, just be yourself. High level restaurants in France really want to please you and your normal behavior is perfectly sufficient. In fact, these restaurants, although the service may appear reserved, are more intent on satisfying your requirements, than apparently friendlier restaurants in the US and they pride themselves on satisfying special requests. Don't hesitate to make your requirements known regarding ingredients that you may not like or allergies, etc. You also do not need to go out of your way get their attention and convince the restaurant of your worthiness, a strategy that might be necessary in the US with its cult of celebrity and restaurants that need to practice triage because they need to serve more people than they can adequately handle. There is a real pride in craftsmanship tradition in Europe where they will try to do their best for everyone and not just the favored few.

Just a few words of advice. Your should order a complete meal, either a menu or an appetizer, main dish, desert and wine. Many restaurants, even 2 star ones, offer a menu d'affaires, business menu, at lunch. This consists of either a main dish, or a main dish with an appetizer or desert. If it is on the menu and this is what you want, you should feel free to order it. If you don't drink, its ok, but you probably should mention it to the staff, and at least order mineral water. Tap water, carafe d'eau, is becoming very common in France at all levels of dining, but ordering mineral water, even if you also order wine, will probably be more comfortable for you. Although most French do order an aperitif, it is completely optional, Patricial Wells has written that she doesn't favor it, and I personally only do it about half the time and only if I feel like it. Coffee, after dinner drink, cheese course, are also optional.

When I go to a restaurant for the first time, I am most interested in experiencing the best that the restaurant can offer in order to decide whether I want to go back. In the large majority of restaurants in France, in my opinion, this means ordering a la carte. You will get fewer dishes but each dish will be more elaborate with more distinct ingredients. In a small number of largely avant garde restaurants, there is a progression of small dishes and the tasting menu is the thing. You can often figure this out by reading the carte, if you're unsure, you should ask an indirect question such as, which dishes best express the style of the chef. Note that ordering a la carte can be significantly more expensive.

Tipping is a subject that has been heavily debated on the site. You should be aware that approximately half the French do not leave any additional tip and tipping is absolutely not required by etiquette. There have been posts that Troisgros has actually refused to accept tips. If you do tip, 3-5% is more than enough, this is what I generally leave. Remember you are tipping on top of a prix nets, that is, each price has embedded in it VAT of 19.5% and service charge of 12-15% which represents about 25% of the total. This is not to say that the restaurant staff doesn't appreciate overtipping, of course they do as they do here, but I would be guided by my normal practice. If you tip 15-20% in the US, you should tip no more than 3-5% in France, more would be an indication of insecurity. If you are a genuinely big tipper and tip 25% or more in the US, then a tip of 10% in France would be perfectly appropriate as a consistent expression of your own practice.

I want to make one more comment on the subject of doggie bags. This is absolutely not a French practice and they would never do it. However, I did it once with very good results. It was at Paul Bocuse and my wife and I couldn't finish the second course of the poulet en vessie. We asked for a doggie bag and the request was handled promptly and courteously, beautifully wrapped, and given to us in a bag that we still take on trips with us. It made a great lunch the next day.

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One of the advantages of ordering an aperitif (for us this usually means a glass of champagne) is that you can leisurely read the menu with a first amuse from the chef. You are not presented with the carte de vin until you have ordered your food and so have to wait for your order to be taken, the wine list presented, the sommelier getting to your table to take your order, the bottle to be opened and tasted etc. So much nicer to be sipping champagne before all this happens.

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My only point regarding aperitifs is that they are genuinely optional. I recall that one of our most frequent posters used to believe that she would incur the displeasure of the restaurant staff if she didn't order one. I personally find that half a bottle of wine is on the border of how much alcahol that I wish to consume at a single time.

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It has been my experience that formal dining in France is more comfortable than in the US or Britain. Perhaps this is because dining is so central to French culture that they expect to draw patrons from all age/social groups, while formal restaurants in other countries expect a certain elevated clientele.

I have also found that the key to unlocking a great experience in France is enthusiasm. Nowhere is this more true than in their restaurants. The fact is that most of the diners in formal restaurants are business clients, who have become, in large, jaded to the experience. I have found that the staff responds to those diners who are as enthusiastic about their establishment as they are.

Have Fun! :smile:

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It has been my experience that formal dining in France is more comfortable than in the US or Britain.  Perhaps this is because dining is so central to French culture that they expect to draw patrons from all age/social groups, while formal restaurants in other countries expect a certain elevated clientele.

I have also found that the key to unlocking a great experience in France is enthusiasm.  Nowhere is this more true than in their restaurants.  The fact is that most of the diners in formal restaurants are business clients, who have become, in large, jaded to the experience.  I have found that the staff responds to those diners who are as enthusiastic about their establishment as they are.

Have Fun!  :smile:

I couldn't agree more. The excitement and enthusiasm you exhibit will translate itself to the staff. There is nothing worse than exhibiting an attitude of this is suppose to be a multi-starred experience so you better deliver.

One of our most amazing experiences was being in the countryside and having a taxi drive us to a "destination restaurant." Our driver had eaten in every "important" restaurant in Burgundy. Why? Because he wanted to and saved his money to be able to do it. He was more knowledgeable about fine dining than many of the supposed gourmands.

In essence, enjoy, relax, have fun and do have an aperitif!

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I'd have to say that our tolerance for alcohol is diminishing. No longer can we have an aperatif, a half bottle of white and a bottle of red and still enjoy both a dessert wine and digestif as we did in our prime. :rolleyes:

Regarding aperatifs, I'd have to note that when we first started to eat at fine restaurants, it severely strained our budget and we regarded aperatifs as poor value. At some point we found the aperatif part of the "esthetique" of dining. In some restaurants you will be offered some serious amuse bouches and it's nice to have a glass of champagne or something at hand. An alternative would be to order your wine early, but sometimes the amuses come before you get the carte. In any event, either way, it should ruin your meal to begin without ordering a drink, or totally ruin your budget to have a glass of overpriced champagne either. Relax and enjoy your meal.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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  • 4 years later...

At a formal business lunch where the majority of guests are French, who should be the first to start to eat after everyone has been served.....the host of the lunch or the most senior of the guests? Advice appreciated for next time, thanks.

Edited to ask if this is even an issue?

Edited by Rachellindsay (log)
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I think it would be fair enough for the host to speak up and say, "Do begin" or words to that effect, just in case the senior guest doesn't realize that it's his or her job to get the ball rolling.

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Not an issue but the most senior of the guests, seated on the host's right

Thanks for putting this in perspective. I am arguably the senior guest at many tables in France. But then we get down to defining "arguably". Often a French woman whom I consider my senior passes a dish to me for first service. I am never sure whether it is my age or my status as guest that prompts this. Now you have made me consider our placement at table. Thanks for the reprive. :laugh:

eGullet member #80.

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Not an issue but the most senior of the guests, seated on the host's right

Yeah, our team wins again, once more, once in a while, ah, not often.

... just in case the senior guest doesn't realize that it's his or her job to get the ball rolling. 
Ah the old Alzheimer's problem again. Edited by John Talbott (log)

John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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Over the course of more business dinners than I care to remember I gradually worked out that, if things are being done right, the host starts eating first. She/he should say something like dare I say it? Yes! "Bon Appetite" Or "get going" or the polite equivalent.

The reason the host should start is because as host He/she should be served last. That is if the restaurant staff are well trained & with it. Even if they aren't and the host is not served last she/he should still start as soon as the last guest has been served and should say something like the reviled:

Bon Appetite!

This seems to work in most countries where I have done business.

Edited by Dave Hatfield (log)
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I'm with Dave - my understanding has always been that the host starts first (although I'm talking non-business dinners, so I don't know if there's some different etiquette for business lunches)

I agree as well. It seems more natural for the host to start. I wonder if there is French equivalant to Miss Manners or Emily Post.

www.parisnotebook.wordpress.com

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In Japan, and most of the far East, when dining in a private room, the eldest or most senior person is seated the farthest from the door. That person begins the meal. This practice is at times followed in Europe when name cards are used. Otherwise I always look to the host to start, especially a business meal.

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  • 1 month later...

Hey everyone!

Just some quick questions about 3 star etiquette and what to expect at a top restaurant for the people who haven't been before.

Do waiters speak english/japanese/moon language etc and do we need to ask for an English speaking waiter/waitress?

What should we tip and is it compulsory?

Cheese trolley and Dessert trolley etiquette?

How loud can we talk?

What can we and can't we ask for e.g can we ask for something not on the menu, where is the toilet, that guy is smoking can you get him to put it out etc?

Dress code?

Anything else in general we could know?

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Hoo boy, we're going into deep water and perilous terrain here. Everybody keep cool.

Yes

No

5% if you get good service and/or are coming back and wanted to be recognized.

No, see Francois Simon, above.

Three cheese pieces each person, live it up!

Hummm, what's the issue here?

Absolutely, a week ago I asked for something (gazpacho) not on the lunch but on the dinner menu and no problem, at the Cafe des Musees an Asian woman clutching Figaroscope asked (in English) for what Rubin described and they provided it.

How else would you know if it's downstairs, behind the bar or upstairs?

Ahhh, wait til February for that.

To quote myself, are you a recognizable rock star, footballer, screen idol? Black tee. A citizen? nice dress. A banker? Grey suit, white shirt, tie.

Yes, relax, indulge, enjoy. At a three star you're paying; they're the entertainment.

eGullet members, tear me apart!

John Talbott

blog John Talbott's Paris

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I had written this reply a few hours ago but forgot to post it, before John replied, and after reading his post, I decided to post mine "as is" and not change a word...

Your waiter will undoubtedly speak English, because everyone in France who went through school since WWII speaks English, or can; in many cases, people have no need to speak it in their towns or walks of life, but people in the hospitality industry, especially in the fancier places everywhere, speak English.

You can talk as loud as you want. I'm hoping that you don't want to yell into a cellphone, but you can converse in a normal tone so that your dining companions can hear you. You don't have to speak in "hushed" tones if that's what you're asking.

You can ask for anything you desire. At that level, chefs and restaurants are eager to make your meal a memorable one, and you're welcome to ask for anything that you want instead of what may be on a proposed "set menu" and you're welcome to request a dish that you don't see listed; they'll undoubtedly try to please you with whatever they have that they can give you, and if you ask for something they can't prepare, they'll tell you.

If you need to use the toilet, you may ask them where it is. And if somebody is smoking in a place where it's not legal to smoke, you won't have to say something - they'll notice it and take care of it.

Dress these days has become more casual than in previous times. I still think that for men, a jacket and tie are appropriate attire for a three-star meal, and show respect for the chef and other people dining there.

I'll let other people answer your tipping and cheese/dessert questions, since I'm sure there are other gulletteers who can do a better job.

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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Hey everyone!

Just some quick questions about 3 star etiquette and what to expect at a top restaurant for the people who haven't been before.

1)Do waiters speak english/japanese/moon language etc and do we need to ask for an English speaking waiter/waitress?

Depends on the restaurant - those in a hotel setting or those that cater to an international patronage will have several waiters that speak English - you can mention that your French is very rusty in your reservation email. In the smaller French 3's, you may want to look at the menu on the web and learn someting about the chef's cuisine.

What should we tip and is it compulsory?

Never tip in a French restaurant UNLESS someone does something for you that is not covered by the service charge, the service charge is included in the check.

Cheese trolley and Dessert trolley etiquette?

Cheese will be offered, eat as much as you want (do try different cheeses).

How loud can we talk?

Library loud.

What can we and can't we ask for e.g can we ask for something not on the menu, where is the toilet, that guy is smoking can you get him to put it out etc?

Ask the first person that you meet after walking through the door about the location of the toilet. Eat what is offered on the menu, with the exception of that which may cause an allergic reaction.

Dress code?

Jacket for the man at lunch, jacket and tie for dinner. Chic attire for the woman at lunch (skirt or pants), evening wear for dinner (dress).

Anything else in general we could know?

Figure two hours for lunch at $200 per person, and three hour for dinner at $300-$400 per person. Order only that which you WILL eat (if you hate the idea of eating snails and froglegs, don't order them). Don't get drunk. Thank everybody.

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