Authors, bloggers (yours truly included), and journalists have spilled a lot of ink over the ordeal of eating in France. Some can’t fill their stories with enough gushy superlatives while others lament that eating in France just ain’t what it used to be. Gastronomic awakening or just another pit stop, eating in France is admittedly a little different from eating in the U.S. Set times more or less govern a the Gallic eating schedule and visitors shouldn’t be caught off guard.
Le petit déjeuner
A Frenchman often drinks his petit déjeuner in the form of black coffee, café au lait, or tea. Like in the U.S., cereal has become a breakfast table staple, but the traditional breakfast includes tartines—bakery bread spread with butter and jam. This may be a baguette or any assortment of breads that make French bakeries such heavenly places. Croissants and pains au chocolat often show up on breakfast tables, though not on a daily basis unless you are in a hotel.
Many people drink their coffee or tea from a bowl, although hotels and cafés tend to serve the beverages in mugs or cups. Also, breakfast coffee is served as a long drink, not as the espresso sipped throughout the rest of the day.
If your hotel is charging you upward of 10€ for some bread and coffee, head out to a café and watch Grenoble come to life. Le Coq Hardi and Pain & Cie do good, typical breakfasts for around 5€.
First of all, forget the idea that all of France shuts down for two hours while its workers laze over five course meals. McDonald’s is France’s most popular restaurant and the French are only second to Americans when it comes to wolfing down pizza. That being said, a lot of restaurants offer a plat du jour or two for 7€-10€. Since they’ve prepared ahead, the daily special usually arrives at the table fairly quickly so that employees can have a decent meal and get back to work in around an hour’s time. Lunch time in France roughly corresponds to lunch time in the U.S., starting around noon or 1:00 p.m.
In addition to the plats du jour, diners can order à la carte from a menu similar to those in American restaurants. Many restaurants also propose formules, fixed price menus, with a choice of entrée + plat, plat + dessert, or entrée + plat + dessert. Be careful—l’entrée is the appetizer and le plat is the main course.
While the French drink less wine than a generation ago, Bordeaux and Burgundy still find a place at the lunch table. The house wine (une carafe de rouge, rosé, or blanc) is often available in 25 cl (about two glasses), 50 cl, and 75 cl pitchers. Split bottles are sometimes available, as are single glasses. The selection may, however, be limited to just a few vintages. A little wine is better than none!
Many lunches in France end with an espresso. Also, look for the café gourmand on menus. This is a good choice if a full portion of dessert feels like too much. Two or three mini-desserts like crème brulée, brownie, macaron, mousse au chocolat, or apple crumble accompany an espresso, and a café gourmand usually runs around €5. More and more restaurants have begun offering this sweet sampler.
Dinner may or may not be the main meal of the day. It depends on the individual, the family, or simply whatever is most convenient that day. Dinner starts later than in the U.S., usually around 8 p.m.-ish. French prime time programs even start at 8:45 so that families can digest in front of their favorite TV show.
A simple family dinner usually consists of soup or salad and perhaps a little meat. If the evening meal is more substantial, expect a main dish with a few sides.
Most restaurants do not serve dinner before 8 p.m. When eating out, most guests go for the fixed price menu which includes an appetizer, a dish, and a dessert. Plats du jour aren’t served for dinner, only lunch. When the French eat out at night, they tend to take their time to savor each course, as well as the conversation with friends. Such meals easily stretch over two hours. If the waiter carefully paces the service, you won’t even notice until you look at your watch and realize you ordered an espresso…at 10:30 p.m.
Now, all you have to do is decide which table to pull yourself up to. Bon appetit!