Food in France
With its international reputation for gastronomy, few would be surprised to learn that French cuisine can be quite good. To prove it, France is joint first with Japan in the ranking of countries with the most Michelin-starred restaurants. Unfortunately, it can also be quite disappointing; many restaurants serve very ordinary dishes, and some in tourist areas are scams. It is therefore very important to find the right restaurant – try to ask for recommendations from locals or hotel staff, or even look in restaurant guides or on websites, because just walking down the street can be a success.
There are many places to try French cuisine in France, from three-star Michelin restaurants to the French “brasseries” or “bistrots” that can be found on almost every street corner, especially in the big cities. These usually offer a relatively coherent and practically standard menu of relatively inexpensive cuisine. To get a wider selection of dishes, it is often necessary to pay more money. In general, try to eat where locals do for the best chance of a memorable meal. Most small towns or even villages have local restaurants, sometimes listed in the most reliable guidebooks. In fact, many gourmet restaurants are located in rural villages rather than large towns, and the French often travel to these villages to dine on special occasions. There are also special local restaurants, such as the Bouchon Lyonnais in Lyon, the Crêperies in Brittany (or in the Montparnasse district in Paris), etc.
You can easily find Chinese, Vietnamese and even Thai restaurants in Paris, whether they are regular restaurants or caterers (fast food). In small French towns, they are not as common and are also more expensive. Many places have “Italian” restaurants, although these are often just pizzerias and pasta lounges with little imagination. You will also find North African dishes (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) as well as Greek and Lebanese food. The ubiquitous hamburger restaurants (American originals or their French copies) are also present; note that McDonalds is more upscale in France than in the United States.
In France, taxes (7% of the total in restaurants) and service (usually 15%) are always included in the bill, so anything customers add to the bill is an ‘extra tip’. There should be no surcharges on top of the advertised price, so don’t hesitate to question these surcharges. The French usually leave a coin or two if they were satisfied with the service (but this is not compulsory). Bread is always free (as is tap water) and there is no extra charge for crockery.
Fixed-price menus rarely include drinks. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water (Evian, Tuna) or carbonated water (Badoit, Perrier) at a high price; ask for a carafe of tap water, which is free and safe for your health. Water never comes with ice except on request (and water with ice may not be available).
As in other countries, restaurants tend to make big profits on drinks. Expect wine to cost much more than in the supermarket.
Ordering is either from fixed-price menus (festive menu) or à la carte.
A typical fixed price menu includes:
- Starters, called entrées or hors d’oeuvres
- Main course, called a platter
- Dessert (delicacy) or cheese (cheese)
Sometimes restaurants offer the option of taking only two of the three courses at a reduced price.
Coffee is always served last (although it may be followed by liqueurs). Coffee is always served black unless otherwise requested (for coffee with milk, ask for “café au lait“). A request for coffee during the meal is considered strange.
Not all restaurants are open for both lunch and dinner, nor are they always open all year round. It is therefore advisable to check the opening hours and days carefully. A restaurant open for lunch usually starts its service at 12 noon and accepts customers until 1.30 pm. Dinner starts at 7.30pm and customers are accepted until 9.30pm. Restaurants with longer opening hours are usually only found in larger cities and town centres. It can be difficult to find an open restaurant on Saturdays and especially on Sundays, unless you live near tourist areas.
In a reasonable number of restaurants, especially outside tourist areas, reservations are compulsory and people without reservations may be turned away, even if the restaurant is obviously not full. For this reason, it may be wise to research potential restaurants in advance and make the necessary reservations to avoid disappointment, especially if the restaurant you are considering is specifically recommended in the guidebooks.
A lunch or dinner for two with a “menu” including wine and coffee will cost you (as of 2004) 70 to 100 € in a classified restaurant in Paris. The same goes for a beer in a local bistro or crêperie, around 40 €. Lunch or dinner for one in a decent Chinese restaurant in Paris can cost as little as €8 if you look carefully. Most French restaurants offer a lunch menu that costs no more than €15.
Outside Paris and big cities, prices are not always lower, but the menu often includes a fourth course, usually cheese. As everywhere, beware of the tourist traps that abound near crowded places, which offer a nice view but not much on the plate.
Bakeries are a kind of French institution and can be found everywhere in the country, from the smallest villages to the streets of the cities. All white breads have a short shelf life and must be eaten the same day or kept to dip in soup or hot chocolate the next morning. For this reason, bakers bake at least twice a day.
- The famous baguette: a long and thin bread (costs around €1 in bakeries, old-fashioned baguettes can cost up to €1.40);
- Variations of the baguette: the string (even finer), the flute, the tradition (a baguette with a generally more delicate taste, but also more expensive);
- Country or wholemeal bread: made from wholemeal, which keeps relatively well.
Pastries are an important part of French cuisine. Hotel breakfasts are usually light and consist of tartines (pieces of bread with butter or jam) or the famous croissants and pains au chocolat, which are not very different from chocolate-filled croissants (but are more square than croissant-shaped).
You can find pastries in a bakery, but also in most bakeries.
Each region in France has its own dishes. These dishes are based on the resources (game, fish, agriculture, etc.) of the region and the vegetables that grow there (cabbage, turnips, endives, etc.). Here is a small list of regional dishes that you can easily find in France. As a rule, each region has a unique and widespread dish (usually because it was a mass meal) :
- Cassoulet (in the south-west): beans, duck, pork and sausages
- Sauerkraut (in Alsace): bare fermented cabbage + pork
- Savoy fondue (Central Alps): melted/heated cheese with white wine
- Fondue Bourguignonne (in Burgundy): pieces of beef (in boiled oil), usually served with a selection of different sauces.
- Raclette (Central Alps): processed cheese and potatoes/meat
- Pot-au-feu (found all over France): boiled beef with vegetables
- Beef Bourguignon (Burgundy): slow-cooked beef with a red wine sauce
- Gratin dauphinois (Rhône-Alpes): potato slices roasted in the oven with sour cream and cheese.
- Aligot (Aveyron): Processed cheese mixed with mashed potato
- Bouillabaisse (fish + saffron) (Marseille and the French Riviera). Don’t be fooled! A real bouillabaisse is a very expensive dish as it requires a lot of fresh fish. Be prepared to pay at least 30 euros per person. If you find restaurants that claim to serve bouillabaisse for around 15 euros per person, you will find that it is of very poor quality.
- Tartiflette (Savoie): Melted Reblochon cheese, potatoes and pork or bacon.
- Confit of duck (Southwest) : The confit of duck, consisting of thighs and wings bathed in fat. This fat is indeed very healthy and, together with red wine, is one of the identified sources of the “French paradox” (eat rich, live long).
- Foie gras (Southwest): The liver of a duck or goose. Although generally quite expensive, foie gras can be found in supermarkets around Christmas time at a lower price (due to purchasing power). This is the time of year when most foie gras is consumed in France. It goes very well with champagne.
- Moules marinières (Brittany): Mussels steamed in cider or wine with cream, usually served with crusty bread.
Cooking and drinking is an important part of French culture; take the time to eat and discover new dishes.
Contrary to the stereotype, snails and frogs’ legs are rather uncommon foods in France, as many French people do not appreciate them or sometimes have never tasted them. Quality restaurants sometimes have them on their menu: if you are curious to try new foods, go ahead.
- Frogs’ legs have a very fine and delicate taste with a meat not unlike that of chicken. They are often served in a garlic sauce and are no more unpleasant to eat than crab, for example.
- The flavour of Burgundy snails (escargots de Bourgogne) comes mainly from the generous amount of butter, garlic and parsley in which they are cooked. They have a very particular spongy and leathery texture and, for obvious reasons, a strong garlic flavour. Catalan-style snails (“cargols”) are prepared in a completely different way and taste even stranger!
We should also mention:
- Rillettes sarthoises also known as Rillettes du Mans. A type of potted meat made from finely grated and seasoned pork. A delicious speciality from the Sarthe, in the north of the Pays de la Loire region, not to be confused with rillettes from other regions, which are more like a raw pâté.
- Bone marrow from beef (marrow bone). Usually served in small quantities, with a big side dish. So go ahead: if you don’t like it, have something else on your plate!
- Sweetbreads are a very fine (and usually expensive) dish, often served with morels, or in more elaborate dishes such as bouchées à la reine.
- The beef tripe is served either Caen-style (with a white wine sauce, named after the town in Normandy) or Catalan-style (with a slightly spicy tomato sauce).
- Andouillettes are sausages made from tripe, a speciality from Lyon.
- Tricandilles are spiced and grilled pork tripe from the Bordeaux region.
- Beef tongue, snout and calf’s head are usually eaten cold (but well cooked!) as starters.
- Oysters (Huîtres) are usually served raw in a half shell. They are often classified by size, with No. 1 being the largest (and most expensive).
- Sea urchin (urchin), for those who like concentrated iodine.
- Steak Tartare: large patty of acid-dried ground beef instead of cooked meat, often served with a raw egg. A good steak tartare is prepared to order at the table. A similar dish is beef carpaccio, which consists of thin slices or strips of raw steak drizzled with olive oil and herbs.
- Brains (pronounced: ser-VELL), lamb’s brain.
France is certainly the land of cheese, with almost 400 different varieties. In fact, the former president, General Charles De Gaulle, is reported to have said: “How can you govern a country with 365 types of cheese?
Vegetarianism is no longer as rare as it used to be, especially in big cities. However, very few restaurants offer vegetarian menus. So if you ask for something vegetarian, they only offer salads and vegetables as a side dish.
The confusion between vegetarianism and pescetarianism may still exist. Vegetarian and organic restaurants are starting to emerge. However, “traditional” French restaurants do not necessarily have a vegetarian menu in their “fixed menu”, so you may have to choose something “à la carte”, which is usually more expensive.
Fortunately, North African cuisine is very popular in France. Couscous is one of the most popular dishes in France (especially in the east of France) and is widely consumed.
Veganism is still very uncommon and it can be difficult to find vegan restaurants.
In France, breakfast is usually very light and usually consists of a coffee and a croissant or other pastry for special occasions. On normal days, most people have a drink (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice) and toast or baguette toast with butter and jam/honey/Nutella that can be dipped in the hot drink, or cereal with milk or fruit and yoghurt. French breakfasts are mostly sweet, but this can change and you can have a savoury breakfast anywhere these days.
Drinks in France
Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône, Loire Valley… France is the home of wine. It can be had cheaply everywhere. Beer (lager) is also very popular, especially in the north of France where you can find “Bière de Garde”. The minimum age for purchasing alcohol has recently been raised to 18, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, the laws against drink-driving are strictly enforced and carry heavy penalties.
Wines and spirits can be bought in supermarkets or in specialised shops such as the Nicolas chain. Nicolas offers good buying advice (specify the type of wine and the price range you want). Generally, only French wines are available, unless a foreign wine is a “speciality” for which there is no equivalent in France (e.g. port), and they are classified by region of origin rather than grape variety.
As far as the label is concerned, you should not drink alcoholic beverages (especially red wine or strong alcohol like cognac) directly from a 70-cl bottle. This kind of behaviour is usually associated with drunks (but if you are surrounded by students, you can get away with it). Drinking beer from a can or a 25-50 cl bottle is not a problem.
Food and drink prices vary depending on whether they are served at the bar or at the table – the same cup of espresso can cost €0.50 more if served at the table than at the bar, and €0.50 more if served on the terrace. In reality, you are not paying so much for the drink as for the seat at the table. But think about the bar: even if you have to stand, coffee bars are often the place for a lot of public speaking and interaction. In any case, cafés are required by law to display their prices somewhere in the establishment, usually in the window or on the wall next to the bar.
There are a few mixed drinks that seem to be more or less unique to France and its French-speaking neighbours.
- The shandy is a mixture of beer and lemonade, basically a beer shandy.
- Monaco is a panaché to which a little grenadine syrup is added.
- The Kir is a pleasant aperitif made from white wine (theoretically from Bourgogne Aligoté) or, more rarely, from champagne (which is then called Kir Royal and whose price is about twice that of the ordinary Kir) and blackcurrant (currant liqueur), or peach (Peach), or blackberry (Mulberry).
- Pastis is an aniseed-based alcohol (with liquorice flavour), with a similar taste to sambuca or ouzo, served with a few pieces of sugar and a small jug of cold water to dilute the liquor. It is traditionally drunk on hot days and is therefore more popular in the south of the country, but is available more or less everywhere.
There are a variety of bottled waters, including :
- Evian, Tuna, Contrex, Volvic: Mineral Water
- Perrier: Sparkling water
- Badoit: slightly bubbly and salty water.