In a culture that revolves around food, the French have not only perfected the art of cooking, but the art of dining as well.
And in a country also deeply in love with rules, naturally these two elements of French culture—dining and rules—make perfect bedfellows.
Whether you’re coming to France for the first time or have lived here for years, knowing a few of these simple rules can help you fit in at any Parisian brasserie or cafe. Knowing all of them, we think, would be impossible, so we’ve broken it down to the basics.
These five rules will be sure to clarify and improve your dining experience as you eat like a local in Paris.
1. Eat at the right hours
Before even thinking about dining in Paris, you’ll want to make sure that you’re going at the “correct” time.
Lunch in Paris operates on by far the strictest schedule: 12–2 p.m. It’s outlandish to think that anybody in France would serve anything but breakfast before noon, so don’t bother asking for a full meal at 11:15 a.m.! Once you’ve surpassed 2 p.m. on the other hand, odds are high that you’ll be told that the kitchen is closed.
As for dinner, we’re a bit more flexible. We don’t eat as late as our Spanish neighbors by any means, but most people won’t sit down to dinner before 8 p.m., and in most places, looking for a full dinner after 10:30 p.m. can get complicated, as well.
To keep your belly full during those extraneous hours, we’ve invented some other acceptable ways to “picoler,” or snack, in France.
- The gouter is the French equivalent of a midday snack.
- An apéro is the early evening version of this, usually accompanied with beer or wine, and shared with friends. The apéro is often hosted at someone’s home, but can also take place in public spaces, like along the banks of the Seine or in one of Paris’ many parks.
2. Look for table settings
In Paris, there’s a place for everything. This is just as true in cafes, bistrots, and brasseries as it is in other facets of French life.
Most cafes will have, for example, a smoking and a non-smoking area. They will also generally set aside some tables for dining, and others for drinking. The key indicator of difference? A white tablecloth or table settings of some kind indicates that you can eat there.
If you sit down at lunchtime at a table with no settings, and then order a meal, you might be asked to move to a spot designated for eating. Alternatively, the waiter might begrudgingly set the table for you—but that’s not exactly how you want to start your meal.
3. Get the menu fixe
Unlike in other countries where mixing and matching menu options is common when eating out, in France the best deals will almost always be found on the fixed menu.
This fixed menu, most commonly found during lunchtime and during the business week, typically changes each day while the price stays the same. Even in slightly more upscale spots, you should be able to get at least a two- or three-course meal for under €20.
4. Understand the order of operations
This might seem obvious, but if you want to truly appreciate a French meal, it’s important to consume it in the right order. Beyond the typical entrée-plat-dessert combination, you can also add in a cheese plate, an alcoholic digestif and an espresso to top it off.
Throughout the meal, don’t be shy to ask for more bread to sop up the glorious juices and sauces. And don’t worry—you won’t be charged extra for it!
5. Take your time!
If there’s one rule that you remember from this list, it’s this: take your time. Whole book chapters, and indeed entire books, have been written about this topic.
Here in France, a meal is made up of food and conversation, with each playing an equal role in the pleasure of it. That’s why most French towns, and even to a certain extent Paris, close down between noon and 2 p.m. (rule #1).
Even in Paris, which is unlike the rest of France in myriad other ways, the on-the-go meal snarfed down at one’s desk while continuing to work is rare. Indeed, this element of French culture—the slow, deliberate meal—is still alive and well in the capital.
You only live once—and in Paris, much of that life is spent around a table with friends and delicious food.
You know how to eat like a local in Paris—now it’s time to practice. A great way to do that? Join us on our Ultimate Paris Food Tour for a crash course in food shopping and dining out Parisian style. After a morning discovering the city’s most delicious bites, you’ll leave armed with knowledge about how to make the most of every meal throughout the rest of your trip.
Phineas Rueckert is a freelance writer and master’s student in journalism and international affairs at Sciences Po, in Paris. His writing has been published in Atlas Obscura, Global Citizen, and Frenchly, a site about French culture and affairs. Although he has traveled to France his whole life with his parents, both teachers, he fell in love with the country while teaching English in a high school in Toulouse in 2015-2016.