It is no exaggeration to say that eating and drinking in France is a unique experience and should be treated with the respect it deserves.Whether you are grabbing a quick cafe au lait and croissant or sitting down to a 6 course menu, there is a certain reverence for the routine, a certain pattern and professionalism to the routine that turns it into an experience.
Let me explain further what I mean by the experience. When you walk into the neighborhood patisserie first thing in the morning you are greeted by,”Bonjour! Bonjour madam” then you smell the coffee and the delectable looking pastries so beautiful behind the glass case. As the barrista makes your coffee with steaming frothy milk and serves it in a ceramic cup and saucer, you decide which pastry you are going to eat (I usually had to go with plain croissants because there is nothing plain about a warm flaky croissant!). You find a seat and enjoy a few minutes of bliss before starting your day.
After a morning of exploring, you are obviously famished. You decide on a place that has it’s own unique flavor, whether it’s the lure of the menu, the lure of the location with great views or the lure of an amazing place full of charm and history. Very often it was all 3 things at once. A trifecta! And if the waiters were also cute and charming (as they often were), bonus!
These are a few tips that are common to most all eating/drinking establishments. Upon entering always say bonjour/ bonsoir( after 6). Be patient, french waiters don’t expect you to be in a rush. They are usually attentive about taking your drink orders and isn’t that the most important thing? You have to ask for water (carafe d’eau) for tap water (very safe). You are always going to be served on ceramic dinnerware and waiters will trade out your silverware between courses. Your plates are going to be artfully and beautifully presented. Food is always prepared when ordered, it is always very fresh and delicious but be prepared to wait. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
It is indeed a show. Relax with a delicious aperitif and take in your surroundings, the building and the history around you, and the views around you. Wow, you are in France! People watching is always interesting in France and sitting in a restaurant is prime real estate for such diversions. Watch the dance of french waiters hustling and bustling around. I’ve said before that they are the hardest working people I’ve ever seen but we all know they have a reputation for rudeness. We did not experience this at all but it was because we were respectful of their customs and we put aside our American expectations and, indeed, embraced their customs as much as we could. An important fact about french waiters is that it is considered a profession in France and most go to school to learn it. Because it is a profession, they make a decent salary. Tips are automatically added into your bill so no tipping is necessary! Also because they are well paid they are expected to work hard and they do. There is a rhythm to the work that is very much a dance as they weave in and out with trays of food and drink all the while discreetly glancing at your table. Most of the restaurants are in old buildings, we ate dinner one night under the restaurant in a renovated cave! Many of the kitchens are up or down small staircases and waiters are constantly going up and down. No wonder they are all thin and wiry! Though there are some females, it is predominately a male profession. Most of the waiters were friendly and willing to at least take our picture,most spoke some English, and many were fun and flirty.
The trick to enjoying the french dining experience is to stay relaxed. You will find that though you may wait for your food, once it arrives it has been freshly prepared,and it is beautifully plated and most important, it is so delicious.The courses are well timed so you don’t feel rushed. After the meal the waiter will not bring you the check until you signal that you are ready, it is considered rude to rush you, they expect you to relax over your coffee or that last glass of wine. Simply lift your hand or say “sil vous plait”. Most will settle the bill at table and for us 3 ladies, most were willing to split the bill.
French food is not especially spicy, relying on the freshness of ingredients and herbs for flavor, and of course liberal use of butter and cream. We ate so much wonderful food but among my favorites were the pate de foie gras, so rich and creamy- we ate it everywhere. A few times we got the simple foie gras (liver) pan fried but we did not like it as much as the pate ( it was a textural thing). We had delicious escargot, beautiful lamb, duck breast and steak frites. We had an amazing 6 course meal with wine pairings at a Michelin starred restaurant in Colmar. We ate a mouthwatering cheese and potato casserole at an outdoor cafe in Alsace. We had fresh bright salads and coveted white asparagus that was in season and on every menu. We had tea and macarons at Laduree Teahouse. We had simple tartes flambee in Strasbourg that was a thin crust pizza with white sauce, onions and bacon, so good! Dessert was seldom refused and we ate creme brulee at most every opportunity! The wine was cheap and flowing, you can’t go wrong with a carafe of the house wine. A walk through a street market is a wonderful sensory treat, with all the fresh, beautifully presented foods. I could go on and on.
Back home I’ve tried to recreate a few of the dishes, the tartes flambee was pretty easy and close to the ones in Alsace, the potato casserole was good but a poor copy because the cheese in Alsace was so wonderful. I brought home some pate de foie gras to open on a special occasion. I feel like escargot belongs in France and I’m ok leaving the creme brulee for others to make( I’m talking to you Melanie). Indulging in some of these dishes takes me back to our amazing trip with all the richness of flavors and experiences. As I taste my attempts to recreate these delicious dishes, I lift my face and close my eyes in gratitude for the wonderful memories of a truly unforgettable trip.