This post was written by Friend, Teresa Scott.
The first time I ever visited Paris, I noticed several differences between café dining there versus in America, where most of us are from. Since then, I’ve traveled to Paris with my friends many times and want to offer 5 tips on how to make your first – and every – café visit a smooth, fun memory you will never forget.
1. Don’t Let Looks Deceive You
The first café I ever sat down in a chair in Paris was one that didn’t seem like it had much to offer. The exterior was a bit shoddy, the street was a several blocks in from any stylish main street, and frankly, things looked a little unkempt. But let me tell you, once I got my Quiche Lorraine, I was an instant convert. The quiche was perfectly baked in a flaky, buttery crust filled with the most perfectly stiff egg interior. The side salad was simple yet tasty with a savory lemony garlic vinaigrette. I finished my meal with a cappuccino and sipped it in full-belly-bliss and realized my friend Terry was not as crazy as I thought he was for suggesting we eat lunch here. Moral of the story, folks: focus on the menu and not the décor, and if the food looks good, give it a chance. Many times, you won’t be sorry.
2. Walk Right In
Unlike here in America where you always check in with a host or hostess before sitting down, in Paris, almost all cafes feature self-seating. I remember the first time I “just walked in” and plopped down on at a table situated on the sidewalk, I felt like I was going to get in trouble. But, alas! No such thing. Apparently, we’re all adults in Paris and can manage to find our own seats. When you come upon a bar or café, take a seat. And my advice: always sit outside and gear up for the most fabulous people watching you’ll experience in Europe. The general exception to the “seat yourself” custom is in a full restaurant. Then, you’ll be more likely to see a host or hostess who will appoint you and your friends to a seat.
3. Be Polite, or Go Home
Politeness is next to godliness in Paris, and really, all of France. And people in France speak French. I repeat. People in France speak French. While some do speak bits of English or other European languages, don’t expect anyone to speak to you in English, even if they do know how. So, be a good world citizen and take a crash course in French basics as a first step toward practicing civility. Learn how to say “hello,” “goodbye”, “please”, “toilet”, “check, please,” a few numerals, and how to address men versus women. Otherwise, you’ll embarrass yourself and the entire country you represent. And we Americans need no further type casting as ill-mannered tourists. Another politeness tip: when you walk into any place – and I mean any place – be sure to say “bonjour” and then wait until the other person says it back to you before continuing to speak. Lastly, French servers are paid a full wage (how progressive, I know) so tipping in a café is usually no more than 1 to 3 euro. In fancier restaurants, always check to see if the tip is included, and if not, throw in 5% of the bill.
4. You Don’t Have to Speak French to Order
So, you learned a few words in French, right? But then you walk into a place where the entire menu is in French. What are your options? In these cases, you can ask the server what it means. Or, if you have your phone handy, don’t be afraid to whip it out and Google Translate the shit out of that menu item. And, when you do find out what you’d like, you can just point to the item on the menu. That has worked for us countless times. But don’t forget to say please. In French. S'il vous plait. See tip #3 above for goodness’ sake.
5. Take Your Time
Finally, do not expect your food to come quickly and by the love of all that’s holy, don’t eat it like you’re at your neighborhood Chili’s. One of our very first café visits, we scarfed down our food and moved right into the cappuccino phase. The food was just so good we could not help ourselves. Our waiter said to us, “Slow down, slow down” in the nicest, most grandfatherly way a Parisienne could. So, we did. Part of the reason Paris is so magical is the experience of it all. This culture is one that appreciates slowing down, enjoying food and drink and conversation with friends. So, sit back, enjoy the scenery, the people, and every single bite of whatever you have on your plate or in your cup.