From childhood, the French are raised to appreciate the art of dining, and the many rituals that accompany it—even public school lunches include a cheese course. Part of the reason you’re traveling to France is, presumably, to tap into that gastronomic reverence. But knowing how to do it right is tricky, particularly if you don’t speak the language. Here’s everything you need to know about Parisian restaurant etiquette, including some helpful phrases. Do as the French do, and you’ll have a much better experience in Paris.
Say Bonjour, Always
Whether it’s at the post office, a boutique, or a fine dining restaurant, say bonjour to every single person you interact with. France is formal in this respect, and it’s considered rude if you don’t acknowledge and greet people. You can use bonjour in the evenings as well, but some people will switch over to bonsoir around 5pm. The only hard and fast rule? Don’t forget to say hello. A few pleasantries can go a long way naturally so don’t forget to say thank you with merci or bonne journée for have a good day or bonne soirée, if it’s evening.
For restaurants that accept reservations, reserve. Even a casual corner bistro can easily book up. It can be hard for diners to tell if a place requires reservations or not, so unless a restaurant specifically states on its website that it doesn’t accept them, assume you’ll need to book. How far in advance you’ll want to reserve depends on the restaurant. For hotspots like Septime or Frenchie, you should call or check online weeks ahead; for more casual dining, call a day, or even just a few hours, in advance. French restaurants close more often than American ones, so making a reservation is also a good way to find out if they’re open before you cross town.
Most reservations will require a phone call—restaurant websites in Paris are often just an address and a phone number. More often than not, you won’t be able to book online, and you’ll almost never be able to view the menu in advance. To phone in the reservation yourself, always begin with bonjour.
It’s important to use the 24-hour clock to avoid confusion, so remember to add twelve!
...And Keep Them.
If you make a reservation, honor it. Many restaurants in Paris do only one service a night, because the French like to linger. This means that for a small restaurant, a no-show can have real economic ramifications. If you must cancel, give as much notice as possible. (And definitely don’t double book: Tourists are becoming infamous for making multiple bookings at hotspots on opposite sides of town, then deciding at the last minute which one they’ll keep. This is poor form.)
Restaurants will want a phone number in order to confirm your reservation a day or two in advance—remember to give your country code, too. If you don’t pick up when they call to confirm, you may show up only to find that your reservation has been given away. If you’re worried about missing the call—or concerned about international roaming charges—be proactive and call the day beforehand yourself to confirm.
Know Which Days To Go...
Many restaurants and shops will shutter for the day on Sunday or Monday. Lots of travelers go wrong here by not planning accordingly. Take a look at your list of places to eat, and if any are open on Sunday and Monday, take advantage and visit them on those days.
...And Which Months
In August and, increasingly, the second half of July, Paris can be a ghost town. It often feels like the entire city has gone on vacation, with many restaurants closed for anywhere from 2–6 weeks. So if the goal of your visit is to eat your way across the city, consider visiting at a different time of year. The end of December, also popular with tourists, is a better bet, but can still be a little risky: Many restaurants close for Christmas and New Year’s, which are family holidays when most people cook at home. If you opt to eat out, you’ll most likely end up paying premium prices for fairly mediocre tasting menus. Rent an apartment with a kitchen instead, and shop in advance like the Parisians do.