Table etiquette : how to behave at a French table

In France, “table etiquette” is not only about “eating properly”(1). Of course, anything is possible when it comes to table manners. But there are some “French” rules that are worth knowing. Especially since they are generally logical and simplify the meal, both for the guests and the waiters. Suppose you are invited to a great restaurant on the Champs Elysées, that you are not used to the “grande cuisine” à la française, this post is a preparation to fully enjoy this dinner without apprehension.
These rules do not have to be followed to the letter, but are a good guide of “bienséances ” and politeness. They can avoid reactions of surprise and questioning from French guests.

Table etiquette rules – to set the table

The “table etiquette” rules we list below are used in high-end restaurants. However, in less upscale restaurants, or at home when the French are entertaining guests, most of the points listed are applied as long as the dishes served require it.

Enough space for each guest – it is also “Table etiquette”

  • Space between guests: 65 to 70 cm for a comfortable meal

Tablecloth and napkins

  • White tablecloth, sober and refined dishes, bulgum under the tablecloth (comfort and protection of the table, stains and hot dishes).
  • The napkin should be folded to the left of the plate. For a lunch, it can be simply put on the plate.

Plates

  • Plate(s) should be 2 to 3 cm from the edge of the table in front of you.
  • At most, there will be no more than 3 plates on top of each other: underneath, a “presentation” plate that is wider than the space between the dishes and in which one does not eat, above, the plate for the main course and finally, on top, the plate for the soup or the starter, for example.
  • The plate for bread is placed on the top left of the “main” plates. If you don’t use one, just place the bread in the same place, directly on the tablecloth.

Salt and pepper shakers

  • Salt and pepper shakers within reach of all guests: a sufficient number of salt and pepper shakers prevents the salt shaker from passing over the guest next to you.

Forks, knifes and spoon

  • To set a French table, the tines of the forks are turned towards the table and the spoon is curved upwards.
  • The knife blade is always turned towards the plate. The cutlery is thus arranged from the outside to the inside in the order of the dishes served.
  • Cheese and dessert cutlery can be placed above the plate. First the cheese knife near the glasses with the dessert spoon, handles facing to the right. Then the dessert fork near the plate, handles facing left.

Glasses

  • Placement of glasses : the glasses are placed on top of the plate and in descending order to the right, starting with the water glass. The red wine glass before the white wine glass. The last glass should be aligned with the large knife.
  • Decorating the table
    • First of all, the table should not be cluttered with unnecessary decorations.
    • Secondly, there should be no scented or pistilated flowers that can stain the tablecloth. Flowers such as lilies, jasmine, mimosa, tuberose, freesia, seringat or even some camellias give off scents that would compete with food and wine.
    • The floral presentation should be low: never large, awkward bouquets that would make it difficult to have a one-on-one conversation.
    • Candles are also placed higher or lower than eye level so as not to disturb conversations.

The behavior around the table at the restaurant, part of “Table etiquette”

Upon arrival in the restaurant as an individual or a couple or a few members of a family, guests will be invited by the Maître d’hôtel or a waiter to sit at a “reserved” table or not (rather booked to avoid restaurants that are often full).

In the case of a group, a table will be proposed to you and the waiter or maitre d’hôtel will lead you there. In table etiquette principle, the person “organizing” the meal invites the other guests to sit down and divides the seats by “affinity”, as far as possible. Young people wait for older people (or women, if there are any among the guests) to be seated first.
Then wait for the waiter who will probably offer you an aperitif and bring you the menu card(s).

The waiter will return a little later to note everyone’s food choices, starting with the ladies, in descending order of age.

Table-etiquette-presentation-of-bottle-of-wine-by-a-waiter

The ordering of the type of wine is done on the basis of the choice of the dishes of each one (correspondence between the dishes and the wines) while trying to make a choice compatible with all the dishes of the order. Ask for the sommelier’s (or maitre d’hotel’s) opinion. He or she can easily advise you on the wine to match the dishes ordered.

Note: the advantage of ordering “by the glass”. Everyone can order “his” wine and change it during the meal.

In the table etiquette, the sommelier who brings the wine makes the “leader” or the one who seems the most connoisseur of the guests, taste a glass bottom. This person approves (or not) the quality of the proposed wine. The sommelier fills then about 1/2 glass per guest (who wishes to drink wine). It is very rare for a wine to be refused at the time of the “test” – unless it is obviously of inferior quality.
The waiter comes back regularly during the meal to keep your glass at a “constant level”.
The waiter serves water once at the beginning of the meal (not allows) and leaves the bottle on the table to serve you later
(Remember: water glass in the largest glass which is normally the glass on the left).

If you’re not drinking wine, a bottle of water is always available: eau minérale ou gazeuse, mineral or sparkling water. Or even “tap water” (Carafe d’eau). Always use the bigger glass for water.

The dishes ordered may require different preparation times. However, the chef will arrange for all the dishes of the same service to be delivered to the table at the same time, by several waiters if there are many guests. This is to avoid a time lag between the first and last dish served and everyone eating the same dish at the same time. The rule of courtesy for the first served (table etiquette again) is to wait until the other people around the table are also served before starting to eat. Unless the wait is too long (very rare) and the food is hot, the first person to be served must wait for the last to have their food.

On the “service” side, the rule of the table etiquette is that the waiter brings the garnished plates or changes the plates by your left and takes the consumed plates by your right.

The table etiquette “says” not put your hands under the table or your elbows on the table, and also keep your left hand on the table while you eat. It is a little different of the american way. The French cut and eat their meat with the fork in their left hand and the knife in their right, without changing the cutlery in their hands. French table manners are sometimes difficult for foreigners, but don’t worry too much about using “continental” utensils.

Eating habits have led to the positioning of knives, forks, spoons and even glasses on the table. Forks are on the left side of the plate because they are used primarily by the left hand. The knives are on the right side because they are used by the right hand. The different glasses are placed from the right, in order of menu use, with the “small glasses” for the white wine first, before the large glasses for the red wine(s) going to the left. You will note that the label was made by and for right-handed people.

According to the table etiquette, coffee is never drunk during the meal but afterwards, which means that a waiter in a restaurant will never offer you coffee with your meal. Therefore, you will never see a cup of coffee next to your plate on the table. It comes at the end with the coffee, after the dessert.

Of course, if you really want to drink coffee with your meal, you can order it. But you will probably be served a stronger coffee than you are used to.

Cheese is considered a real dish, but it is not always automatically served in restaurants. When it is, it is sometimes offered instead of dessert, which means you can choose between cheese and dessert (or both if you are still hungry).

In good restaurants, the cheese is presented by the waiter on a large “tray” and served to you: you can choose two or three kinds.

In many mid-range restaurants, the cheese board can also be brought to the table, and you can cut off the parts you want, using the knife on the board – not your knife. Again, choose 2 or 3 kinds, of reasonable size, mild ones if you’re not used to cheese flavors (cheese lovers usually take portions of different “flavor levels” and start with the mildest cheese).

Etiquette-table-presentation-cheeses-on-a-rolling-table

When presented with a whole cheese to cut up, be sure to cut your portion in such a way as to maintain the shape of the large piece of cheese.

A round, flat cheese like a Camembert will cut like a pie. In fact, note that what Americans recognize as a camembert shape is a real camembert in France.

(1) Sometimes, in less upscale restaurants, the meal has been ordered “in advance.” The meal is not “à la carte” but the dishes are the same for each guest, or follow a limited selection. This is often the case for a scheduled “family” meal, or a “company” meal or a meal between colleagues, on the occasion of a birthday or other exceptional event of the same nature.

You are invited to a restaurant – a business dinner or lunch – What to discuss during the meal ?

If you are the guest, you will have agreed with your host on the time of the meeting. It is best to arrive 5 to 10 minutes later. This gives your host the opportunity to arrive before you and wait for you at the reserved table.

If you arrive before your host (he may be late due to traffic), the Maitre d’hôtel place you at the reserved table and offer you a “waiting” aperitif: it is best to refuse it, remember that it is your host who will pay the bill.

Although the French have a smaller space bubble than Americans, they do not like to be touched by anyone unless they know that person well. Don’t put your hand on someone’s arm or shoulder and don’t pat someone on the back or shoulder in a friendly way.

Don’t be overly enthusiastic and don’t use superlatives like “awesome”, “wonderful” or “great”. They are not popular in France and are considered not “sincere”. An overly positive or rosy view may seem arrogant or hypocritical to the French. “Un chat est un chat,” the French say, which in English means “call a spade a spade,” and the French don’t sugarcoat or mince words.

Also avoid the aggressive, hard sell approach. The French will not be impressed if you tell them that your American know-how is exactly what they need to get out of the mess they are in. They may not even agree that they are in trouble.

The typical American, self-assured, “sell yourself” approach is perceived by the French as arrogant and abrasive. The French generally like people with personality, those who are not content to follow the herd and who are able to “add” to the mix.

The French sometimes consider consistency as boring, and being boring is one of the worst sins. Finally, recognize the cultural importance of food and wine, and understand the primary purpose of a French meal : to get to know each other, to enjoy good conversation and good food.

A French meal is very structured and sequentially organized. Go with the flow and try to eat at least a little of everything, even if you don’t like it.

Table etiquette : who paies the bill ?

When the invitation has been clearly expressed (“I invite you to such and such a restaurant”) the question does not arise. The problem can arise if the invitation is like “Shall we go to a restaurant?” or “Shall we eat together?”. In this case, you can think that it is either a badly formulated invitation, i.e. “I invite you” or on the contrary “let’s go together to the restaurant” on common decision and therefore at shared expenses.

If you are inviting, the payment of the bill should be discreet: if it is brought to the table, check discreetly if there is no mistake. It is of course even more discreet if you move to the cashier to pay the bill (not always available in high-end restaurants). Fifteen percent service is included in the bill by the law. But if you are particularly satisfied, you can add a tip at your discretion on the plate that was used to bring the bill.

Should the guest bring a gift?

People invited to a restaurant do not bring a “gift” – unless you know each other very well. But if you are invited to the house of the person who invites you, a small gift is welcome. It could be a box of quality chocolate, a bottle of good wine for the “maître de maison” and a bouquet of flowers (or a plant) for the hostess.

How to end a meal as a guest

A lunch time meal (which most often starts between 1 and 1:30 p.m. and ends around 3:00 p.m.).

A dinner party (in the evening) usually ends later than 11:00 pm (it usually starts between 8:30 and 9:00 pm), usually not later than 1:00 am). If there are several guests, they have to go home and some have to work the next day.

Of course, you should thank your hosts and come back on a point to show that you particularly liked (for example the wine(s) served at the meal).

In general, if several people or couples are present, the departure of one of them sounds the moment for the others to leave too. This facilitates the “effusions” of departure.

If you need to be in contact with your guest again in the next few days, it is a good idea to remind them in a sentence or two how much you appreciated the invitation to the meal.

Tip
When you are alone (or with your family) in a restaurant as a tourist your choice is unlimited: type of restaurants, prices, location.
All restaurants must display their menu(s) and prices on the front of the restaurant. The 15% service is always included (and indicated). Consult before entering, do not be influenced by “rabatteurs” in front of the restaurant (they are often “tourist traps”).
Avoid “foreign” restaurants (“exotic” or not because they are only exotic in name, not in cuisine. The sanitary aspect is often less respected than elsewhere (“touristat”).
Restaurants in France do not serve many side vegetables or fruits. For your health, try to buy fruits in supermarkets while traveling.
Bottled sparkling or mineral water is often expensive in restaurants. But nothing prevents you from ordering a “carafe of water” (carafe d’eau) which is free, often just as good and above all totally germ-free (drinking water guaranteed by the City of Paris).

(1) Many books have been written about “l’Etiquette”. To learn more about the subject, see “QU’EST-CE QUE « L’ÉTIQUETTE » OU SAVOIR VIVRE À LA FRANÇAISE?”