It’s disorienting to approach a Parisian restaurant and have no idea why the waitstaff is indifferent to your presence. Usually there’s a sign outside that indicates whether you should wait to be seated. If there’s no sign, then the customer is expected to find a seat and wait for the attention of the waiter. It’s a bit bizarre to figure this out, as every restaurant has its own preferences.
The waiter comes to present the menu at the table and generally expects the customer to ask about the daily specials. There is a difference in French between the word “menu,” which actually means the daily specials, and the “carte,” which is the usual restaurant menu. Translation can be tricky from French to English when it comes to food, so don’t be shy about asking for the English menu. Restaurants typically expect you to order drinks and appetizers first, followed by the main course and a cheese or dessert. Some Parisians even finish off their meals with an espresso shot and a small chocolate.
While customers are eating, Parisian waiters make a point of leaving them alone. This allows for time between each course, and it’s comforting to know that nobody’s getting kicked out of the restaurant anytime soon in order to facilitate turnover. The downside is that this lackadaisical attitude is a nuisance when you’re on the go with little time to spare. Keep in mind that the vast majority of the time, the waiter’s going to have to be flagged down for the check, “l’addition.” Don’t feel bad about looking it over carefully to make sure everything’s as it should be. Not only do Parisians themselves make sure to do this, but as a tourist, you may find that restaurants can be a little tricky when it comes to the bill. To make sure the tip is included, look for “service compris” on the menu, or just ask the waiter. A service fee is nearly always included, and you can just add a few more coins (no more than 5 percent of the total) if the service was exemplary.
Silverware is usually arranged with the fork(s) on the left side of the plate and the knife on the right side and a spoon either alongside the other utensils or above the plate. The French take a tremendous amount of pride in using their utensils and using them correctly. Ever since I learned how to eat à la French six years ago, I’ve never gone back to the American style, solely because it seems so impractical in comparison. The French actually cut food piece by piece as they eat and daintily use the knife to add more food onto the backside of the fork, a style that originated centuries ago when someone deemed this method of eating to be more beautiful. You may notice that this requires that both hands be above the table at all times, no matter what—otherwise, “Who knows what you are doing under the table!” as my French host mom once joked when she saw my hand in my lap. So if you’re attempting to blend in at a brasserie and you want to take my host mom’s words to heart like I did, keep your hands where we can see them!