PARIS — Americans in France who insist on chowing down the way they do back home miss out on one of the most satisfying pleasures any visitor can experience: exploring a country through its food.
There are any number of French restaurateurs who will give "famished" Americans exactly what they're used to — after all, a euro is a euro is a euro. And, yes, you can and will find McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks and other symbols of "our" food culture open for business here and feeding French people. Yet I still think the visitor pays too high a price, and I'm not talking just about what will likely be an inflated bill.
The French have spent centuries honing their food to a high and honest art. Eating and drinking well is their passion; Parisians, in particular, always seem to be on a restless quest to find the best fare their budgets and taste buds will allow. For eating in France is much, much more than simply sating primeval hunger. It's in the flavors, the rituals, the sensuality of le repas francais that you can really "get" what makes the French tick — and what really ticks them off about us.
"I often find that Americans are impatient in French restaurants," recalled Dorie Greenspan, the cookbook author and baking expert who divides her time among New York City, Paris and Westbrook, Conn.
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"Everything in a restaurant moves slower than it does in America," she added. "I remember having a simple lunch in a cafe with an American friend, and she said, 'The service here is terrible. We've finished and the waiter hasn't brought the check.' Had the waiter brought the check, it would have been considered impolite by French standards. The check comes when you ask for it."
Other American habits also go against the French grain, said Wendy Lyn, a Florida-born and now Paris-based guide to all things culinary: sharing of entrees, asking for substitutions and ordering a salad or just one course in a prix fixe meal.
"It also confuses the kitchen and wait staff who are serving diners in a way that is efficient for them — not the diner," added Lyn, who recounts her travels, tastings and tips on a Web site called The Paris Kitchen (thepariskitchen.com).
"The balance of power during a European meal is often with the chef and not the customer," wrote Alexander Lobrano in an e-mail from Lisbon. He is the Connecticut-reared author of "Hungry for Paris," a restaurant guide I find essential in France, and formerly European correspondent for the late Gourmet magazine. He elaborated on this point in an entry on his dining-focused Web site, hungryforparis.com.
"Raised to believe the customer is king, many Americans resent it when gastronomic discipline is imposed by a restaurant kitchen," he wrote recently. That, he added, is one of the "essential differences" between dining in Europe and in the United States.
He's so right. Knowing those differences and acting accordingly can make you seem like a savvy Parisian who goes contentedly with the flow — at least until you open your mouth. My high school French instantly betrays me as an American, but my at-table behavior has left some believing I live in France like Lobrano and Lyn. That's kinda cool.
Here's some expert advice from Lobrano, Lyn and Greenspan on how not to stick out like an American sore thumb in French restaurants.
Both Lyn and Lobrano stress the necessity of making a restaurant reservation. The French view it as a courtesy and as a sign that you are serious about eating in that restaurant. Either walk in early and request a table for later or phone in that reservation.
The French tend to eat lunch and dinner later than Americans do. Lunch is noon to about 2:30 p.m. Dinner is 8 to 11 p.m. Many restaurants close in the late afternoon to prepare for dinner service. Those that stay open will post a sign indicating that service continues.
"Read the menus posted outside cafes and bistros to know what is on offer before sitting down and then realizing there's nothing on the menu you are interested in," Lyn added. "Learn enough French to communicate that you have food allergies and what foods you can eat, especially if you are a vegetarian."
Prix fixe menus are usually more affordable than ordering a la carte, but there is a system to them: Order entree (appetizer) and plat (main course), or a plat and a dessert, or all three.
"Sharing is a no-no," Lyn warned.
Greenspan said any cheese will be served before the dessert or, if you like, in place of dessert.
"In fine restaurants, where the cheeses are wheeled out on a cart and you get to choose what you'd like, the pieces of cheese will be arranged on your plate in the recommended order in which you should eat them. That would be from mildest to strongest," she said. "In bistros and other casual restaurants, you might be given a plate with a small selection of cheeses. If the server doesn't tell you where to begin on the plate or if you're not sure, ask. Good waiters love to talk about the food."
Coffee comes on its own at the end of the meal and not with dessert, said Greenspan, who blogs about her Parisian food experiences at doriegreenspan.com. "The after-dinner coffee of choice is an espresso. Indeed, 'un cafe' means 'espresso' in French restaurantese."
Wine is sold in various sizes from a small glass to the standard 750-milliliter bottle. Most French wines are labeled by geographical names, not grape varieties.
Don't expect a lot of table-side chat from the staff.
"Servers do not want to interrupt your conversation or meal, nor have they been trained to anticipate your multiple needs," Lyn said. "You must ask for the check, salt, pepper. They aren't being rude; they just expect you to ask for what you need."