Food in France - What to Know and to Eat
It’s impossible to travel in France without exploring the cuisine and deeply-rooted food culture of the place; the markets (and time spent at them) aren’t merely for gathering ingredients but for socializing and connecting. Relaxed lunches, long dinners and endless hours spent commiserating in outdoor cafés are the norm, and chefs here are as well known as professional athletes. While French food might seem rich and luxurious on the surface, French cooking isn’t about being fancy or snobby. It’s about layered flavors, mastery of technique and the simple bounty of the season; it’s about savoring each bite with others.
Contrary to popular perception, French food wasn’t created in restaurants with white tablecloths. Instead, it has much humbler roots. True, the foundations of traditional French food lie in cuisine du potager (cooking from the garden) or cuisine du marché (cooking from the daily market), both of which were born out of economic necessity and common sense. Cooking and eating what’s closest to you is the most economical and logical way of feeding yourself and your family. This mentality still lies at the heart of French cooking and culinary traditions. As you explore France, you’ll see the deep pride the people have for their homeland and the incredible ingredients they produce and incorporate into each meal.
The Dining Experience in France
French meals follow a European flow. Breakfast is a light meal, and it’s followed by a longer, larger lunch and an even larger and longer dinner. This is common across France. The simple tartine (bread and butter), croissant or possibly a pain au chocolat (a chocolate-filled croissant) served with coffee and milk for breakfast is an easy routine to fall into for most, but the multicourse lunches and dinners are more of a challenge. If you’re not interested in a full meal of this format, lots of other eating establishments can suit your fancy.
Visiting the café is an everyday part of French life. You go to grab your morning coffee and croissant or perhaps a midday snack or to meet friends for an aperitif in the late afternoon. The menus at most cafés are simple and are suitable for any time of day—particularly during off hours at other restaurants. When dining in a café, the waiter will bring your check immediately, but this isn’t a signal to pay. Linger as long as you like, just as the French do. Service is included in the bill, but it’s customary to leave a bit of change for good service.
Impatient Russian soldiers occupying Paris in the 1800s would call “Bistrot!” (“hurry” in Russian) when they were eager to get their meals, which is presumably where this type of French dining got its name. A bistro is typically a small neighborhood-type establishment serving hearty portions of comforting French food. Menus are frequently written on the ardoise (blackboard), wines are often available by the glass or carafe, and the spaces are often jam packed. Don’t be surprised if you wind up sharing a table with your neighbor!
Alsatians originally owned brasseries (“brewery” in French), and these establishments specialized in serving huge platters of choucroute (pickled cabbage), sausages and freshly made beer. These large, lively spots are a smart choice for a group of friends because they serve food throughout the day and into the late hours.
Restaurants are the place to go for a full multicourse meal, and they run the gamut from casual to haute cuisine. The menu is always a smart choice in this sort of establishment. It offers several courses at a lower price.
Typical French Dishes
No matter where you are in France, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially French delicacies:
Probably not the lightest dish you can try in France, it’s originally from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. It’s made up of white beans, duck legs and different kinds of pork. For centuries rural families have enjoyed this dish, and the French continue to cook it to bring the family together.
Boeuf bourguignon is a traditional family meal consisting of slow-cooked cuts of beef, red wine, various root vegetables and mushrooms. This dish is typical of Burgundy, a region in which cattle farming and red wine are famous.
Walk past any bakery in the wee hours of the morning, and you’ll be instantly spellbound by the warm, buttery smell of fresh croissants escaping from the air vents at pavement level. This is your cue to step in and to get your golden prize, which you can savor on your morning walk as the city awakens. Sadly, fewer and fewer French bakeries make their croissants from scratch—instead, they buy them frozen—so it’s worth asking to make sure your boulanger still engages in this noble, delicious craft.
This fish soup takes as long as two days to prepare! Created by local fishermen from fish they couldn’t sell in the markets, it has now become a culinary delicacy that’s served with pride.
This favorite French dessert is a sweet baked custard that’s caramelized on top. Use the back of your spoon to break through the sugar coating. That satisfying crack is an excellent indicator your dessert is going to be exceptional!
Backroads Pro Tip
French chefs take tremendous pride in preparing each dish to the highest standards, and they take great offense when a diner asks for ketchup, barbecue sauce or any other condiment sure to skew the flavors they’ve taken great pains to perfect. Give your chef a little nod of confidence, and refrain from the condiments (unless they’re presented as part of the meal).
Regional Foods and Specialties
Each French region has its own delicacies and specialties. Here are just a few favorites:
The iconic ring shape of le Paris-Brest immediately conjures up its secret past, hinting at the famous cycling race that inspired its creation. These delights can reach epic dimensions of 30 to 50 centimeters (10 to 20 inches) in diameter. Louis Durand, pâtissier of Maisons-Laffitte, created this wheel-shaped wonder in 1910 to commemorate the Paris–Brest–Paris bicycle race he launched in 1891.
Coq au vin
Chicken braised in red wine is a delicacy of Burgundy. This is sure to be the most flavorful and juicy poulet you have in France!
In Provence, ratatouille is the ultimate “grandmother dish.” It’s so delicious that many restaurants today offer it to accompany fish or meat.
Herb-Buttered Snails (Escargots au Beurre Persillé)
Travel to Burgundy to discover another typical French recipe: cooked snails with herb butter, or escargots au Beurre Persillé. Cooked, as the name suggests, with a butter parsley cream, the snails are presented in their shells, and you eat them with a little skewer.
Quenelles de Brochet
Decadent little dumplings from Lyon, the capital of France’s Rhône-Alpes region, these are made with creamed pike, butter, bread crumbs and lobster sauce. They’re simultaneously rich and light. (How do the French do that?)
Once you taste one of these special little pastries, it’ll become very hard to leave Bordeaux. With their crunchy coatings and soft centers, these cakes are made from dough consisting of flour, milk, eggs, sugar and butter. The dish is scented with rum and vanilla.
In Brittany and Normandy, the item to order is seafood—specifically, oysters. The best in the country come from these waters!
Backroads Pro Tip
The cheese course always seems to stump visitors to France. As far as timing, it properly comes after the salad and before the dessert. How to slice the cheese is also an important gastronomic tidbit while dining in France. Cut the cheese in the direction it's already been cut. Never cut off the point, and don’t leave the cheese board looking like a war zone. Doing so is considered inconsiderate to the artisan who crafted it.
French Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
- Appetizers: Les entrées
- Main courses: Les plats
- Cheeses: Les fromages
- Desserts: Les desserts
- Drinks: Les boissons
- Salad: La salade
- Soup: La soupe, le potage or le velouté
- Egg: L’œuf
- Beef: Le bœuf
- Lamb: L’agneau
- Snails: Les escargots
- Rabbit: Le lapin
- Chicken: Le poulet
- Pork: Le porc
- Veal: Le veau
- Fish: Le poisson
- Vegetable: Le légume
- Pasta: Les pâtes
Words to Know When Dining Out
While English is spoken widely in France, it’s always appreciated when you try your hand at a few local words and phrases. Don’t forget to always say “bonjour!” upon arriving. This gesture goes a long way as France is quite formal in this respect, and it’s considered rude if you don’t acknowledge and greet people. If you’re looking to test out your French, here are a few words to get you started at a local restaurant:
- Good day!: Bonjour!
- I’m going to take…: Je vais prendre…
- I would like to reserve a table: Je voudrais réserver une table
o…for two people.: …pour deux personnes.
o…on the 15th of October.: …pour le quinze octobre.
o…at 20 o'clock.: …à vingt heures.
- I’m a vegetarian: Je suis un végétarien.
- Please: S’il vous plaît
- The bill: L’addition
- Yes, thanks!: Oui, merci!
- Tap water: Une carafe d’eau
- Where is the toilet?: Où sont les toilettes?
- Enjoy: Bon appetit!
Service is included, by law, in all French restaurant bills. Unlike in the United States, however, where servers live mostly off tips and receive very low pay (sometimes less than minimum wage), servers in France are normally paid fixed incomes, which are either an hourly wage or a monthly salary. Servers in France are also given health care, paid vacations and retirement benefits, and the service charge is used to cover these salaries and benefits. Some restaurants still include a 12–15 percent service charge that goes directly to the server, but most restaurants nowadays favor the salary system.
Since service is included in your bill, you aren’t required to pay one centime more, and if service is poor, you shouldn’t. Most people, though, leave a few extra Euros for good service. A good rule of thumb is to leave small change in a café (say, 20–50 cents) and then a few extra Euros for dinner. Depending on the service, one to five Euros, per person, is appropriate.
While walk-in dining is customary in many other places in Europe, make reservations for restaurants and bistros in Paris. Even a casual corner bistro can easily book up. It can be hard to tell if a place requires reservations, so err on the side of caution. Unless a restaurant’s website specifically states that it doesn’t accept them, assume you’ll need to book ahead. Most Parisian restaurants don’t offer online reservations, so you or your hotel concierge will need to call.
Before you attempt to make a dining reservation in France, know that many restaurants and shops close for the day on Sunday or Monday, and in the second half of July and August, when many Parisians go on holiday, restaurants can close for anywhere from two to six weeks. Be sure to check ahead if there’s a special establishment you’d like to visit during these summer times.
Set eating hours are still firmly entrenched in French society. Lunch is generally served from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., and most restaurants serve dinner from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Some restaurants might open earlier for dinner to cater to an international clientele, but most French people won’t step a foot outside to eat dinner a minute before eight o’clock. For meals outside those times, less formal options are your best bet. Wine bars tend to have more flexible hours, catering to patrons seeking drinks or snacks before or after their main meals. Brasseries are open all day and offer continuous service, and bakeries and patisseries are good options for late-afternoon snacks. It’s also fine to sit in cafés for hours, but it’s good practice to pay rent for your table, so to speak, by buying a round of coffees or drinks every so often.
Want to Know More about France?
Read the full “France: Travel Guide Overview”.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great France adventure!