We have all heard stories of Americans in France (usually Paris) who experience the rude waiter or shopkeeper. I think with a little understanding, this can easily be avoided, as this is just a cultural difference with regards to dining and the importance of cooking and food in France.
When entering a store or restaurant, you should always greet the proprietor or staff with a “bonjour Madame or bonjour Messieur”. They may say this to you first, and you can just reply with the same phrase. After about 6pm this turns into “bonsoir”. The same applies when you depart. Au revoir (Oh ruvwahr) Madame or Monsieur.
When you decide to go to a restaurant or café, even a casual one, you will often see the special of the day written on a blackboard outside called the “formule”. This is usually a good deal. For example you could find a posting saying 15E for either the entrée (small dish like appetizer) and plat (main dish) or the plat and dessert. You might also see posted 19E for entrée, plat and dessert or coffee. There are usually a few choices in each category to choose from but not always. This is a great way to try lots of interesting things without a big bill.
When you decide to go in and be seated, they will hand you a menu, but they will also tell you the “plat du jour” (plate of the day) or “formule”. You can order “à la carte” as well but it is often more expensive by the time you add everything up.
When you have decided what you’d like to order, close the menu and set it on the table as this is your cue to the staff that you are ready to order. Often they will ask what you’d like to drink first. If you just want some tap water, ask for a “carafe d’eau” (kahrahf dough). If they ask whether you would like still or bubbles, they are assuming that you want bottled water.
If more than one person is interested in wine, a demi carafe (half carafe) is an affordable and usually local or regional wine. You can also order a “carafe” or a bottle. You have the choice of white (blanc), rosé or red (rouge). White and rosé are served cold. Rosé is not the “white zinfandel” you may be used to but a lovely light dryer wine, perfect for hot summer days.
The waiter will ask your choice of entrée, and plat but doesn’t want to know what you want for dessert at this time, you can decide about that later. A coffee is often ordered at the end of the meal, but not required. It will be an espresso. For those of you wanting decaf, yes it is available and known as (daykah). Coffee with milk is usually only for the morning but if you want a milky coffee like café au lait, it is called crème in the south. Espresso with just a little cream (like macchiato) is a noisette.
The waiter/waitress will not be stopping by the table to ask, “how’s everything tasting”, but discreetly watching you from a distance so as not to interrupt your meal and conversation. If you need something, just a slight wave of a hand should bring them over. (Forget the "garçon" stereotype).
When you are ready for the bill, you will again waive him or her over and ask for the “addition” s’il vous plait, (see voo play). They will not come over to ask if you have finished and are ready for the bill. When you decide to take a table, it is yours until you are ready to leave. You must tell them when you are ready to leave. There is no rush. This is your table until you decide to leave.
Being a waiter or waitress is a profession in France and the staff is trained and paid accordingly for this job. The tip is usually included but if you’d like to leave an extra 1 or 2 Euro for good service that is appreciated, but not expected. A 15% tip would be too much.
If you decide to sit down for lunch or dinner at a restaurant, be sure that you have an hour or more to spend there. The French consider cooking to be an art and it should be enjoyed and appreciated in a relaxed manner. If you do not have time for this, a place called “snacking” might be more appropriate. Bakeries often have very affordable items that you can take “to go”, like quiche or sandwiches that you can eat when and where you’d like.
When we expect to have a quick lunch in 20-30 minutes, and seem frustrated that the waiter is not coming to ask what we want next, or leaving the bill on the table, this can be mistaken for rudeness. However this is simply a cultural difference. So relax and enjoy your meal. Even if you don’t know exactly what or how to say something, any attempt is usually warmly welcomed.