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FOOD & DRINK

FACTCHECK: Do French waiters really tell customers what they can order?

It's a fairly regular event that someone will go viral with their story of a French waiter flatly refusing to serve a certain item, blithely ignoring any special requests or simply telling the customer that they are wrong. So is it true that French waiters tell customers what they can and cannot order?

FACTCHECK: Do French waiters really tell customers what they can order?
Photo by FRED DUFOUR / AFP

A recent example of this concerns a request for an oat milk latte in Paris, but over the years there have been numerous other stories of waiters refusing a request for a steak ‘well done’, plonking down a bowl of meat in front of a vegetarian or simply informing the diner that their request for coffee with their meal is wrong.

Not to mention of course, The Local’s Europe editor and his quest to get beaufort cheese for his fondue.

We’re not doubting the veracity of these stories of course, but how common actually is this? And how can you ensure that you get what you want? 

READ ALSO French café terrace etiquette

Go local 

The first thing that visitors need to remember is that France is its own country with its own (proud) culinary traditions.

Outside the big cities there’s not much on offer in the way of non-French food, so if you particularly want something from your home country you might need to accept that it’s either not available or it might not be a particularly good version of the dish.

If you want top quality food, it’s better to stick to the local offerings, prepared with care, pride and local ingredients.

This also applies to coffee – all countries in Europe have their own distinct traditions when it comes to coffee and creations like pumpkin spiced lattes are really not common outside the anglosphere.

READ ALSO How to drink your coffee in the French style

French coffee usually means a short espresso-like drink, or a milky café au lait or café crème. If you want something different you might need to look for somewhere that serves US-style coffee (there’s always Starbucks, if you insist).

Stick to the menu 

It’s common in some countries to look at the menu and then tell the waiter how you want the dish made differently, but this is not a tradition in France, where’s it’s assumed that the chef knows how s/he wants things to taste.

If something is not on the menu then that probably means it’s not available.

If you want a dish made differently you can make a polite request for this to happen, but don’t assume it’s an option – many French waiters will simply be baffled if you tell them you want the goat’s cheese salad without the goat’s cheese, and suggest that you order something else instead.

Trust the experts 

It can come over as rude or high-handed (and grumpy waiters exist, without a doubt) but consider that your server is actually trying to help you.

Working in hospitality is quite a high status job in France and many servers will have expert knowledge of which wines pair well or how a dish is best served. If they hear you ordering something that they think will not be a pleasant dining experience, they will have no hesitation in telling you, and suggesting something else.

Likewise people who work in food shops are often experts in their field, so if they tell you that a certain combination will not be good, or a certain cheese is too good for a fondue, they are probably right.    

Be polite 

One of the most frequent complaints about French waiters is that they are rude and undoubtedly rude waiters exist, particularly in the more tourist areas of Paris.

But they may be reacting to what they see as rude behaviour from you – have you greeted your waiter with a bonjour/bonsoir? It’s considered rude to fail to greet someone politely and instead just start barking out your order.

French waiters are skilled professionals and expect to be treated like equals, rather than servants.

And if they think you are rude, they won’t hesitate to be rude back – there is no concept of ‘customer is king’ in France (probably just as well when you consider what they did to their king).

On a related note – while English language skills are pretty common among serving staff in tourist areas, don’t assume that your waiter speaks English. Even if you don’t speak any French at all it’s considered polite to begin with a bonjour/bonsoir before asking Parlez vous anglais ?

Rudeness can even cost you extra in some French cafés.

Flag up dietary requirements 

There’s obviously a big difference between having specific dietary requirements and/or allergies and just being fussy.

If you have an allergy or a dietary requirement it’s best to flag this up in advance so that your waiter knows your needs and why you are making your request.

J’ai une allergie et je ne peux pas boire de lait du tout. Avez-vous du lait d’avoine ? – I have an allergy and cannot drink any milk at all. Do you have oat milk? 

Some waiters are just rude

But sometimes you can do all of this and still find a grumpy, surly or unhelpful waiter. Maybe they’re just having a really bad day. 

Member comments

  1. Why come to France to drink an oat-milk latte ? Can’t you get one at Costa’s in the high street ?

  2. You mentioned allergies in the article — I’d love to see an article on how to order gluten free in France. I have Celiac disease and am otherwise not picky, but have read about how hard it is to get gluten free food in French restaurants.
    Thanks!

  3. Customer in France: I can’t eat tomatoes, onions, garlic, carbs, dairy, or meat. What would you suggest?

    French Waiter: un taxi.

  4. ‘Bonjour’ by itself doesn’t cut it. Bonjour Monsieur, or Bonjour Madame gets you more brownie points.

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FOOD & DRINK

Paris bakers bounce back with sharp rise in number of city boulangeries

If you’ve convinced yourself that the delicious and tempting aroma of baking bread seems a little more pronounced in Paris then your scent suspicions are accurate, according to new figures showing a strong growth in the number of boulangeries in the capital.

Paris bakers bounce back with sharp rise in number of city boulangeries

You might think that the busy pace of big city life would put paid to the tradition of going to a traditional boulangerie to buy your daily bread.

But after several years in which number of boulangeries in and around the capital did indeed decline, 110 new bakeries were listed by the Chambre des métiers et de l’artisanat (CMA) d’Île-de-France in 2022.

In the 20 arrondissements of Paris, there are now 1,360 bakeries – a jump of nine percent in the past five years. Twenty years ago, there were only 1,000 boulangeries in the capital.

Moving out into the greater Paris Île de France region, the number of boulangeries has jumped an average of 20 percent – and as much as 35 percent in the département of Seine-Saint-Denis. 

READ ALSO MAPS: How many Parisians live more than 5 minutes from a boulangerie?

They’re busy, too. According to CMA figures, Parisian boulangeries bake between 500 and 800 baguettes a day, compared to an average of 300 across France, and sell a variety of artisan-made breads and pastries.

That’s in spite of repeated crises – from the yellow vest protests and pandemic confinement, to the rising cost-of-living and soaring energy bills.

The CMA has said it has contacted every one of the bakers in Paris to find out how they are coping with rising bills, while an estimated 50 advisers are conducting energy audits to find ways for individual bakers to save money.

The secret of modern boulangers’ survival is not much of a secret – diversification.

“The profile of the artisan is not the same as it was fifty years ago, when making good bread was enough,” Jean-Yves Bourgois, secretary general of the CMA of Île-de-France, told Le Parisien. “They are much more dynamic: the offer is much wider, and they have been able to keep up with customers’ demand.”

READ ALSO

Bakeries have increasingly established themselves as an alternative to the fast-food kebab houses and burger bars by developing their product lines to include salads, sandwiches and warm meals for takeaway. Many also have an attached café or terrace for customers to while away their time.

As well as diversifying, bakers are consolidating. “Networks of artisanal bakeries (Kayser, Landemaine, Sevin, etc.) are expanding, and more and more Parisian artisans are managing several stores,” the Professional Association of Bakers in Greater Paris said.

“There have been other crises and we have held on. The bakery industry still has a lot of good years ahead of it,” Franck Thomasse, president of the professional association, said.

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