Dining Etiquette in France: 16 Oui’s and Non’s of the French Table

Tines down, hands up, and other rules of dining in the culinary capital of the world.Read More

Sacre bleu! You did WHAT at the table? (Source: iStock / AlexKozlov)

Incroyable! You’ve finally made it to Paris. You’ve imagined this moment for decades — the museums, the cafés, the wine, the history, the cheese, the monuments, the wine. And then it dawns on you: You don’t really know a thing about French dining etiquette. Never fear; we’ve got you covered with the top do’s and don’ts of the French table.

Par exemple:

1: If invited to a private dinner, bring a gift — probably wine and definitely French.

This isn’t all that different from U.S. custom; when invited to a friend’s place for dinner, it’s common to bring some kind of a thank-you gift for the host or hostess. That said, America doesn’t have any hard-and-fast rules about what that gift should be. And while France doesn’t have strict guidelines about such things, one gift that will always be welcome is a nice bottle of French vin. If you don’t know what to pick, drop by your neighborhood tabac and ask for a recommendation.

2: If eating family-style at a restaurant or a home, don’t put your own utensil or hand into the serving dish.

Makes good, sanitary sense, right? Still, we Americans tend to get super casual with our chums and dig in without a second thought. Resist the urge in France; instead, grab a plate and serve yourself using the designated serving utensil.

3: Wait for the host.

Unless you’re convening in a cocktail party format (i.e. guests arriving at different times and standing as they sip, snack, and gab), wait for the host or hostess’s cue before digging into your meal or downing that ruddy Burgundy. They’ve put the work into creating the evening’s feast, so it’s only fitting that you should wait for them before indulging.

4: If bread is passed, break off a piece and set it on the left side of your plate.

When ready to eat a bite, break off a small, bite-sized portion and eat it alongside your food. Don’t ever bite into your carb hunk directly and don’t use it as a third utensil.

5: Keep your hands on the table, but your elbows off.

While this is actually considered rude in other cultures, the French prefer it this way. It ensures you are able to gesticulate easily (a favorite French pastime), can pass food if requested, and don’t spend the evening shuffling your hands back and forth between the tablecloth and your lap. Oh, and the elbow thing: Putting them on the table is a sign of closeness, comfort, and a casual setting — not something you do if you’re a guest at a restaurant or in polite company at a nice dinner party.

Fork tines down — oui, oui, that's what we like to see. (Source: Shutterstock / Roman Samborskyi)
Fork tines down — oui, oui, that’s what we like to see. (Source: Shutterstock / Roman Samborskyi)

6: Fork tines should remain down.

There’s some debate about this, but everything we’ve seen indicates that fork tines should always remain down. The one exception is when you’re trying to “scoop” up small bits of food that you cannot easily skewer with fork tines. If you need to do this, however, use both knife and fork to collect the food onto your fork, then transfer your fork to your dominant hand, set down your knife, and raise the fork to your mouth. No ham-fisted shoveling, please.

7: Multiple kinds of the same utensil? Work from the outside in.

In nicer restaurants, utensils for multiple courses will be set at your place before the meal begins. As you are served courses, work from the outside in. The largest fork, knife, or spoon (closest to your plate or bowl) should be saved for the main course. Also, don’t save your utensils unless instructed to do so; the restaurant staff should be ready to replace them as needed for subsequent courses.

8: Indicate you are finished with your meal by resting your knife and fork in parallel on the right side of your plate.

This will indicate to your server or host that you are finished. Note, however, that wait staff in France are less likely to snatch up a dish as soon as you’ve given the “all done” signal; as dining is a more protracted affair in Europe, they will wait a few minutes before retrieving empty plates and bowls.

9: No bill splitting.

Yes, I know, going Dutch is a common thing in the U.S. but it’s frowned upon in France. Either be prepared to pay the whole bill or let someone else pick it up.

It's all or none when it comes to the bill. Also, don't tip unless you really think the staff has earned it. (Source: Shutterstock / Deman)
It’s all or none when it comes to the bill. Also, don’t tip unless you really think the staff has earned it. (Source: Shutterstock / Deman)

10: Don’t pick apart your food.

If there’s something you’re not keen on, set it neatly to the side of your plate. Don’t, however, dissect it and nibble at parts. This is considered rude.

11: Avoid slurping, loud chewing, or talking with your mouth full.

Kind of a no-brainer here, but in polite company, reduce the amount of noise you make while eating. When you’d like to contribute to conversation, finish what you’re eating before speaking up.

12: Avoid leaving the table during the meal.

While French meals tend to last longer than American ones (some can be several hours), it’s generally considered impolite to get up in the middle to take care of business. Hosts will oblige if absolutely necessary, of course, but remember to go to the bathroom right before your meal to be sure you don’t have to leave mid-feast.

13: Don’t ask for substitutions.

Unlike restaurants in the U.S., most French dining establishments frown on guests requesting substitutions. If you’re not sure about what’s in a dish, ask your server; if there’s something in it you know you don’t like, order something else.

14: Consider tipping if service is outstanding.

French restaurants generally include the tip as part of the bill, but if you find your service was truly exceptional, add 5-10% onto the total as a thank-you. If you’re just grabbing drinks at a bar, leave the change from a cash payment as a tip or round up to the nearest dollar if paying with credit.

15: Dress like you care.

Gathering with friends — even close ones — for a meal is kind of an event to the French. Play the part by wearing something a bit nicer for your get-together; it doesn’t have to include a bow tie or high heels, but it definitely shouldn’t include holey jeans or t-shirts.

None of that message-and-nibble stuff, okay? (Source: iStock / Anouchka)
None of that message-and-nibble stuff, okay? (Source: iStock / Anouchka)

16: No cell phones at the table.

That means no checking apps, messages, or social media. And nobody cares if you get a call mid-course; ignore it. Even better: Put your phone on silent for the duration of the meal.

Did we miss a cornerstone of French dining etiquette you would recommend? Send it to us at editor@wideworldoftravel.com!