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Ordering from a menu in Paris

It takes longer than I would choose to order from a French menu. I can easily recognize the main ingredient, but the other ingredients or how it's prepared is hard to identify quickly with a translator guide. Wait staff don't like to take the time to help English speakers. Suggestions? I attempt the speak a few words so as not to appear the stereotype American.

Posted by
2246 posts

Wait staff don't like to take the time to help English speakers.

This is not my experience, at all, in a dozen dinners in Paris, the majority in the 25-35 Euro range.

Posted by
7584 posts

Perhaps you should arm yourself with either a phrase book with a menu section, or a specific menu translator (little plastic print-out). I agree that it would be daunting to try to figure out what to order if you had no idea what was on the menu!

The phrase book or card won't be able to identify every single permutation you'll run across, of course, but at least you'll get the broad range of what you're looking at. You could also review it before departure, thinking of and looking up in particular words for things you especially like or especially DON'T want to have, so you'll be that much more prepared.

Posted by
2705 posts

Yes, menu words are very tough. Even in English - think of things on nice menus here, like obscure-fish with a blood orange and smoked paprika reduction. Or quinoa-millet-amaranth rolls. And so on. A menu guide, as opposed to a general phrase book will help, but only so much. Even a helpful waiter will likely not have the English translation for some of the very specific food words.

A few ideas:
There may be apps that work offline that have full dictionaries. If you identify a dish you are interested in, you could look up a couple words to clarify. Would take a long time to do for every dish, but could clarify on a specific issue.
If there is a food you hate, know that word and possible synonyms - and if you really care, know how to ask "are there anchovies in any dish?"
If there are allergies, then have a card in French written up - you don't want to mess with translation errors if eating something will make you sick. Otherwise:

My favorite...order as best I can then enjoy whatever oddity may show up. Part of the travel experience.

Posted by
3681 posts

Speaking French is not the same as speaking Menu. I have dined with native French speakers who were also confused by idiosyncratic names and descriptions from the secret kitchen society. Literal translations may not help, either: Really, how much further ahead are you with the common dish known as supreme de volaille, literally a top cut from poultry?
If you want to pass for a native, you can try this glossary: http://www.intimatefrance.com/glossarypag.pdf But dining should not be a homework exercise.
One option is to stick to places which post English translations, automatically admitting yourself to establishments that maybe are willing to compromise for the tourist trade (or, to be fair, maybe are just being helpful.) But don't expect a detailed breakdown of the ingredients and stove-side techniques anywhere. The French can be critical and demanding at the table but they also understand that ordering is a test of faith, trusting the abilities of the kitchen. An open mind helps; it is fun to simply order blind (more or less) and see what arrives on the plate. At minimum, it can be at least an interesting experience even if only to learn what to avoid. Definitely not a second helping of calves brains, for instance, which my French companions had not recognized either.
PS: In defence of the staff, waiters cover a lot of tables and may not have time to help you with your French lessons. But usually they are proud of their establishments, especially the small places, and as helpful as time permits.

Posted by
652 posts

In France, I believe the menus are always posted outside the restaurant. My husband and I always look at the menu first before going in and kind of have a good idea of what we want to order. (This also helps us decide if we want to eat at the restaurant.) Sometimes when we are out walking around during the day, I've taken a quick photo of the menu and then read through it carefully at my leisure before going to the restaurant.

Posted by
4978 posts

Christine's tip has worked for us, as well. Scout out restaurants or bistros ahead of time, note or take pictures of any words you don't recognize, then come back later, better informed. Of course, Murphy's law can apply - you may have practiced how to request exactly what you want, only to be told they're out of it! We had an experience last year in Sicily, when I was ready to order a local specialty I had wanted to try, and it was on the trattoria's menu, but the waiter wouldn't let me order it because it wasn't fresh enough!

Posted by
8293 posts

The Paris by Mouth website may be of help.

Posted by
3491 posts

I have found the exact opposite of waiters when in Paris (and I was completely surprised since everyone says French waiters are rude).

Every restaurant we ate when I was there had very helpful waiters who were almost excited to help explain to us what the items were, how they were cooked, and so on. Many were happy to get to try their English on us. Now we were not eating in the stereotypical French restaurants either. Most were family run, small and quaint places off the main roads and the people working at those restaurants in general seemed to be in good moods and overall friendly.

Posted by
13526 posts

Sue, despite their reputation the French are pretty decent folks and after hundreds of years of dealing with tourists, by and large they are pretty good at it. When the waiter appears, first order a drink, and then before he can get away ask him his name. Then say thank you by name. 9 times out of 10 the rest of the experience is exceptional. Relax and enjoy.

Posted by
4684 posts

English translations at smaller restaurants can sometimes be done using automated translators, which similarly can often get confused by specialised or flowery menu vocabulary. My favourite example (personally seen in Montpellier in France) is "moelleux au chocolat" (deliberately undercooked and soft-centred chocolate pudding) translated as "smoochy chocolate".

Posted by
652 posts

James advice is right on. We really enjoy ordering an apéritif while we decide what to order.

Posted by
4534 posts

I too have had the opposite experience as Sue at French restaurants. Restaurant staff in decent to good restaurants are very proud of their food and have been willing to help with the menu or choices. I expect they would be very put-off if you tried to order things specially prepared, especially from the plate du jour or prix-fix menu. And as always with the French, politeness is key (their version). Always say hello and ask about menu items in a "wanting to understand what it is" rather than "I don't like such and such, is that in this?" manner. Having said that, French waiters aren't the type to hang out as your buddy and go through every item in the menu either. And it helps to have a basic understanding of sauces and preparations that they would expect a diner to know, whether in English or French.

It also helps to avoid tourist-focused restaurants, such as along the Champs Elysees, where they are dedicated to serving mediocre food to large numbers of people and the wait staff can be rather surely.

I also am a food lover and willing to eat most anything and enjoy the discovery of what is presented by the chef. But not everyone is so adventurous or may have certain food allergies. Learn the words for anything you cannot or will not eat and the waiters can advise you on items to steer clear of.

Posted by
2246 posts

" Always say hello and ask about menu items in a "wanting to understand what it is" rather than "I don't like such and such, is that in this?" manner. "

Bingo!

It will help as well to thoroughly research a spot-read lots of reviews of the places you plan to dine at so you have an understanding going in of the food styles and what others liked or didn't like, and why. If it's important to you to have a great French dining experience, you'll have to study up a bit, imho.

The small book by Andy Herbach is a great "lay of the land" guide to French dining.

Bon apetit!

Posted by
4125 posts

Two useful French words to know, maybe, are, first of all "Menu." It does not mean the list of large and small dishes itemized by price as it does here. A French menu is a whole meal at a fixed price. Here in the States that is sometimes called a prix-fixe (fixed price) menu. Menus can be very good values.

The word for the list of dishes itemized by price is "carte." Carte = American menu. When you order "a la carte" you are ordering individual items from the list.

Posted by
2353 posts

Like many here we do our "research" before we enter the restaurant. One bonus to having internet on the phone is being able to google a restaurant on the spot and read reviews. It also works to help translate the menu before going in.

Posted by
13526 posts

Research? Naaaaaaa, I just throw myself in like the bumbling tourist that I am, strike up a conversation, ask the wait staff their names, introduce myself; then throw myself to their mercy. Generally works out well. I end up with the experience of food I never would have dreamed of ordering and new friends. --- no pride here. humility and awe.....

Posted by
16883 posts

While I may be too proud to request the English menu inside the restaurant, I'm not too proud to read it outside on the street.

Posted by
1884 posts

I can remember only one time when a waiter thought I was taking too long to order. It was at Le Lisita in Nimes, which is mentioned in the RS Provence guidebook.

I rarely ask for one, but if I'm offered the English version of a menu, I say I want both so I can turn it into a language lesson. The maitre d' came over to talk with me and opened by saying that he knew my problem: I liked everything on the carte. That's exactly it, I said. The trouble is reducing it to a manageable feast, not a Mr. Creosote situation. Thus began a discussion of how to appreciate a well-navigated multi-course meal, beginning with a disquisition on foie gras -- he told me the names of the top local producers, and which farms were their suppliers, and what goes with what, and which wine to have, and so on. Since I was sampling the whole board, including a cheese course cut from a rolling cart tableside, the staff warmed up to me pretty quickly. It turned into a very memorable meal.

And the savoir faire that I picked up at Le Lisita came in handy later on when I was dealing with smooth staff at the Negresco in Nice, when I quizzed them about their suppliers and farms! I could act like I had the upper hand.

I agree with the comments above -- make clear if you have any allergies or strong dislikes, but apart from that, trust them to know how to show you a good time. I will add "pas de bleu, s'il vous plait" when I agree to a cheese course, and it usually gets me what I want. The staff want you to be happy.

Posted by
4978 posts

Aviro, I love your suggestion of asking for both menus. I usually ask for the menu in the language of the country, if offered the English one. Sometimes we work it so that I get the French (Spanish, Italian, whatever) menu and DH gets the English. But having both at hand is even better. Thanks for the idea.

Posted by
7205 posts

I think what wait persons really dislike is having to translate every single word on the menu and then the customer starts asking questions (in English of course) about every specific of every dish. I can definitely understand how that would be annoying because no wait person has enough time to stand at a table and do that. Last time I saw that happen was in tiny Murren at the Stager Stubli when a group of 4 RS travelers just kept questioning on and on and on. "Is the fish fishy", "exactly where does this cheese come from", "we will split this dish and that dish", etc. OMG - I was about to pull my hair out just listening to the insane questions.

You know, half the fun of foreign dining is trying new things. Yes, recognize a few words of main ingredients, but after that - just be prepared to have a fantastic fun time sampling something new.

Posted by
697 posts

Just a little story from our experience. My husband & I went to London & Paris to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary a couple of years ago. We stayed in an apartment in the 6th and every day passed by a small restaurant that advertised "Tourist Friendly - We speak English". So on the last day in Paris, we decided to try it. The waiter, Benjamin, spoke English very well and helped us order something he thought we would both like. I had lamb and my husband had steak. So the next year, we were in Paris again and I wanted to have lamb but couldn't seem to find it anywhere close to our apartment, near St Paul. So we hopped on the Metro and went back to the same restaurant. The sign outside was gone, the restaurant had been remodeled with new owners & Benjamin was no longer employed there (we asked for him & the waiter told us he went to work for his father in a tailor shop). I asked for lamb and they did not have it but since we were there and we enjoyed it so much the previous year, we decided to have dinner. The menu was brought to us and it was a very large chalkboard, written entirely in French and we had no clue, other than it was beef. Our waiter did not speak much English and wasn't very helpful at all (to be fair, since he didn't speak English, how could he be?). The dinners were numbered and my husband said he would have #3 so I ordered a #1. Talk about not having a clue what you were going to get. Crazy right? My meal was one of the best I've had. Tender steak, tiny baby potatoes with a bowl of gravy for dipping and a small salad. My husband still complains about his meal. It was a meat & cheese plate, cold of course. I tell him he got what he ordered. A menu translator would have probably helped. LOL