Please sign in to post.

Odd (?) occurance in French cafe?

Just returned from a great trip to Paris and London. First time in both. But had a puzzling occurance in Paris at an outdoor cafe in the Latin Quarter near Notre Dame. After a lengthy process of laying out paper placemats and silverware at our table of 4, we placed our order with a unenthusiastic waiter. After we ordered, he hastily and loudly moved our silverware aside and then re-possessed the paper placemats! I'm sure there is a good reason for why he did that, but we couldn't think of what it might be. Did we not order the proper type of food that required a placemat (we got sandwiches, I think)? Or did we offend him? The meal was fine, and a great location. Just really curious about what the custom was? We had some silverware re-possessed once after we order just sandwiches at another location, but at least that made sense. Thanks for any insights.

Posted by
4535 posts

What time did this occur? Perhaps he expected you to order dinner and you "insulted" him by ordering sandwiches? And don't be put-off by rude waiters in Paris, it's a common thing.

Posted by
541 posts

Personally, I wouldn't give it a second thought. It may be that you were encroaching on his dinner service but I bet he was just being efficient. The chatty/friendly waiter is not a staple in France, although I find them more than I ever believed in off-season. I'm sure he wasn't trying to be rude as that's just the fastest way to do the best job. I hope you had a great time otherwise!

Posted by
1068 posts

That's happened to us! Turns out the waiter saw a nice middle-aged American couple coming in at about 4:30-ish, and thought, "They will order dinner." Out came the appropriate cloth, utensils, etc. Then we just ordered drinks, and he whisked everything away. We didn't need utensils, napkins, whatnot, for just a Leffe and a glass of red wine, right? Was he rude? Nope. He was a French waiter. :D

Posted by
3696 posts

It is a bit unnerving when they act like that...seems rude, but its just French. But I am becoming equally offended by the fake, overly friendly American waiter who wants to be my friend. I don't care about his name, don't want him kneeling down at my table, and please stop asking me if everything is okay while I am talking to my friends or chewing my food. Annoying.

Posted by
8516 posts

Nothing odd. Nor was he ticked off probably. It is very cultural, however. Placemats and silverware on tables are clues that meals are being served at that time of day. People at other tables may have been eating meals. If you had been French, you would have said upon entering that you only wanted a sandwich, as sandwiches aren't considered a real meal, and you would have asked if that was ok to order, knowing that they were serving plates of food or full meals to others. Sometimes they will serve a snack during meal time, but some places are only restaurants during mealtime and the waiter will say no that they are serving only meals at that moment. Also, a French person would have told the waiter that setting out the table wasn't necessary as they were only getting sandwiches, saving him the effort. That said, anyone working in a cafe in that area of town would probably get burned out quickly.

Posted by
711 posts

I was going to reply, but Bets nailed it. I agree with just about everything that she said on the matter.

Posted by
263 posts

RE: Terry's comment's about over-friendly American wait staff, I am in agreement. However, much of the reason I feel the same way is because I have traveled elsewhere and experienced service of a different kind (i.e., European). For many who haven't traveled outside the U.S., they may have become conditioned to expect and maybe even desire the chatty waiter who makes them feel like they are kings and queens. Again, I'm not condoning it, but I see it when I eat dinner with people in the U.S. who have mainly traveled only domestically (my parents are a good example). Also, I do realize that true Kings and Queens would probably fire, or maybe have executed, the overly-chatty waiter.

Posted by
355 posts

@ Bets - you really did nail it! @ Terry - one thing to keep in mind when comparing American waiters to European waiters is PAY! American waiters are generally paid at or near minimum wage and depend on your tip to pay the bills. Tips are their bread and butter! I don't believe the same is true in Europe. I believe waiters are paid more of a living wage and do not have to depend on tips. It makes a difference in how you are treated, understandably so...

Posted by
264 posts

We sat inside at a bistro in Paris. We just sat and asked for a menu. The waiter looked at us and made some remark. Soon another waiter that spoke some English said to us that we couldn't order a meal on that round table. So we asked him where we could sit and order a meal? He told us to wait a minute and then came out with a square table that fit over and into the round table. Huh...??? Ok, it's Paris? Then they brought out the table cloth, silverware, menu, etc... The meal was great. The service "European" (bad service is good service in Europe). I don't get it? Funny thing there was a Parisian sitting at a table across from ours and in our best communication skills, she kind of explained to us what had just occurred. Something about square tables is for eating and round tables is for drinking. Huh... I still don't get it??? A table is a table, right? I guess I don't know my restaurant etiquette. I must have missed that class in school. But we all enjoyed a good laugh, including her. That's the wonderful thing about travel. Just go with the flow. We kept trying to find the right table for the right occasion. Ha Ha Ha... There's probably an App for that.

Posted by
3696 posts

@Linda... I understand they are trying to be friendly for a tip, but if they would take a moment and read body language instead of the script the tip would be better. I would tip more for European Service. @Miguel... hysterical story and would make a great youtube video...

Posted by
1364 posts

We had a Parisian waiter tell us in broken English that we were good customers and then he gave us each free cognac. Don't know what we did right other than fully enjoy our meal.

Posted by
38 posts

Wow! I really didn't expect to spark such a conversation! Thanks for all the great replies! First off, I will have to say that the table was square (and that was a great story Miguel!). It was about 3pm when we sat down, and we only ordered 3 sandwiches for 4 people (and a Coke and some tap water), so we probably did cross the cultural line between sandwiches and dinner. Thanks to Bets for such a good description, and interesting to hear it has happened to others.... The waiter wasn't really rude, I think unenthusiastic is more like it. Place was not very busy at that hour. I was aware service would be like that, so it wasn't a problem, although it was our first day in Paris, so it took a little getting used to. Maybe Rick can add a new chapter describing the differences in table shape and placemat "placement" in his 2012 edition :)

Posted by
8437 posts

Our favorite cafe in Paris used to put the square table top on top of their round tables if we ordered food. It made the table bigger so there's more room for everything. Makes sense to me. Last summer we noticed that they don't switch them out anymore, they just leave the square top on all the tables all the time, makes less work for them.

Posted by
711 posts

When I'm dining in the USA, one of the first things that I do is ask the servers name, so that I may address them. I don't mind a short conversation with them at the start of the meal, or about the wine, or the chef's effect on the meal (I agree with TK though, I don't want them taking a knee, inviting themselves into our meal). In Europe, Paris even, I've found some waiters that will have brief conversations with us (which I also cherish, since I can use my French with a Frenchman). In general, being left to our own devices in Europe is what I expect, though. @James: You make some fair points. Now, I don't want to hijack this post, but I'm curious what you, as an ex-pat in Europe consider an adequate tip?

Posted by
8516 posts

We prefer European service, with the one wish that they would come by the table to check if we need anything after the food is served, instead of asking afterward if "everything went well." If something was off, they'll just shrug. And surprise James, we tip at the top of the scale in the US, figuring everybody needs to make a living. Thankfully, there seems to be less of this coziness lately in better US restaurants. The worst was at an Italian fast food drive-thru where the faceless, poor kid on the speaker was obligated to say "Hi I'm ..., what's your name?" I told him I didn't have a name.

Posted by
1806 posts

I'm curious about whether the people here who don't like the way American waitstaff operates have ever waited tables full time themselves. The job pays no where near minimium wage (and let's be real, even if it did, that's barely enough income for 1 person to survive on, let alone support a family). A lot of the forced friendliness with the "Hi my name is... and I'll be your server" has to do with the owners insistence that's the way it has to be done (especially with mega chain restaurants where you see it a whole lot more than a local mom & pop eatery). The kneeling down at eye level with the table often has to do with some customers mumbling their order combined with the incredibly loud atmosphere in the restaurant (plates being cleared, music blaring over speakers, loud conversations and laughter). Waitstaff is juggling a number of things at once - taking orders, checking if an order is up, running plates, cashing out - so when exactly is the right time to ask if everything is ok if it's not when you are chatting with your friends or you've had the chance to taste some of your food? If they don't ask, then customers think they have been ignored (especially if there is a problem with the food quality). As for tipping in the U.S., the norm varies regionally, just like it does in different parts of Europe. In much of the Northeast, 20% before taxes is pretty much the standard tip for good service, 25% for exceptional service, 15% for adequate and 10% or less if you had a really poor waiter. There are some who tip differently if it's a diner, but I disagree with that and I'll tip the same percentages to the staff at IHOP or Olive Garden as I would at a fancy Michelin star establishment. It does make sense to understand what the norm is before you put down a tip.

Posted by
3580 posts

Inside the walls of Carcassonne four of us had a very nice cassoulet dinner. The service went smoothly enough, and then we ordered dessert. The waiter served other diners as they were seated and ignored us for about 15 minutes. After watching him go about his other business, I got up and went over to him and asked him for our desserts. He looked shocked! He brought the desserts soon after. Something happened, I just don't know what.

Posted by
264 posts

Swan, I have asked my Euro relatives about a similar incident that you describe. According to them we in the US are always rushing to do everything, including eating. It's a generalization, but I feel uncomfortable just sitting there taking up a table and not ordering anything else. We know that our waiters are working for tips. We eat, pay and leave. They're also a "social democracy" so they have a different system than we have here. They have to get paid a living wage, so there is no incentive to turn over another table. They're going to get paid anyway. The one that loses is the proprietor. My relative also informed me that the price is usually padded to reflect the wages and the amount of time that you sit at a table. I wonder if that's why you pay more to sit at a table and less if you eat standing at the bar. We noticed a couple of years ago in a full restaurant in Rome that all the waiters were eating dinner at the same time the patrons were eating and more and more people walked into the restaurant. They were eating, joking it up without a care in mind. Thinking if that would happen in the US, you might as well just shut the doors in the restaurant. And this is not the only place in Euro we've witnessed this. It's just a different life style. Who's to say which is better?

Posted by
711 posts

@James: "And I'm not an ex-pat. I live in Germany courtesy of the American taxpayer" That's actually what I assumed, but I misused the term ex-pat. Thanks for the tips (no pun intended). You're welcome ;-)

Posted by
8437 posts

As usual, Ceidleh makes a very good point. Try waiting tables for a year or more and you will have an entirely different perspective - and better appreciation for how difficult it is to be a good waiter / waitress.

Posted by
389 posts

@James and @Darren, When I was stationed in Germany, I was talking to my friend one time and said something like, "Because I live in Germany..." and he said, "You don't live in Germany, you live on a U.S. Army base!" I said to him, "Hey, don't kill the dream."

Posted by
276 posts

I don't believe, as has been implied by some, that European waiters are rude and inattentive because they aren't dependant on tips while American waiters are attentive and friendly (almost to a fault) because they are more motivated by tips. The waiting styles just reflect their respective cultures. Europeans, in general, like to relax and savor their meal which is often the main event of the evening, and they appreciate not being hurried or given the bum's rush as soon as they finish the main course. It's not a matter of not wanting customer turnover because it means more work, it's because rushing customers through dinner just to get another group in would be considered rude and would drive people away in the long run. European waiters show their professionalism by being extra knowledgeable about the menu and wine list, not in being speedy and in-your-face friendly. I also believe that American waiters, as dependant as they are on tips, know that many diners are often in a hurry and consider fast service good service. American waiters are usually more outgoing just because Americans in general are more outgoing. The over the top friendliness is often forced on them by management. (Remember the movie Office Space where Jennifer Anniston's waitress character is supposed to want to wear more than the required 15 pieces of "flair" on her suspenders:) )

Posted by
3696 posts

@James... just because I prefer the European style of waiting tables (makes more sense to me) does not mean that I don't generously tip here in America... I always tip 20-30%. My kids worked their way through college and part of high school waiting tables.

Posted by
11450 posts

20-30% wow,, thats insane,, and I have worked in service,, insane in a nice way of course,, but wow that sure adds alot to dinner out . I thought 20% was a good tip,, 30% is scary good. lol

Posted by
2349 posts

Picture the typical Parisian restaurant or brasserie. Quiet, taciturn, but professional waiters. Suddenly, loud music comes on, and the waiters gather for a line dance. "Don't break my heart, my achy brachy heart..."

Posted by
3696 posts

@Pat... I generally do not have alcohol or dessert with my dinner, so my bill can be oftentimes low, so if I have taken up the space and 20% is really only a few dollars I try to overcompensate... example, ate out last nite, total bill $14 so $4 tip because I know she would have gotten at least that from a more expensive dinner.

Posted by
11450 posts

Terry,, that does make a certain amount of sense to me,, i mean regardless of bill amount I think there is a minimum amount you should tip,, ie: I would never leave 1.50 for a 10 dollar lunch, just because food may be cheap,, still seems one should leave 3-4 dollars per person.

Posted by
711 posts

@TK: $14? Wow, that's amazing. Share your secret, please! Granted, I'm a wine guy, so I'll never make that, but I'm sure that I could learn something from you...

Posted by
5597 posts

Swan, to put the reply you already got, more clearly, in Europe a dinner party (in a serious restaurant, I'm not talking about a bar or nightclub) is assumed/expected/hoped?/normally to occupy the table from the time of their reservation until near closing time of the restaurant. Your waiter had no idea that he was supposed (irony note...) to rush you out so that the owner could "turn the table" and get more income for the evening! As Rick says, we travel to find people who live differently than we do. So your waiter wasn't rude, he just was incredulous! For this reason, we often order our coffee explicitly to come with our dessert. But there's often a shadow of confusion over such a barbaric idea! After all, after a decent interval following dessert, you might have a small coffee, and then later you might have an after-dinner drink. Actually, I'm pleased that better American restaurants sometimes no longer assume that you want coffee right with your dessert. As we say in New York, everything eventually comes down to Real Estate!

Posted by
36 posts

I don't recall how long I sat at my table after finishing my first dinner in Belgium, waiting for them to bring the bill. Turns out, you won't get it until you ask for it (or until closing time?). After that first lesson, I prefer the European method which is to leave the diners alone unless they request assistance. If there's a problem with your meal, just get the wait staff's attention (if you can get them to look your way, that is). I agree with others, I really don't like the overly attentive method often used here in the US. I want to enjoy my meal in peace rather than to answering the 5th "is everything OK" while I have my mouth full (just like having a chatty dentist...how am I supposed to answer while he's drilling on my tooth?!). I don't blame the staff since the establishment usually sets the level of attentiveness but I don't enjoy it, just the same. I'm glad the square/round table was explained so I'll have a clue when it happens to me! Sound's like something right out of a Monty Pyton sketch. "What, you want a meal on a round table?! What kind of establishment do you think this is, no self-respecting French restaurant would serve a meal on a round table! What do you think sqaure tables are for, a Bridge match, perhaps?! Silly English speaker."

Posted by
11450 posts

Really Paul,, but you are NOT insulting them, remember they are being paid properly. I think its because you guys really don't see tips as many other countries do. Many places see it as a reward for excellant service, a" treat" or bonus so to speak,, Americans see it for what it actually is to them, the WAGES that literally support the worker who does the service. Sorry, but I just hate, American minimum wage laws.

Posted by
541 posts

It definitely goes both ways. A friend of mine waites tables at a very nice place in Aspen where all the celebrity types hang out and they cringe when they get a table of non-americans as it's more likely than not, she's going to get stiffed. I put myself through college bartending so it's not as bad as some of you not familiar with our way of doing things think it is. I'm with Paul though. I tend to over tip when not necessary, but it's a lot better than under-tipping. What works for the US and what works for Canada is fine with me. I didn't complain when my check just covered my taxes. It's a commission job. I knew it when I took it.....and I cleaned house with those frat boys!

Posted by
833 posts

I am grateful for James' recognition of the fact that waitresses get paid around $2.15 an hour usually (that's the minimum, and yes some get more but not often). That $2.15 covers my taxes from tips, but doesn't actually give me any money. I rely fully on tips. And besides that? I have to give "tip-share" with the bussers and kitchen staff. However, I don't like his tipping scale. 15% is increasingly for "bare-average" service. 20% has become the norm. I know some people don't like this, some people will even say "Well, waiters choose to work for a salary of $2.15 an hour, I don't have to tip them!" (If that's your attitude, please eat at a place where you don't receive service, like McDonalds). Before I worked in a restaurant, I always tipped between 15-20%, but before tax. Now, I just figure it out after tax. As long as someone is good, they get 20%. If they were crappy, 15%, but not usually below that unless very bad. If they were great, 25% or more. The thing is, throwing 1 or 2 more dollars into the tip (to change it to $8 from $6, etc) doesn't make a big difference to you when you bought a $40 meal. It does make a big difference to the waiter. And I don't remember who said it, but the person who said something about tipping a minimum is wonderful! Yes, I may go out to lunch by myself and spend $8 on a sandwich and a drink. I'm still going to tip at least $4 if not more, because I took up that table when the waitress could have been waiting on a group of 4 instead of 1 person. Take these as you will, they are just my observations from being a waitress.

Posted by
774 posts

This is an interesting thread. We have noted that restaurants/cafes that have placemats, silver, etc. set on (outdoor) tables means that people who sit at those tables are expected to order a meal, not drinks only. But I never thought about sandwiches being not a meal, though now that I think about it, we've never ordered sandwiches in Europe, as a meal or between meals. And I'd never heard about the round/square tables - that's great! We've always been fine with waitstaff service in Europe; I think that's because we're a bit reserved ourselves. Friendly American staff doesn't usually bother me; I don't try to remember names or use them; if I need someone, I'll say "excuse me." I do tend to get into conversations with European waitstaff, though (and American, too), but it's almost always food related. They've always seemed more than happy to talk; for example, when I asked the source of some lovely small tomatoes that were part of a salad in Rome. And I don't do this at busy cafes, but at less-busy late-evening dinners.

Posted by
11450 posts

Devon, i personally think more pressure should be put on governments to put a PROPER minimum wage in place, sorry I as a consumer don't feel I should have to help the EMPLOYER get away with dirt cheap wages. In States they allow a different min wage for servers then normal min wage , i think that is shocking , here where i live a min wage is a min wage, for everyone. Its now ten bucks an hour, which is still not much to live on, but i know if waiters here were told they could only get half that because of their jobs they would revolt. The food prices should go up, not the wages down, i know many Americans see the way its done in there country as good for business, but they must realize most western countries do differently and somehow manage just fine. People do not need 10 dollar platters of food, stay home, eat fresh, support a small farmer instead! Eat out as a treat, spend a bit more, but at least you will know the server isn't getting SLAVE wages, 2 bucks an hour is a disgrace. PS I was one who mentioned tipping a min regardless of price of meal,, I have worked in hospitality, so i don't want servers to suffer, i just resent making up for wages businesses should be covering,, most businesses are not min wage exempt anyways.

Posted by
1128 posts

This comment is a bit of a twist from the discussion so far. I tend to tip more at the upper end of the scale in the U.S. and have a minimum tipping threshold, too. What I find difficult in traveling in Europe is not following the same scale. We've traveled with friends who've spent a lot more time than we have overseas and we've been told, "Oh, just round the bill up to an even number" as the tip. But rounding a 38 Euro bill up to 40 Euros just seems so wrong. I intellectually understand the difference, but it makes me uncomfortable. I feel like when I am giving someone a 2 Euro tip, I am insulting them. Habits are hard to break.

Posted by
104 posts

I am with you Terry Kathryn, I don't like overly friendly and super chatty. Let me eat. Thanks for the insight Bets and supporting Darren. Thinking about it I could see that. You know really the only thing I don't like about servers there, that I experienced, it takes forever to get the check and sometimes you have to hunt them down. I was happy that we weren't bothered and only visited a few times. But at the end I know it's just not normal for them to bring the bill, you have to ask. I have to make it a point next trip to remember to ask for it when they pick up my dinner plate. Well if I don't want dessert. Lol Miguel – LOL An app. HA There's an app for everything why not that. :) Andrea I'm jealous. That is awesome. Free is always good. Randy – Hilarious! :)
Nice post, good discussion. :)

Posted by
355 posts

"It's a commission job" That would be true if your employer were paying you a percentage of what your selling. What's maddening is that it is the customer who is not only paying for the meal, but then paying your "commission" on top of that, while the employer/owner is getting away with paying you $2.13/hour. That is just so twisted! BTW, $2.13 not true of all states. While it is the US Federal minimum wage for tipped employees, some states (California being one) require that everyone is paid the pevailing minimum wage, regardless of whether you are a tipped employee or otherwise...

Posted by
541 posts

You are right Linda. The owners of the bar I worked at made a boat load of cash off me and didn't pay me nearly what I was worth but I worked 6 hours a night and walked out of there at 4am with $400 in my pocket. Beats the hell out of minimum wage! I wouldn't have put up with drunks into the wee hours of the night for $10/hr. Some patrons never tipped me a dime and another gave me $100 to get Kool & The Gang to sing his favorite song. It was a win/win for all involved. My guess is if we changed the system you would end up with the same surly service you get at your local Jack-In-The-Box. The good news is you don't pay for it built in the menu $ here.

Posted by
3696 posts

@Stacey... from my experience the waiters in Europe are not offended when you raise your hand and motiont to them that you would like the check. As a matter of fact, I have been told that they will not bring the check without being asked because it would mean they are rushing you out. So, I have no problem asking for the check in Europe, but in the US it would mean the waiter is not doing a good job.... all difference of cultures

Posted by
263 posts

Picture yourself dining at home with guests and you've hired someone to provide service - let's call him Jeeves. If Jeeves kneeled down next to one of your guests to get his order or kept coming back in the room to chit-chat, you'd probably fire him. Shouldn't dinner be dinner regardless where you are? Servers are there to serve, not to be your friend. Somewhere along the way, this concept got lost. Alas, it will never be this way in the U.S. except at very fine restaurants, at which I cannot afford to dine but once in a blue moon.

Posted by
104 posts

Terry kathryn - ok what do you mean by raising your hand to get their attention? How? I am only asking this because I know you should NEVER snap at people - I think that's rude everywhere right? (I know its rude here and there, me and a French friend had a small convo about it.)
So not snapping, how do you call them appropriately?

Posted by
3696 posts

@Stacey... No, I would never snap my fingers,(totally rude and demeaning) however I was told by people who live in Germany that I traveled with, to catch the waiters eye, raise your hand and pretend that you are writing on your hand (as though writing the check) I have used this method for many years and the waiters have never seemed offended, they understood what I meant, and brought the check.

Posted by
8516 posts

@Correct Stacey about snapping fingers. Just raise your hand a smidgen or nod your head and make the sign of writing with your hand and/or mouth the word "addition". You'll get the check.

Posted by
711 posts

Terry Kathryn is right on. "writing" in the air after you've caught their eye has gotten me the check many times. I've never seemed to annoy anyone in any country with this. If you prefer, you can catch their eye, give slight nod, and this will usually bring them too. At this point, often your word of choice "l'addition, il conto, zahlen, etc." if you want to use the respective language.

Posted by
10344 posts

"l'addition" In France, ask for the check (if the wait person is close enough to hear you) with: "L'addition, s'il vous plait." The last part (please) is important.

Posted by
711 posts

Ughhh! Kent's totally right! The French are an extremely polite culture, and "pleases" and "thank you's" go a long way. I intended to mention this very point, but I was struggling to remember how to say "check" in Italian... Well spotted, Kent.

Posted by
355 posts

I have had almost the exact thing happen in the US. And didn't think it odd, rude, or anything but normal. At a local watering hole I use frequent sometimes just for liquid refreshment, sometimes just for lunch and sometimes for both drinking and snacks. At the noon hour the tables were always set with silverware, in the evening they weren't. I can recall occasions I went there in the early afternoon and we just ordered beer. The waitress took away our flatware when ever we did that. If later we ordered food, she would bring the flatware back. I don't see an issue here. I don't need a fork to enjoy a beer. No point leaving it on the table where it might get dirty. I never sensed she was disappointed or angry with out choices. But this was a place were most of the noon traffic wanted lunch and most of the 5 pm traffic was there to drink so they set out the tables accordingly. If you wanted to eat at 5 they provided plates and silverware. If you didn't want to eat at noon they took away the silverware. Never seemed to be a problem.