This weekend we are in Montpellier, a city in Southern France. I am working at the University of Montpellier with collaborators to learn a new method for examining the socioeconomic status of a neighborhood. So when my son got out of school on Friday, my son and husband came to see something new and explore a bit when my meetings ended on Saturday. So we have had the opportunity to eat out a couple of times. Rarely do we eat out in Bordeaux, so this has been a great change of pace.
Montpellier is in the far South of France so people eat outside year round. My colleague was telling me that if people can be outside in Montpellier to eat, they will. People in Birmingham are the same way. We will sit under our heat lamps for warmth but we would rather be outside.
Regardless of whether we are eating out in Bordeaux or Montpellier, there are a couple of things that are fairly consistent with French dining. The options are abundant. You can certainly find a traditional French brasserie that will serve delightful French food but there are also Japanese, Thai, Italian, Czech, British, Tex-Mex and many others. As you would guess Tex-Mex in France is not like the US and we have come to learn that tacos do not mean the same thing in the two languages. Regardless of the ethnic cuisine, there is a definite French spin on all dishes. For example, you might find rabbit burritos in a French Tex Mex restaurant. There are many meats consumed in France including rabbit, duck, beef, chicken, fish, guinea hen and more. We even saw a burger de cheval, or horse burger, on the menu today. Yes,...you read that right. So, if you are coming to France and not very adventurous, be sure you know the names of the meat you are willing to eat.
Another thing that is consistent is that most restaurants prefer you to seat yourself. The restaurant staff to do not give clear direction (such as a sign) as to whether you should wait to be seated or seat yourself but in general (except in the higher end places), you seat yourself. Still this is odd for me so I always seem to play an awkward little gesturing game with the wait staff to try to discern if I should seat myself or be seated.
Another thing that is different is that the wait staff does not really interact with you unless you call them over. They really only come over to take your order (food and drink at the same time), serve your food, and clear your plates. They don’t come check on you within minutes of being served to make sure everything is as your ordered. In fact, they almost never ask if everything is okay. When you are ready to pay, you have to ask for “l’addition” or the total but they rarely bring it over until you ask. When you do pay, if you pay by credit card, they actually bring the machine to your table rather than taking your credit card back to the cash register to pay. Oh and the other thing is tipping is highly irregular in France and they might even chase you down if you try to leave extra money on the table.
My favorite part about eating in a cafe or restaurant is the menu du jour or menu of the day. Seriously, you can ask my husband, I love the daily menu. It is the first thing I read when I sit down. Now the menu du jour, also called le formule, does not mean everything the restaurant has on the full menu. It is a suggested pairing from multiple sections on the full menu. Usually you get an appetizer, a main course, a desert and a beverage for about the price of the main course. In general, you are limited to 2-3 options in each category but I still love it. If you come to France look for le formule or the menu du jour, it’s the best!
Most people know how delicious French food is so I don’t need to explain this. And you probably also know how wonderful desert is but I think it still needs a bit of discussion. All French deserts are good so it can be very difficult to decide which desert to select. So if you are ever in a restaurant that offers the cafe gourmand, order it. The cafe gourmand is a coffee with 4-5 different deserts so you get to sample a little bit of everything. Each desert is only 2-3 bites but it doesn’t matter, that is plenty to delight your tastebuds.
So bottom line, if you find yourself in France at a restaurant, know your meats unless you are feeling adventurous, don’t be afraid to ask for the check, and if they have cafe gourmand on the desert menu, order it!