Sometimes, I’m still intimidated by Paris. If the city were a person, it would probably be your elegant-but-somewhat-terrifying grandmother. She’ll help you become more refined, but might also scare the heck out of you in the process.
This is especially true at mealtime, and when dining out in Paris, you’ll notice there’s an unspoken code that helps to keep order. If you haven’t quite cracked it yet, don’t be dismayed. Here are a few rules to get you started.
Where to sit. At many cafes and brasseries, seating is a bit of a free-for-all, but there’s no need to feel like a deer in the headlights. Just walk in and greet the host (or whomever seems to be running things). This person should give you an indication of whether you should wait to be seated or whether you can “install yourself” (installez-vous) anywhere.
Dress for success. Super fancy three-star restaurants aside, most eateries in Paris are “casual.” Nonetheless, the French still manage to make casual look cool, neat and discreet. Therefore, ditch the athletic gear, sweatpants, and baseball hats. And when in doubt, layer.
Talk softly. There’s an unspoken agreement among French diners that if everyone chats quietly, no one will need to shout. (When they want to shout, they head to New York). When in Paris, respect the sound equilibrium and do your best to keep your conversation level low.
Respect the timetable. French kitchens run on a tight schedule. While some restaurants stay open throughout the day and night (look for a “service continu” sign), many others have explicit opening hours. Lunch is generally served from 12-2:30pm and dinner from 8-10pm. Plan to walk in during these times or, better yet, reserve in advance. Once you’re there, you can generally linger as long as you like.
Bringing the kids. If you’re worried about unanticipated mid-restaurant tantrums, don’t worry—the French have children too. Cafes and brasseries tend to be casual and kid-friendly, and many of them serve continually throughout the day, so you can walk in anytime without a reservation.
Managing your server. Service in Paris ranges drastically from friendly and attentive to negligent and hostile. But in general, waiters are busy and they don’t waste time—yours or theirs—with small talk or unsolicited attention (there’s certainly no “Hey, I’m Jacques and I’ll be your server tonight…”). If you feel you’re being ignored, just wave your server over, or head to the bar to ask for what you need.
Tipping. It’s a perpetually confounding issue for foreigners, but keep in mind that waiters in France don’t “rely” on tips the way they do in other places. Gratuity is included in your bill, but if you’ve had particularly good service, you can leave a small tip (round up or leave a few extra Euros) to show your appreciation.
But most importantly, don’t get so caught up in the rules that you forget to enjoy Paris in all its gastronomic glory. We’ve all made a faux pas or two (or ten)—and managed to eat well just the same. So go forth and be bold!