The hazards of ordering stinky cheese
A visiting friend once lamented the fact that, in France, she never knew what to expect when she sat down for a meal in a restaurant.
You never know quite what to expect in a French restaurant
It was her first vacation spent outside the United States (and, indeed, outside the American South) and although she reluctantly admitted that any vacation spot requiring a passport to get to would likely present situations different than those she might encounter at home, she nevertheless had a few bones to pick with French chefs by the time her two weeks were over.
Her list of beefs was long: not having a tray containing little pink and blue packets on every table (as she preferred to sweeten her coffee artificially), seafood arriving in its natural state (as evidenced by her squeamishness at being served whole fishes and, gasp!, shrimp with heads and tails still on), a mere one waiter for as many as fifteen tables sometimes, the sheer length of time spent à table each evening in the first place (what with all the courses involved and with afore-mentioned “lone waiter” being somewhat too busy to check on us as often as in the States), and the fact that because French meals are so long, getting one’s name on a “wait list” for a table at a full restaurant just isn’t done here.
Or… that her café crème always came after (and not with) her dessert, or that restaurants here don’t open for dinner until 7pm (or later), or the realisation that if she wanted the cheque at the end of a meal, she had better ask for it… otherwise, she could be sitting at that table until closing time.
Quaint? or Annoying?
In other words, things that had seemed so “quaint” to her on Day One served only to frazzle her nerves as her vacation in France came to a close, such was the extent to which she wished to reproduce an American dining experience in this country.
Although my friend did (at least) seem to appreciate the fact that all French restaurants post their menus outside (great for those who are picky eaters or hard to please), she couldn’t seem to understand why an elaborate series of changes wasn’t allowed on the fixed-price meals.
As one of those “on-the-side” people who wants things a certain way — or no way — and is used to getting just that, a French waiter impatiently tapping his pen on the table one day (as he listened to her list of demands) before pointing out the window, “perhaps Madame would prefer to eat there” (there being the bistro across the street) left her fit to be tied.
Someone turning away business!?! Why, that just wouldn’t happen in America! And a chef who insisted that his choice of garniture would go better with her veal than her choice! How dare he! Never mind that he had spent a considerable amount of time at the outdoor market that very morning, choosing the best they had to offer. Never mind that he knew exactly what he was doing. What right did he have to decide what she ate for dinner?
Having been a waitress in the States myself for four whole days once (I couldn’t hack it; there, I’ve said it), and having been a consumer for far longer, I could see why she had come to expect certain things. With some notable exceptions, restaurants (and restaurant fare) tend to be somewhat standardized in the States. Many are chains, and a person can expect pretty much the same menu (and can manipulate it at will) and the same level of service just about anywhere in the country.
At the restaurant I worked in, for example — a typical American steak joint — we had exactly 45 seconds to greet each new table and get their drink order taken. Forty-five minutes later, insisted the management, that very same table had better be “turned over” for the next crop of would-be diners – because the more customers in, the more customers out…and the more customers in and out, the more money for the restaurant. That’s just the way it was.
My friend’s complaint of “not knowing what to expect” was a bit misleading, however, as her list of gripes — although done differently than in the United States — is indeed somewhat “standard” restaurant behavior in France. In spite of all that, however, I must admit that she did have a point.
Because in retrospect, unless lunching at one of France’s chain restaurants — Chez Clément, Hippopotamus, Flam’s, or Courtepaille, for example — I realize now that my experiences dining out in this country have often been anything but ordinary, and most have been decidedly unique.
There was that time in Toulouse, for example. July 14th — Bastille Day — and starving for Lebanese food, Mr. FdC and I found a great-looking restaurant in time to have a nice, leisurely dinner before the fireworks began later that evening. It didn’t go as quickly as planned, however, and the first fireworks were being set off over the river (a good half-mile from our restaurant) just as we were about to order dessert.
There was no way we would be able to finish our dessert and coffee and still expect to make the show. “No problem,” the owner assured us. “Go watch; then come back and have your dessert and coffee.” Dessert not having been ordered meant that, of course, the bill had not yet been paid, but with this gentleman it was a non-issue, so off we went. And back we came. (And have been recommending his restaurant to people ever since, I might add).
I remember, too, that time in Compiègne, when we found a cute little out-of-the-way place and decided to have a nice lunch to celebrate my new job. Small and cozy — holding no more than fifteen or twenty at a time — we were seated at a tiny table near the fireplace. Not sure what to order as an appetizer, I asked the waiter/cashier/barman/sous chef for his recommendation.
You calling my cheese stinky?
Unfortunately, his recommended cheese concoction (one having just been presented to a table across the room) smelled like someone’s very dirty derrière, and I didn’t hesitate to say so. WHAP!! went his ticket book upside my head. And the dish? Well, he brought it anyway, in spite of my protests. And when I wrinkled my nose at the smell upon its arrival, I was whapped again. HARD. So I ate it. And he was right; it was to die for.
I love the fact that a person walking their dog is not forbidden to enter buildings here, least of all restaurants. On occasion, I think ours has been treated even better than her masters; that was certainly the case at the terraced restaurant near Mouffetard, where the waiter brought a bone and dish of water over for Trixie before even asking about our apéritif. At a family restaurant in Montségur a giant white Berger des Pyrénées strolled leisurely amongst the tables - not asking for scraps, mind you — but greeting each customer individually, making everyone feel right at home.
In Castelnou at a table high up on a terrace, overlooking the vineyards in the valley below, we were told that the sausages on my husband’s plate were hand-pulled by the owner, and at Tautavel the snails were hand-harvested in the garden outside just as they were ordered.
After hiking up to St. Martin-de-Canigou and down again one afternoon, a pleasant woman cooking dinner for her family had enough for all of us, so onto her terrace we traipsed — who cares that our only choices were an omelet with lentils, or an omelet with fries?
At Nos Ancêtres les Gaulois in Paris — where helmets and torches hang on the walls, meat roasts on spits inside giant fireplaces, fresh-picked (and untrimmed) salad is dumped onto the tables in a basket, and an empty pitcher is given to each person for wine (to be gotten from the giant barrels at will, and did I ever) — a shirtless guitar-playing troubadour runs around enticing the guests to sing 'Il Est Libre Max' along with him, amidst the banging and clanging at tavern-style tables seating twenty at a time.
Restaurants in France have come a long way since those establishments in the 1700s where restaurants — simple bouillons for the weak-chested or fashionably delicate Parisians — were served, and today they are anything but standardized.
If nothing else, a tourist’s motto for dining out in France should be expect the unexpected, and I can’t help but feel that my friend's discomfort with the “adventure” of eating in France was a shame and a loss on her part. Always knowing exactly what to expect may be comforting for some people, but where's the fun in that?
Restaurants in France — like life itself, says Forrest's mama — are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.
Française de Cœur / Expatica
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