If you fancy good cuisine and you are thinking about making the most of your next vacation in France, you just need to remember my main tips to get the best value for money in French restaurants.
It is just funny for me to hear my French friends commenting on how expensive London is in terms of food and, on the other hand, listening to my British friends complaining about the exorbitant price of restaurants across the Channel. And after a long and very in-detail explanation (I always chose the non-straight to the point French way of explaining situations) I come up with the very simple explanation that makes everybody stop winging: eat the British way in the UK, act as a French person abroad, voila!
So, if you are a non French national that means that you eat like the rest of the world: following your appetite, your working/occupation hours and your craves…
But, attention, in France food is a very serious matter and the meal planning is as -or more- important than your working schedule. Et oui, in France you do plan your work (and leisure) around your eating times and not the other way around.
Of course, it is all relative to every different situation but it is pretty much like this. However let me tell you, French are not so wrong considering the fact that French people are the healthiest and thinnest population in the First world.. and they eat..and eat well…
But my intention here is not to tell you all about how to eat and stay healthy but how you can enjoy your time in France and make the most of your gastronomy experiences.
Just follow these 3 main rules and you would avoid some pretty bad surprises:
Rule 1: Respect the clock!
In order to get even past beginning you need to be aware than in France we eat by the rules which means that we all eat breakfast from early hours to 9-10am big maximum. We then go for a set menu at a bistro, restaurant, brasserie or even at a sandwich place so if you don’t want to end up in an all-day McDonald’s (not available in the countryside) make sure you are ready to eat lunch from 12pm to 1.30-2pm at last. Before and afterwards the kitchen is simply closed (don’t even count on snacks or cold food).
The same story happens with dinner: it is rare they start serving diner before 7.30pm but the normal hours to book diner in a restaurant are from 7.30pm to 9pm. Be ready to get shocked faces if you dare asking for a table after 10pm, especially if you are staying in the quiet countryside. Take this eating times seriously if you want to eat in French restaurants or you might end up with a baguette (non filled) from a boulangerie… but even boulangeries close for lunch-time!
Little tip, if for some reason you miss the eating times (and therefore the best deals and best restaurants) you can always go to a Brasserie. They are kind of our all-day express food venues and they are very popular all across Paris where there is a need for flexible eating times. You will get nice french food but not typical cuisine (steak-frites, croque-monsieur, etc). It always tends to be a bite more expensive than the cute around-the-corner restaurants and less wow-cuisine but it is a great option at all times! No menus are available though…
Rule 2: The Menu du Jour
Ok, so now that you know that to eat like a real French you need to be on time let’s go through the most important tip: the Menu choice.
It is really simple to understand and to follow, stick to the set menu or Menu du Jour. If you are not very hungry at lunchtime I would advise you to order the Plat du Jour which is the special dish of the day. So you can chose the Menu du Jour which normally includes a small starter (salad, soup, quiche etc), The Plat du jour or another main course to chose from and a dessert (normally it has the dessert du jour as well).
In France, we always stick to the suggestion of the day to make sure we are getting the best deal: it is always cooked with the freshest ingredients, reflects the house specialities, is very typical and ridiculously good value for money. Act French and only worry about whether to have a creme brulee or a tarte tatin for dessert. Just trust me and let yourself surprise by the French chef at the best price.
Oui, a French standard menu will always be around the 10-13€ mark including a starter, a main, a dessert, bread and a glass of house wine. One more thing, if your budget is tight but you still want the whole feast then prefer having a Menu du Jour for lunch because for dinner time the menus are more expensive. Still, menus for dinner have become very popular in France now. When times were good, Menus used to be offered only for lunchtime (dejeuner) but now most restaurant offers a dining menu, again, if you can, stick to it. Normally, restaurants offer a choice of 1, 2 or 3 Menus for evenings. They cost from 15€ to 35€ and always include a starter (entree), a main (plat principal) and a dessert, bread is always included but wine is not automatically included on the dinner Menus. Just check the choice offered on the menus and go for it, play the game and go for it.. the rest is just a French affair that can’t go wrong!
Rule 3: be careful with the drinks and the extras
French take for ever to chose, especially regarding to food (I always end up irritating my friends and I am always told I worry about what to have like if it was the last meal of my life). BUT, French do agree on eating habits, therefore do like they do when eating out in France. Stick to the menu for lunch which normally includes a glass of white or red wine each. If you are going for diner, also stick to the Menu (it features the very best of a la Carte at a great value, really) but ask for the house wine.
You are in France, so remember that wine is their specialty and after years of restaurants expertise I have to admit, restaurant managers know what they do as they always chose a really good value for money house wine. If they don’t offer house wine you can always ask the waiter for his/her expertise. I always trust their knowledge, especially if you tell them beforehand not to go for the more expensive wines on the menu, but that you want their own and personal point of view. (Tip, if you are going for a full-body red wine choose a Cotes du Rhone over Bordeaux for a better value for money outstanding wine). Well, wines are really great at great prices in French restaurants (a glass of house red wine can sometimes cost you 1, 2 or 3 euros).
But the rest is just very expensive, especially champagne and liqueurs, also the beers, so double-check first. In a restaurant I would also check the price of the sodas before ordering (they rarely have a drinks menu other than the wines menu in France) as a simple coke costs 3.50€ in a bar and about the same in the restaurant. Last tip, about the extra cost of the extras, stick to the menu (again!) like French do. If you try to be different you will pay for it: in France sides come along with the main in the same dish (you can chose from rice, to veggies, to chips etc). SO because French are not used to order side dishes, they will have to make a rare exception for you and that comes at a high price. When you are in France, stick to the menu only to get the best value for money gastronomic adventure!
Well, these 3 basic tips can seem very obvious if you know the French culture. But if you don’t, just keep in mind my recommendations and you will be warranted to get the most delicious food in the world at the best price possible!
Share the tips to get it right in France and to discover the best of the French culture from a real French perspective!