Understanding a French Menu

French menus can seem imposing at first.  But once you understand how they are organized, along with a few basic French words, you will be ready to order like a native.

The menu as we use the term for the list of dishes offered by the restaurant, is actually called the "carte" in French. The "menu" is something different, as we shall see.  When you arrive in a French restaurant you will be presented with the carte, and possibly any menus if they aren't noted on the carte.  If you aren't given the carte, be sure to ask the waiter for the carte if you want a complete listing of all the restaurant's dishes.  Asking for the menu may confuse the waiter, or he may only bring you the more limited daily menus.

The Carte

All French eating establishments must, by law, post a "carte" outside showing the prices of the food they serve. Before entering the restaurant consult the carte. This will avoid surprises once inside.

Generally, the carte is divided into sections, usually with a simple horizental line of some sort between each section. The first section is for the entrées or first course choices. Note that whereas the term entrée usually refers to the main course in the United States, in France it is used for the first or starter course.

The second section lists plats principaux, or main dishes. And the third section will list desserts.

A typical French meal consists of at least two or three courses: an entrée, a plat principal, and a dessert, or only the plat with either an entrée or a dessert.  A cheese course may come between the plat and dessert, or subsitute for the dessert.

Following dessert, you will be asked if you would like coffee.  The French never have coffee with a meal. It is drunk after dinner, and without milk or cream.  You can ask for coffee with dessert, but your request will be received with an arched eyebrow from the waiter and you will be considered a rank tourist if you insist on it. Usually, even it the waiter agrees to deliver the coffee with dessert, it will only arrive after you have completed dessert.

The Menu

Most restaurants will offer one of more plats du jour, or daily specials. These usually change every day, the ingredients are fresh and seasonal, and there is a rapid turnover because the dish has proven to be a winner with the regulars.

And most restaurants offer one or more menus (often called "formules.")  You will see something like:

French MenuThis means that you can select from the carte any entrée, plus any plat, plus any dessert for €21, in the first example.  Or any entrée and plat for €17, or any plat and dessert for €17 in the second example.

Note that there may be an annotation next to the item on the carte such as (supp. €2) or (+ €2).  This means that if you select this item as part of your menu choices, their will be an additional charge of the amount indicated.

If your French is limited, as you peruse the carte, attempt to recognize the key ingredients.  French menu descriptions tend to be long and overly descriptive, and often native French speakers have to inquire as to how the dish is actually prepared. If you remember some basic French food words, you should be able to avoid disaster.

Moreover, many French words are written the same or similiarly to their English counterparts, even though they may be prnounced differently.  For example, if you see "La Raviole de truffe á la crème de mousserons et de morilles" on the carte, you can probably figure out that the dish is some sort of ravoli.  All the better if you recognize that truffe is a truffle.  Put that together with á la crème, and you have a pretty good idea that you are getting a truffle ravoli in a cream sauce.

Ordering

When the waiter arrives to take your order, he will usually say something like "je vous écoute" (literally, I am listening to you), or "Vous avez choisi?" (You have chosen?).

Most waiters speak enough English to maneuver around the menu.  However, if ordering in French, the usual phrases that you would use would be " Je voudrais ..." (I would like...) or "Je prends..." (I am taking...).

If you have ordered something that can be cooked to different degrees of doneness, the waiter may ask "Quelle cuisson?"  This could be expected if you order beef (including liver and kidneys), duck, lamb or pigeon. Your responses would be bleu (very rare bordering on raw), saignant (rare), à point (medium) or bien cuit (well done). If your are referring to duck or organ meats, the term rosé is used in place of saignant.

Wine and Water

After you have ordered your entrées and plats principaux, the waiter will probably ask you about drinks.  "Quelque chose à boire?"  You may choose a bottle of wine from the carte des vins.  Many restaurants also offer wine by the carafe.  For example, you can ask for a "demi rouge" which is 50 centiliters of red; or une quart blanc, which is 25 centiliters of white.  By comparison, a full bottle is 75 centiliters.

The waiter may also inquire about water "de l'eau?"  If you want bottled water, you can ask for a bouteille d'eau, and specify whether you want it gazeuse (carbonated) or sans-gaz (flat).  If you just want tap water (which is quite good in France) ask for a carafe d'eau.

Paying the Check

When you have completed your meal and are ready ask for the check or l'addition. It will not be brought until you ask for it.  Most restaurants in France accept payment by credit card today.  

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