If you are invited to dine in France, it is important that you keep in mind the basics of the French eating etiquette and dining habits or taboos which will allow you to avoid social embarrassment.
Although French table etiquette is continental, there are many habits that are quite unique to the French where table manners are deeply embedded into their lifestyle, following proper dining manners reflects of a good education and any slip-up in table manners might offend your localhost or hostess.
Simple Do’s and Don’ts
Going to your host:
- Always bring a gift for your host, the most common gift is a bottle of Champagne or wine but it shouldn't a bottle of anything non-French. If you don’t know much about French wine select a bottle of Bordeaux which is the safest. If you bring some flowers, make it be a bouquet or a plant in order that your host won’t waste time putting them in a vase. Bringing food to dinner in France is rude unless you have agreed to it with your host beforehand.
- Never come before the hour you are expected but 15 minutes later and not more than 30 minutes. For instance if you are invited at 8:00 come between 8:15 and 8:30, it is important to advise in case of delays.
As you reach the table:
- Often, the host will have decided on a particular order to sit the guests. There might benametags, but usually he will show you your seat. The guests of honor should be seated to the right of the hosts, and after seating etiquette wants to alternate a man and a woman whenever possible. In France, when sitting by themselves, a couple always sits one in front of the other, not next to each other.
- Sit only after your host is seated,if you are a man you could pull the chair of the woman next to you (it’s still very much done in France) and when a woman leaves the table and come back, some men still stand up even if it is quite old fashioned.
The meal is about to start:
- Don’t fall into the trap of vulgarity by saying “Bon appétit”. It is a common mistake as “Bon appétit” means “Good digestion” and it will be taken as an insult by your host.
- Place your napkin on your laps, folded in half, as soon as your host sits down. During the meal, use the corner of your napkin to gently tap down your mouth, whenever needed, and before drinking. At the end of the meal leave it unfolded on the right side of your plate.
- Keep both hands on the table at all times andkeep your elbows off it, your hands should never be under the table.
- Wait until everyone is seated and your host starts to eat and drink to do the same.
- Drink water or wine with your meal, don’t ever ask for a soda or for ice cubes and never pour water in your wine. An important tradition in France is that women don’t pour wine for themselves men should gallantly pour the wine for the women sitting next to them.The glass will never be filled up but stopped half way. In terms of drinking customs, when you’re toasting, always look your toasting partner in the eye, and never cross arms with anyone.
- Eat with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right (never switch), starting with the cutlery the furthest from your plate and as the meal progresses, just move towards your plate.
- French love bread and it is very much part of the dining experience, it should be broken with your hands, never with your knife and never bite into it. If you don’t have a small plate for it, place it on the tablecloth next to your plate. Don’t scrape your plate with a piece of bread when you are done as this is very rude.
- Don’t blow on your potage to cool it down but eat with your spoon starting from the side and moving towards the middle.
- Never make slurping noises as loud eating noises is very rude in France.
- Cutting your salad with your knife is a big no-no in France and an old tradition since the time when cutlery used to be in silver which was oxidised by the vinegar in the salad dressing, nowadays, knifes are made of stainless steel but the habit remained. Use your fork to neatly fold a lettuce leaf then eat it as elegantly as possible. Respect this rule. In the same manner, cutting pasta, fried eggs or an omelette is a huge faux-pas.
- Cheese is served after the main dish and before dessert. Forks are not permitted, only a clean knife which is on the top of your plate. Never touch cheese with my fingers and don’t remove the skin from cheeses like brie and camembert, always place a slice onto some bread and then eat it.
- Once you have finished with your dish, place the knife and fork parallel to each other on the platein diagonally on the right sidewith the fork turned down and not pointing up and never on the tablecloth.
- Soups, salads, cheese and fruits are offered only once, all the rest twice. Accepting a second serving of the main course will please your hosts, but don’t forget there is still salad, cheese and desert coming after.
- Always close your mouth when you eat, it is very impolite to talk with a mouthful soeat as quietly as you can. No slurping, no loud chewing and certainly no burping. Try also not to blow your nose at the table.
- Don’t leave the table during a meal even when it lasts several hours. Plan on using the restroom before or after.
- Be careful with the level of your voice, or laugh. Especially in a fancy restaurant where the ambiance can be soft and rather quiet, someone speaking a bit loud in a foreign language can really stand out.
How to refuse some food:
Eat what you like, try the rest and leave whatever you don’t feel like eating neatly put together on one side. Do not push the food apart and search and pick a couple of bites as this is considered very impolite in France. Either you eat it, or you don’t. And if you don’t eat it, don’t make a big fuss about it, no-one should comment as not to embarrass you, just say that it was delicious but you are not very hungry.
- Being 13 at the dinner table brings misfortune and should be avoided. This ancient superstition comes from the Last Supper with Jesus and his 12 apostles. After that meal Judas betrayed Jesus who was then caught and crucified, this superstition is still vivid.
- Spilling salt on the table is considered as bringing misfortune. This is another ancient superstition since salt was used in a currency in the ancient times. It was then precious, in the Middle-Ages salt was taxed and became rare. Nowadays the custom is to place the salt shaker in front or near the person who needs it and never to give it hand from hand.
- Never cross two knifes or a knife and a fork on the dinner table as bad luck might happen as it represents Jesus on the cross.
Now that you are well-versed in French dining etiquette, you know how to make the most out of it without looking foolish, vulgar or bringing bad luck onto yourself.
It’s time for you to be invited to a French home and enjoy the food and the company of your fellow diners.