Dining out is one of the largest expenses when traveling and today is an important guest post about money saving tips when dining in France, by Wini Moranville, author of The Bonne Femme Cookbook, Splendid Meals that French Women Cook Everyday.
After 20 years of spending major chunks of the summer in la belle France—through strong dollar and weak—I’ve come up with a few dining strategies to make that dollar stretch a little further.
Keep in mind that even with the relatively weak dollar, France can still be a good deal. While it’s true that the 20-euro three-course menu at my favorite Paris bistro now sets me back $25 rather than $18, it’s still much less expensive than a similar meal in America. When was the last time you enjoyed a memorable three-course meal at a stateside American bistro for $24, tax and tip included? And don’t get me started on the wine—it’s a great deal over there; at casual restaurants, you rarely have to spend more than 5 or 6 euros for a good glass (tax and tip included)
By understanding the basics of dining in France, and keying into some tricks for keeping the total bill down, you’ll spend less and enjoy dining more.
La carte, s’il vous plait. The word for menu is not “le menu.” If you’re looking to see the list of the foods the restaurant serves, ask for “la carte.” The word “menu” refers to a prix fixe (fixed price) meal of two, three, four (or more) courses, with a few choices in each course. Note that menus are generally a much better value than configuring your own meal from the “a la carte” options available. However, if you don’t want to eat that much, simply order a “plat” (but don’t confuse this with entrée—see next point).
An “entrée” is not what you might think. It’s a first course (akin to what we might call an appetizer). When you consider the word, it makes sense—an entrée being something with which you enter the meal. The main dish is called a “plat.” If you simply order an entrée, you may get puzzled looks from the waiter or worse, go away hungry (and France is no place to do this).
Most all restaurants post their menus outside their doors, so check them out before you ask to be seated. And read the fine print! Those wonderful 15 euro fixed-price menu options you see posted outside have a habit of disappearing once you sit down inside. This isn’t always a matter of “bait-and-switch” tactics. Sometimes, the fine print below the cheaper menu options (in French only) will say “served only at lunch and exclusive of weekends and holidays.” (Midi seulement, sauf dimanches et jours feriés.)
“Une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait.” Learning these words will save you lots of money! Tap water is free, but you have to know how to ask for it. Otherwise, if you simply ask for water, waiters will conveniently assume you mean bottled water, for which you’ll pay anywhere from two to five Euros. (By the way, the phrase is pronounced "een cay-RAFF d'oh, see voo play")
Tipping? Rarely, if ever, do you need to tip in cafes and restaurant. Look on the menu and/or on your bill: the words “Prix Nets” means net prices, and that taxes and service included. However, in the past few years, it’s become more and more common to leave small change in cafés (for example, if your bill is 19 euros, and you pay with a 20, leave the extra euro on the table). And for exceptional service in a restaurant, leave a little extra—up to 5 percent. Note, however, that credit card slips generally do not provide a line for adding a tip; bring a little cash into restaurants if you think you’ll wish to leave a tip.
Soupe et Sandwiche? Mais non! In France, I often hear Americans saying “Gee, let’s find a little spot where we can get just a little soup and a sandwich.” Rarely will they find it. With notable exceptions (such as bouillabaisse), soup is a first course, to be enjoyed simply with bread. You can certainly order a sandwich in an informal café, but it may be hard to find a cup of soup to go with it. Soup and salad—served at the same time—is equally difficult to find. Remember—you can eat sandwiches for lunch the rest of your life here in America. If you’re looking for something inexpensive and simple, why not head to a café the offers a “plat du jour”—the entrée of the day? For $10 Euros or so (tax and tip included), you’ll like enjoy an uncomplicated local specialty you simply won’t find at home.
Breakfast Down the Street! Remember that you’re usually not obligated to have breakfast in your hotel, and that it can cost around $8 to $10 for croissant, bread, coffee, and juice. You’ll do much better down the street at a café or a bakery, where a croissant and a café au lait will cost half as much. Better yet, you get the added bonus experiencing village or city life as the neighborhood kicks into gear for the day—and that’s a sight you just won’t see in even the most charming of hotel breakfast rooms.
Finally, quit drinking Coca-Cola—it’s one of the most expensive things you can order in a cafe. If you’re looking to save money, go for a cafe expres (espresso, which usually costs about one Euro and allows you to dwell in the cafe as long as you wish). Or, better yet, have a glass of wine. It will usually be cheaper than a soda, and much more….French.
Click here to order The Bonne Femme Cookbook.
Food and wine writer Wini Moranville hails from Amerique profonde, but spends most of her summers in France, where, over the last 20 years, she has discovered the simple, beautiful side of everyday French cooking. She collected recipes and inspiration in her recent book,The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day (Harvard Common Press), which has been featured in The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Wine Enthusiast Magazine, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Sacramento Bee, and other publications. Wini's articles have appeared in Relish Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, Country Home, Master Chef magazine, and others, and she has contributed to numerous cookbooks.
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