Where was that cute little restaurant? An important question, because in France, enjoying restaurants--even vicariously--has a lot to do with their geographical location.
For a start, there is a big difference between eating at restaurants inside and outside the Paris metropolitan area.
Outside Paris, every corner of the country is heir to a traditions of food preparation that have grown out of the need to make the best use of local ingredients. Ultimately these traditions go back to the nature of the land, waters and climate of the area--that is, to geography.
In South-West France, for example, it is traditional to combine the particularly fine white beans of the area with locally-produced meats, also highly esteemed, in a rustic casserole called cassoulet. The details of the cassoulet recipe vary from one place to another, so that for instance the Gascogne and Pays Basque regions of the South-West are known for characteristically different versions of this hearty dish.
But within the Paris area the situation is quite different. The city has no indigenous culinary style, but it has many little and not-so-little restaurants that offer specialties from different regions in France as well as from foreign countries. The last time we were in Paris, the city seemed to us to have taken on a distinctly South-West air; we came across cassoulet on practically every second restaurant menu.
So outside Paris you can sample the specialties of the region. Inside Paris, the specialties of a regional restaurant. In either case, it is well to appreciate the link between cuisine and geographical location.
Here are a couple of examples to show how we specify locations. The numbers in bold type are French telephone area codes--01 for the Paris metropolitan area and 02...05 for the North-East through South-West quadrants of province. To find specified locations on a map, we suggest using our Map of Area Codes and Regions and the town or Paris Métro-stop maps to which links are given where appropriate.
"France 01, Neuilly (Maillot): Restaurant la Truffe Noire*" means that Restaurant la Truffe Noire* (*denotes a star in the Michelin Guide to Hotels and Restaurants) is located in area 01 (Paris metropolitan area), in the town Neuilly in that area, and in the neighborhood of that town near the Métro stop Porte Maillot.
"France 04, PROVENCE, Trets: Restaurant le Clos Gourmand" means that Restaurant le Clos Gourmand is located in area 04 (South-East France), in the region Provence in that area, and in the town Trets in that region.
That menu item is intriguing, but what is it? Another important question, because a dish presented in a little French restaurant is always more enjoyable to eat--or read about eating-- if you know what it is. A difficulty for non-francophones is that French menu, once rendered in English, retains about as much charm as tepid Champagne. Here is an example to show how we get around the language problem.
Following our account, you imagine being in Provence, in Trets to be specific, and stepping into Restaurant le Clos Gourmand. You flip open the menu and plump for Gibelotte de Poulpe en coque croustillante, dôme de riz camarguais au Basilic. Perhaps you know--and if you don't know, our description plus a little guesswork will help out--that it's octopus fixed somehow with friable pastry, accompanied by a domed serving of basil-flavored rice. But you feel uneasy--Gibelotte? Camarguais? This is where our Glossary of words on French menus will come in handy. It says that Gibelotte is a fricassée of rabbit in wine, from which you may infer that the chef's offering is a similar dish, a fricassée in wine, but using octopus instead of rabbit. In the same way you find that riz camarguais isn't just any old rice, but rice from the nearby wetlands on the south coast of France, the Camargue.
The glossary reflects the meanings of culinary terms used in our experience of actual restaurant menus, and are not necessarily the correct, or even the most common meanings.
French Restaurant People
They can be hard to get along with, can't they? Yes, they can get a trifle testy if they perceive that you are taking their efforts too lightly. But we manage to avoid friction by a few simple precautions that are so much a matter of routine that we rarely bother to mention them in our diary. So we mention them here.
First of all, we limit our gastronomical researches in France to at most a few weeks before returning to our customary diet, which is about 90% vegan. When in France, as a rule we limit ourselves to just one serious meal per day, usually lunch. When we consume more, or on a different schedule, we get jaded.
In selecting restaurants we zero in on our choice with the aid of the Michelin Guide to Hotels and Restaurants, certain travel books and articles--Patricia Wells and Jaqueline Friedrich are among our favorite authors--and the suggestions of friends, friends of friends, and occasionally passing acquaintances. We find a stroll around a town to study the menus posted outside its eateries can be helpful, too.
A restaurant selected, we generally call ahead for a reservation, and then show up near the time or advise the restaurant of any delay. This is particularly important in the case of Sunday lunch, a popular occasion in France for eating out with family.
Of course, it is sometimes inconvenient to call ahead. If we fail to do so for some reason, we keep in mind that our unheralded visit may be awkward for the restaurant, especially if it is nearly closing time or the place is nearly full or nearly empty. In that case we inquire about something quick and easy to prepare, or perhaps about an alternative place to eat.
We also keep in mind that servers in French restaurants are trained and willing to offer reliable advice about the menu and wine list, and that we pay for this attention whether or not we avail ourselves of it. Servers do not expect tips, because a realistic service charge is set by law and is always included in the bill. This is the case notwithstanding the words service non compris--service charge not included--on some menus. Service non compris means simply that the restaurant has chosen to show the service charge on the bill as a separate item, rather than to include it in the cost of individual items as listed on the menu.