Guide to eating out in France
- Credit: Archant
From the humble menu du jour, to Michelin-star gastronomie, there is a restaurant or brasserie for everyone and all budgets in France
Whether you’re a permanent resident or ‘just visiting’, eating out is a key part of the French lifestyle and is something that all ages can enjoy. From the humble menu du jour served in almost every local brasserie, to Michelin-starred restaurants serving delicacies such as stuffed pigs’ ears, there is something for everyone and all budgets in France.
While France has seen the emergence of fast food restaurants in addition to large self-service chains such as Flunch and Crescendo over the past few years, the family-run restaurant is still very much alive and well, and worth seeking out. If you are holidaying in France, the local tourist office will be able to offer suggestions and recommendations, and Tripadvisor is also a great source of up to date reviews and information.
If you are a resident, congratulations! You are in the enviable position of being able to explore at leisure. It’s always worth asking neighbours for recommendations in addition to looking at online reviews; standards do vary and a recent change of ownership or chef may make all the difference, for good or bad.
A busy car park at lunch time is always a good sign, especially if it is filled with white vans – it reveals that the restaurant offers a ‘workers’ lunch’ or menu ouvrier. In some regions this is now known simply as the menu du jour and don’t worry, you don’t need to be a worker to qualify! The menu ouvrier was designed to provide manual workers with a healthy filling lunch at a reasonable price.
It usually includes three courses, the starter (entrée), main course (plat principal, often referred to simply as le plat) and a dessert. Bread is always provided and the fixed price often includes coffee and occasionally un pichet – a small jug – of wine too.
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Average prices are around €13, excellent value for money. The selection may be limited to a choice of one or two starters and main courses – sometimes there is no choice at all. However, the quality is generally excellent and these menus are well worth trying.
Traditionally, the focus in France has been on eating out at lunchtimes rather than in the evenings, with the French eating a lighter meal for supper. While this has changed, some restaurants still only open at lunchtimes; this is more common outside of larger towns and cities and the menu du jour is their main focus.
Larger establishments, especially those which offer a more extensive à la carte selection, often recycle the previous day’s unsold dishes onto the menu du jour, so it is not unusual for the dishes on offer to change mid lunchtime service.
If you have already ordered, being offered an alternative can be slightly disconcerting. However, it often turns out to be something even nicer and this system is not only sensible from a food wastage point of view; it also means that diners often get offered dishes based around quite expensive or unusual ingredients.
Starters tend to be simple; soup (potage) often features in the winter and a help yourself buffet (buffet à volonté) is also common. Main courses are often fairly basic, steak frites or rôti de porc, but again, the quality is generally very good.
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Obviously restaurants have had to change with the times and these days many people, especially office workers, no longer require such a hearty filling meal at midday. This has led to many restaurants offering different versions of the menu du jour. These variations are often known as une formule and usually offer either an entrée/plat or plat/dessert combination, providing a cheaper and lighter alternative to the full three-course option.
The formule du marché is increasingly popular and usually features seasonal local produce. These are often served in slightly more upmarket establishments, sometimes in addition to the menu du jour, sometimes as an alternative, and usually offer an excellent selection of dishes which provide a way to sample excellent cooking without paying à la carte prices. You can, of course, order à la carte, meaning ‘from the menu’, which will feature regional and house specialities.
In tourist destinations many restaurants also offer un menu gastronomique. These are heavily weighted towards showcasing local dishes and specialities and are usually offered in a selection of price bands which vary according to the number of courses served and the prices of the raw ingredients. The mid-range price option usually offers good value.
Slightly more expensive restaurants also often offer un menu dégustation – a tasting menu. These are a gastronomic experience and involve numerous courses, often served with accompanying wines which have been carefully selected to complement the dishes and depending on the type of restaurant, can range in price from affordable to eyewateringly expensive! However, if you feel like celebrating or have a big birthday or special occasion to mark, opting for the tasting menu will always be a memorable experience.
Although tourist areas are likely to cater better for diners with specific requirements such as vegans or vegetarians, outside of large conurbations finding good quality vegan or vegetarian food can still be quite hit and miss, with some places trading on the fact that they offer fashionable ‘food bowls’ and the like rather than the quality of the food itself.
Very often eating at one of the larger chain restaurants is a better option. The self-service cafeterias, often found in shopping centres, provide excellent value for money. Most offer some kind of vegetarian choice on their set menus and there is always the option to simply stick to the salads and vegetable selections. These cafeterias also often offer special evening menus – une soirée moules frites à volonté for example, where diners can eat all the moules frites they want. Prices are usually extremely competitive, around €10 per person or less and these promotions are very popular with the local inhabitants, which is always a good sign!
While the Michelin guide and its star ratings are world renowned, the Les Routiers brand is just as iconically French. Founded in 1934 and originally solely geared towards truck drivers, today the Les Routiers restaurants are just as popular with residents and holiday makers. The website provides a useful search feature which allows visitors to input their itinerary and find restaurants along the route.
Many of the restaurants stay open well into the night which is ideal if you are taking a long trip, especially as many also offer overnight accommodation. The restaurant entries on the site contain a wealth of useful information for travellers, such as distance to petrol stations, motorway exits and attractions in the proximity.
Dining out in France is a fabulous and pleasurable experience. There’s a diverse range of regional speciality dishes to explore, fresh local produce and a warm welcome wherever you go. Half the fun is discovering new ‘favourite’ places so while recommendations are great, don’t be afraid to try out restaurants for yourself; you may be pleasantly surprised. Bon appétit!