A Quick Guide to French Table Etiquette | Talk in French
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A Quick Guide to French Table Etiquette

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France is world-famous for its cuisine and fine wines. Whether you’re dining in a restaurant or at a friend’s house, it’s important to be aware of French Table Etiquette. 

Being aware can help you to avoid offending your host and save you from any social faux pas. Here is a list of good French dining etiquette to keep in mind.

French Table Manners

Keep your hands on the table

In English, we often hear “keep your elbows off the table,” however in France it’s considered polite to keep your hands on the table. This tradition dates back to historical times, where swords, poison and meals with enemies were a regular occurrence.

Mind your manners

Make sure to use s’il vous plaît and merci when being served. It never hurts to be polite and you don’t want to run the risk of being considered a rude guest.

Also, never eat with your mouth open or chew noisily. Don’t slurp or burp either.

See also: The Ultimate Guide to French Politeness and Niceties

Wait until the host says Bon Appétit to start your meal

Don’t start eating your meal until everyone has theirs. Bon appétit is the signal that everyone has been served and the host is also ready to eat. The same applies when eating at a restaurant. Exceptions are made for small children, who may start earlier.

Knives and Forks

The knife should be kept in your right hand and the fork in your left while eating a meal. Don’t lick your utensils. Once you have finished your meal, place your utensils next to each other on the right side of the plate.

Don’t eat food with your hands. Bread and fries are the only foods that you can acceptably eat with your hands. A knife and fork are otherwise always used – even when eating a burger or pizza!

Please sir, I want some more

Don’t ask for seconds, but you may accept a second helping if the host offers it. 

Also, don’t take the last piece of bread or cheese. French etiquette dictates that you should offer any remaining food to other guests first, if they refuse, then you can take it.

Excusing yourself

It’s good etiquette not to leave the table until the host has finished their meal. If you really must be excused, you may ask the host for permission.

Eat it all

Be sure to eat all the food on your plate, particularly if you’re at a dinner party. French table etiquette dictates that you should finish all your food. If you don’t, you risk offending your host - who may think that you don’t like their cooking! If you’re concerned, don’t take too much food to begin with, second helpings are usually available. 

If you don’t eat all the food, it’s unlikely that anyone will comment so as not to embarrass you. However if someone does ask you, don’t make a big deal about it, just say “c’était délicieux mais je n’ai pas très faim.”

Don’t Rush

Having a meal with the French is never a quick affair. It’s estimated that on average, the French spend more than 45 minutes everyday eating lunch

It’s important to savour the delicious flavors and good company when dining in France or with the French. So enjoy your food at a leisurely pace - à la française!

Don’t split meals

When eating out at a restaurant, the French don’t order a meal to share, as portion sizes are usually small. Although some restaurants do offer platters that can be shared.

Don’t change the menu

While it’s very common in a number of Western countries to make changes to a dish at a restaurant, this simply isn’t done in France. You must order the meal as it is, unless you have an allergy. If you need to make changes, explain why to the waiter, so as to avoid any misunderstandings.

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Food, Glorious Food! French Food Etiquette

Bread

  • Place your bread on the left side of your plate, but not on your plate. It’s supposed to sit directly on the table, where the bread plate would be in a more formal setting.
  • Don’t cut your bread with a knife, use your hands to tear it.
  • Don’t eat the bread before your order arrives. It isn’t an appetizer. It’s supposed to accompany your entrée. Also, don’t ask for butter to have with your bread. Butter is strictly for use at breakfast time.
  • Technically, you shouldn’t mop up any remaining sauce on your plate with a piece of bread. Although you may see this done, it’s not considered good manners.

For more information on the different kinds of French bread available, check out our article here.

Fois Gras and Cheese

Don’t spread your fois gras or cheese onto your bread, as if making a sandwich. They're not butter. They are meant to sit as a whole piece on the bread, then you bite directly into it.

See also: French Cheeses 101: A Beginner's Guide to the Best Cheeses from France

Ketchup is a no-no

Ketchup is only acceptable when you are eating fries. It is not acceptable to use on your côte de bœuf (steak). In France you enjoy the flavors of the meat - not drown it in ketchup!

Put the knife down

Don’t cut your salad with a knife. In France people don’t cut salad leaves. If a piece is too big, simply fold it until it’s small enough to eat.

French Wine Etiquette 

The French are known for their fine wines and they take great pride in pairing them with the food they serve. Here are some important things to remember when it comes to French Wine Etiquette.

  • Don’t fill your own glass. It’s polite to fill the glasses of your fellow guests first, before filling your own – even if you’re not the host. This rule applies to all drinks, whether it’s wine or water.
  • If you’re a woman you can choose to wait for someone else to pour your glass of wine. French etiquette does dictate that the man sitting next to a woman should pour her wine, however this is a contentious issue for some.
  • Don’t drink your wine before the toast. It’s considered a faux pas to have finished your glass before the toast has been made.
  • When toasting, always look the other guests in the eye, it’s considered bad luck not to. Also try not to cross arms with others when clinking your glass to toast.
  • The most common toast to make is à votre santé (to your health), this is often shortened to santé.
  • Finally, be sure to know your wine glasses. Small oval glasses are used for white wine and large round glasses are used for red wine.

Conclusion

Dining in France and following the correct table etiquette may seem daunting, however remembering some of the basic rules can go a long way in preventing any social faux pas and allowing you to blend in like a local.

What about you? Do you have any experience in French Table Etiquette? How different is it in your country? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author Melanie Pollock

Melanie is Australian. She loves to travel and is a language enthusiast. She has a long-standing love affair with the French language and culture.