How to Read and Understand a French Menu | Talk in French
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How to Read and Understand a French Menu

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Whether you’re dining in France or in some fancy French restaurant elsewhere, going face-to-face with a French menu is enough to make you rack your brains for all the French you know.

But don’t fret! This article will brush those cobwebs away and help you read a French menu with ease.

I. The Different French Menu Terms

One of the things that would cause confusion among English speaking diners is the different usage of terms in France and outside of France.

There are plenty of tricky cognates such as “menu” and “entrée”. So before anything else, let’s remove any confusion by looking at the basic words and then agree to use the French context of the terms from here on (at least for this article).

Basics

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    La carte – this is what English speakers know as “a menu” or the booklet or piece of paper handed to you by the waiter/hostess.
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    Le menu – what English speakers know as the fixed price menu or a set menu.  It’s a set price for two or more courses. This can be a less expensive way to order your food. It is also known as  la formule. The term “prix-fixe” is ironically not used in France.
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    L’ardoise -- this literally means “slate” and refers to the boards used to write down the specials or the set menu selections for the day. These are the ones displayed in the entrance of the restaurant or on a wall.
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    La carte des vins -- the wine menu
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    Une dégustation / Menu dégustation – a tasting menu. It contains an array of small portions of several dishes served by the restaurant. It comes from the verb ‘deguster’ which means ‘to taste’.
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    à la carte – stand-alone or single items that you order off the menu, each with its own price.
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    plats du jour -- daily specials offered by many French restaurants in France; literally "dish of the day”
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    Assiette - refers to a plate of something such as fromage (cheese) or charcuterie (cured meats).

The Different Courses/ Food Categories You’ll Find in a French Menu (La Carte)

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    un apéritif - a cocktail; a pre-dinner drink
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    un amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule - small snacks
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    une entrée - this is what is referred to in English as “appetizers” or “staterts”
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    le plat principal - the main dish or what English speakers know as the entrée
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    Accompagnement – side dish
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    le fromage - cheese
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    le dessert - dessert
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    le café - coffee
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    un digestif - after-dinner drink

For more in-depth discussions related to the basics of French cuisine, check out these suggested readings:

Take note of these additional tips on ordering off of a French carte

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    For a more affordable meal, check under the menu section of the carte and you’ll see different choices (combinations) available for various fixed prices

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    The set food choices in le menu or formule consists of an entrée, a plat and a desserte followed by the price.
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    You may have the option to choose between:
  • Entrée + plat
  • Plat + dessert
  • Entrée + plat + dessert
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    You might find some additional notations like (supp. €2) or (+€2). This refers to the extra charge for choosing that particular dish. 

II. French Terms Related to Cooking Methods

affinéaged
artisanal homemade, traditionally made
à la broche cooked on a skewer
à la vapeur steamed
à l'etouffée stewed
au fourbaked
biologique, bioorganic
bouilli boiled
brûléburnt
coupé en désdiced
coupé en tranches / rondellessliced
Cruraw
cuitcooked
en croûtein a crust
en daubein stew, casserole
en geléein aspic/gelatin
farci stuffed
fondu melted
frit fried
fumé smoked
glacé frozen, icy, glazed
grillé grilled
haché minced, ground (meat)
maison homemade
poêlé panfried
Poché poached
relevé highly seasoned, spicy
séché dried
truffé with truffles
truffé de ___dotted/speckled with ___
Rôtiroast

Take note: when ordering meat, you’ll be asked how you want it cooked. Here are some possible answers.

  • Saignant - rare. WARNING: This literally means “bleeding” so don’t complain about getting a bloody meat afterwards.(sahn-yahnt)
  • A point – medium(ah pwanh)
  • Bien cuit – well done(byen kwee)
  • Brûlé – burnt.  I’m adding this option here but nobody orders this normally. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to do, too! (broo-lee)

III. French Food Descriptions You’ll Find in le Carte

aigresour
amerbitter
piquantspicy
salésalty, savory
sucrésweet(ened)
aiguilletteslong, thin slices (of meat)
ailewing, white meat
aromatesseasoning
___ à volonté (e.g., frites à volonté)all you can eat
la choucroutesauerkraut
cruditésraw vegetables
cuissethigh, dark meat
émincéthin slice (of meat)
fines herbessweet herbs
un méli-méloassortment
un morceaupiece
au pistouwith basil pesto
une poêlée de ___assorted fried ___
la puréemashed potatoes
une rondelleslice (of fruit, vegetable, sausage)
une trancheslice (of bread, cake, meat)
une truffetruffle (very expensive and rare fungus)

IV. More French Food Terms

Now, let’s kick it up a notch with these additional terms that would make you sound like a French food pro.

à l'ailwith garlicah ail
à l'anciennetraditional stylealons-yen
à la brocheroasted on a spitala brosh
à la jardinièrewith assorted vegetablesala jardeen-yair
à la normandein cream sauceala normond
à la provençalecooked in olive oil with tomatoes, garlicala provonsahl
assaisonnementseasoning; dressingassezonuhmon
assiette anglaiseselection of cold meatsass-yet onglez
au choix ... choice of…o shwa
au gratinbaked in a milk, cream and cheese sauceo gratan
bavette à l'échalote grilled beef with shallotsbavet a layshalot
Béarnaisewith béarnaise sauce (sauce made from egg yolks, butter and herbs)bay-arnez
béchamelwhite sauce, béchamel saucebayshamel
beurre d'anchoisanchovy pastebeur donshwa
beurre d'estragontarragon butterbeur destragon
beurre noirdark melted butter beur nwahr
Carbonnadestew made with beef, onions and beerkarbonad
carré d'agneaurack of lambkarray dan-yo
Consommé
clear soup made from meat or chickenkonsommay
contre-filetbeef sirloin roastkon·tre·fee·ley
côteletteChopkotlet
coupe des îlesvanilla ice cream with syrup, fruit and whipped creamkoop day zeel
crème à la vanillevanilla custardkrem ah la vanee
crème anglaise Custard krem onglez
Cruditésselection of salads or chopped raw vegetableskroodeetay
entrecôte rib steakontr-koht
fait maisonhomemade fay mezzon
fricassée famb, veal or poultry in a thick creamy sauce with
mushrooms & onions
free·ka·sey
Garniwith French fries or rice and/or vegetablesgarnee
marchand de vinin red wine saucemarshon duh van
Want more? Check out these articles related to French food:

Conclusion

Understanding a French menu (be sure to refer to it now as la carte) and ordering off of it, takes some practice. But with the terms I just ran you through, it should be a breeze.

If you want more, you can always check out the French Menu Reader available when you get the French Phrasebook.

About the Author Frederic

Frederic Bibard is the founder of Talk in French, a company that helps french learners to practice and improve their french. Macaron addict. Jacques Audiard fan. You can contact him on Twitter and Google +

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