France is renowned for its gastronomy. But nearly as important, is how French people eat a typical meal. Having lived in France for the past 10 years, I will note that a traditional French dinner, even if it is at the end of a busy day, will usually pull out all the stops.
And if you are hosting a French dinner party, holds on to your party hats (and wear comfortable shoes)!
Imagine the scene: Marie-Antoinette in the beautiful Palais of Versailles. (Pre- Head being chopped off of course). She is inviting you into a beautifully lit room, chandeliers glittering, the best
Funny enough, this is how we have dinner today in North America. An array of dishes spread out on the table, where everybody helps themselves. Marie-Antoinette didn’t invent it, but in a way, she did change the way French people dine. A typical French dinner today is a bit more complicated.
Even after the revolution, people remained scared. Putting on such a display implied wealth, and wealth was likely to get your head chopped off. So meals in France began to
Now the Russians also suffered their own revolution 130 years later, but Service à la Russe has nothing to do with that. Named after a Russian ambassador in France in the early 1800s, in a restaurant today you expect to be served first the starter, then the main course and en suite the dessert. Each dish is brought out consecutively and eaten before the next plate is brought out. And let’s not forget the digestif at the end!
☞ READ MORE: ABC of French Cuisine (the Food Dictionary)
How many courses in a typical dinner?
You may be eating in a Michelin starred restaurant, or in a typical French household, but it is generally still done the same way. A traditional French meal at home with family and friends, with Service à la Russe will look something like this:
1. Entrées (starters)
The meal usually starts off with some appetizers or a light starter like escargot, or melon au porto in summer, or something heavier like French onion soup in winter. You can find more French starter ideas here.
2. Salad or another light starter
Sometimes there is more than one starter, just depending on the size of the dish being presented and the cooking skills of the chef!
If a salad is served, it is usually just a few greens topped off with a vinigrette. Larger salads like the salad niçoise is usually considered a main meal, not a starter.
At times, depending on the host, a small salad could be served after the main dish instead of before.
3. Plat (main dishes)
For the main dish, usually a combination of meat or fish will be presented, along with some vegetables and classic French pantry staples. Heavier meals like boeuf bourguignon stew or a coq au vin are served in winter.
Since France is a wine producing country, wine is usually served with the meal. No beer, pop, or other sodas please.
4. Fromage (Cheese)
After the main portion of the meal, comes the cheeses. Yes, it is after the meal, not as a starter. Depending on the number of people 3-5 different cheeses will be brought out in a cheese plate and served with baguette. If you are still hungry or did not care for the main meal, this is your chance to fill up.
Dessert could be something light like a strawberry mousse, cake, or even something as simple as fruit. Now, if you are just having a small family dinner, dessert is usually skipped, if you have had cheese as well.
You can find more French desserts here.
And finally to top if all off, we need a bit of coffee! It is not the large cup of coffee North Americans are used to having, but rather a small espresso cup. You could potentially combine the café with the dessert, and have a café gourmand. You can read more about drinking coffee in France here.
Each dish is brought out separately and then taken back to the kitchen when finished. And if it is a larger dinner party, there will be a different bottle of wine with each course. As the French saying goes: “Repas sans vin, repas chagrin”, meaning “Dinner without wine is a sad dinner.”
(This becomes even more elaborate during big occasions such as at a dinner party or at Christmas.)
The Pros and Cons of the French Way
I will admit this is not always practical for the person serving the food. There is a lot of going back and forth with dishes, cutlery, and glassware. French homes used to be built with separate kitchens, but homeowners are now starting to embrace the “Cuisine Américane“, perhaps to accommodate all this going back and forth!
To translate literally, Cuisine Américane means “American kitchen”, or rather the open-concept kitchen and living room trend that is all over HGTV and Houzz these days!
While knocking down walls may not be a solution, French meal etiquette does have its benefits. For one thing, the food doesn’t get cold. And you don’t mix the flavors and the impact on the palate that the chef intends. It respects the meal and the effort that the chef has put into it. (“Bravo Maman! Bravo Papa!”)
The Dinner Party
The conundrum that this leads to is that, as a guest at a French dinner party, you are never
A French dinner guest may ask for a second helping while the dish is still on the table, but not after the host has taken it away. For example, if the Roast Beef has left the table, and the next dish is Green Beans, you don’t get to ask for the Roast Beef to come back after you’ve finished your beans!
And picky eaters beware, it is also quite rude to ask for changes and substitutes to your meal, unless it is for something serious like allergies. You are to eat what is in front of you!
Finishing the plate
Included in all this is the other quirk of French table manners: you must finish your plate, otherwise,
In some cultures, if you consistently finish your plate, your host will worry that you didn’t get enough, and insist that you have more. I’ve had to rescue my poor French husband on
This may all seem
French people love to discuss and debate
24-piece Dinnerware set for 6 by Villeroy & Boch.
If you are interested in learning the French words for each item on the menu, don’t hesitate to download our free flashcards. And if you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more French food facts and find out what’s for dinner at Christmas. Oysters anyone?
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