French dining is a lot like eating with your parents. The waiters (aka your grumpy parents) will frown at you as if you were a child, and get very annoyed.
My personal theory is that this is why the majority of tourists think that French waiters are rude. It may be true that they don’t work for tips, so don’t have to be overly ingratiating. But I also think it is because this is a “French Food Rule” that most tourists break when they go to a restaurant in Paris: they try to make alterations to the dish that they are used to asking for at home. “Ketchup, s’il vous plâit!”
French Dining: Respect the Chef
In France, the Chef is respected. Well la di da, of course it is. I mean it seriously though, in France, Cooking is an art. And just like you wouldn’t ask Leonardo da Vinci to make the Mona Lisa smile a bit more, you are also not supposed to ask for dinner modifications that could alter the “Chef’s vision”. This means that if you go to a French restaurant, you may see a bit of salt and pepper on the table, and that is it. (Restaurants in the tourist center of Paris will roll their eyes and reluctantly cater to visitors.)
But beyond the basics, it is downright scandalous to ask for ketchup or sriracha to go with your côte de boeuf (beef steak). Or for the Caesar salad dressing to be on the side. Or the beans to be substituted for the broccoli. French restaurants frown upon these types of alterations that are common in North America, i.e. “I want the meal to come with boiled spinach instead of fried rice, etc.”
“The general French dining rule is that if you don’t like how it is going to be prepared, you should order something else. ”– Maman
Even when I was (very visibly) pregnant, and needed the steak to be “bien cuit” (well-cooked), it would still come medium-rare. The waiter either did not communicate the information to the Chef properly, or the Chef decided that he was insulted to have to “over-cook” his fine cut of steak.
Visiting Paris if you are Vegetarian or Gluten-Free
When tourists come to France (and Paris) for the first time, I always want to tell them to throw caution to the wind. Go where their heart and their feet lead them, rather than following a set plan. There are so many wonderful areas to explore, and amazing hidden restaurants, why plan?!
I take that advice back if you are vegetarian, have an allergy, or another serious medical reason to watch what you eat! In these cases, it really is better to look at the menu in advance online to figure out if you want to eat there.
Vegetarianism and gluten-free are still somewhat rare in France. There will often be only one or two things on the menu, if that: a salad and/or fries. Allergies are somewhat catered to, but it really depends on the restaurant.
How to find a good French restaurant in Paris
So what do you do, if you do have to watch what you eat? Things are slowly getting better in Paris, with a host of new specialty restaurants. More eclectic cuisines with options such as gluten-free or vegan are opening up in Paris and the restaurant scene is booming.
One of the simplest ways to find a restaurant is to do what the locals do: make a reservation online at www.thefork.com. There is an application that you can download for your phone as well. (Note: I am in no way affiliated with The Fork. It just happens to be what my friends and I use when we make reservations!)
The website works outside of Paris as well, in smaller cities around France.
It is free to use and available in English and French. You can narrow down your area, time, number of people, and any cuisine preferences. So if you want Thai food that is vegan in near Bastille in Paris, you now can! Sample items on the menu of each restaurant are also displayed, along with their prices. A few clicks and you have your reservation.
Tripadvisor.com also offers the same service on their website, but I tend to stick to The Fork. (The Fork is now part of Tripadvisor, but used to be a French start-up called La Fourchette.)
However, if you like spicy food as I do, or “require ketchup” as my kids do, you may be a bit out of luck. I have yet to find an application that says if they have tabasco at the restaurant!
P.S. You can ask for ketchup with your fries, this the waiter will cater to. French people don’t usually eat fries with ketchup, but with mayonnaise. But in this instance, asking for ketchup is not that egregious, so you will be fine! Good luck and à bientôt!