Useful French phrases at a restaurant

How to sound natural when ordering food in French

Being able to confidently order food in public can serve as better proof of your French fluency than any official exam. To pass this trial by fire you’ll need to know useful French phrases at a restaurant. And by this, we mean not only being familiar with the right words, but also the unspoken cultural norms. If you’d like to improve your French for everyday situations, conversation classes will be perfect.

Imagine you’ve dreamed about tasting a delicious boeuf bourguignon or ratatouille for months. You and your friends or family have just picked a table in a charming French restaurant. Then a waiter comes up to you with a notebook in hand and starts to ask you a few questions. But do you know exactly how to say in French how you would like your meat cooked? How will you get sparkling water (and not tap water)? Should you leave a tip, and if so, how much?

french phrases at restaurant

In today’s article, we’ll help you ask the right questions in a French restaurant and sound like a local :

  1. Selecting a French restaurant
  2. Making a reservation
  3. Finding your table
  4. Understanding a French menu
  5. Ordering your French drinks
  6. Getting to know the menu options
  7. Ordering your meal in French
  8. Ending your meal

Selecting a French restaurant

Choosing the right venue in France

First, depending on the kind of experience you want to have, you can choose between various eating places. From a very casual café to a trendy gastronomique, possibilities are nearly endless in France

  • Cafés : they are generally opened all day and offer a large selection of hot and cold drinks. They serve basic dishes such as croque-monsieur, salads and sandwiches.
  • Bistrots : you will find simple meals, sometimes with a menu du jour (menu of the day) with a low price and a quick service. Clients are often employees of offices nearby and people living in the neighbourhood .
  • Brasseries : they are a bit bigger than bistrots, a bit more expensive and with a larger selection of French traditional dishes. In some historical Parisians brasseries such as La Coupole or Brasserie Lip, waiters still wear an authentic white apron and black pants.
  • Restaurants : you’ll get a great variety of dishes in restaurants. For a special experience, restaurants gastronomiques (gourmet restaurant) propose sophisticated dishes in fine dining establishment. However, names are sometimes difficult to understand ! You could come across description such as un duo de homard et de St-Jacques au Sauternes, sauce champignons des bois.
french café

Don’t mix up French brasserie, bistrot et café !

Making a reservation

Then, once you’ve selected your eatery for the evening, it is strongly recommended to make a reservation. Restaurants are generally more likely to fill up, especially in big cities and during the weekend. So, you should make a quick call to avoid any disappointment.

When you phone the restaurant, you could simply say :

  • Bonjour, je voudrais réserver une table pour 2 personnes pour ce soir s’il vous plaît = Hello, I would like to book a table for two people for tonight, please
  • Bonjour je voudrais faire une réservation pour 3 personnes pour samedi prochain s’il vous plait = Hello I would like to make a booking for three people for next Saturday, please

It’s always great to precise ahead the number of people and the exact date.

Time of the dinner

Then, you will be asked the time :

  • Pour quelle heure? = For what time?

Generally, service starts around 12pm for lunch and 7pm or 7.30pm for diner. In Paris and a few big cities, you can find non-stop service. Just be careful, in some very busy restaurants if you arrive too late (over 15 minutes), they may cancel your booking even if you call. While most French restaurants will hold your reservation for 15 minutes, some may not!

Finally, you will need to provide your surname:

  • C’est à quel nom ? 
reservation at a french restaurant

Finding your table

You already have a reservation

Next, when you enter to the restaurant and you have a reservation, approach the waiter or maître d’hôtel, depending on the size of the restaurant. Let them know that you have a table waiting:

  • Bonsoir, j’ai réservé une table au nom de… = I have reserved a table in the name of…
  • Bonsoir, j’ai une réservation au nom de…

Or they might ask you first :

  • Avez-vous une réservation? = Do you have a reservation?
  • Deux couverts, c’est bien cela? = A table for two, is that right ?

Les couverts are the cutlery so this may refer to a set a cutlery, therefore a dining table.

You don’t have a reservation

Of course, it’s still very possible to eat out in France and find a nice table on the spot. You can simply ask:

  • Auriez-vous une table disponible pour deux ? = Would you you have a table available for 2 ?
  • Peut-on manger quelque chose ? = Can we eat something ?

Understanding a French menu

When it comes to interacting with your French waiter later on, there is really nothing to be worried about. Interacting with the waiter is a great way to improve your pronunciation in French. Staying polite and always thanking your waiter is normally all you need to do to receive great service in France.

Keep your waiter’s attention with Excusez-moi and S’il vous plaît after you have made your order.

Please don’t say ‘garçon’ anymore !
This as it's quite old fashioned to use 'garçon' and not used anymore. This common French cliché could even make you sound rude.

Helpful words for navigating the menu:
  • Une carte = Menu
  • Hors boissons = Excluding drinks
  • Service compris = Service included
  • Un amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule = A little snack, just one or two bites
  • Une entrée = Appetizer or starter
  • Un plat du jour = Dish of the day
  • Un plat principal = Main dish
  • Une garniture ou un accompagnement au choix = Side dish of your choice
  • Un plateau de fromages = Cheese platter
  • Un dessert = Dessert
  • Un digestif After-dinner drink
understand a french menu

Ordering your French Drinks

Tasting aperitif and wines

Generally, the waiter will ask you if you’d like something to drink first :

  • Souhaiteriez-vous un aperitif ? = Would you like an aperitif?
  • Est-ce que vous prendrez un apéritif ? = Will you take an aperitif ?
  • Vous désirez boire quelque chose? = Would you like to drink something?

French restaurants tend to have a large wine selection. In gourmet restaurant, a sommelier will be there to give you the best recommendations. Wine can be from the region, from elsewhere in France or even from overseas. Therefore, dining out is a great way to sample different wines.

Getting water and coffee

When ordering water with your meal, there are a few options to know about.

  • Simply asking for une carafe d’eau will get you a jug of tap water at no extra cost.
  • If you do want a bottled water, you can select either de l’eau plate (still water) or de l’eau gazeuse (sparkling water). If you don’t specify, your waiter will normally ask you which one you would prefer.

After dinner, it’s very common to order a coffee (an espresso). We’ll see in a future article the specificities about coffees in France !

order drinks in france
Getting to know the menu options

Now, the important part of the dining experience. What to choose between all these delicacies ?

So you have a menu, and your waiter or waitress has just taken your drink orders. Afterwards, he or she will ask you :

  • Vous avez choisi ? = Have you chosen ?
  • Vous avez fait votre choix ?  

If you hesitate between two dishes, you can always ask your waiter for a recommendation : 

  • Qu’est-ce que vous recommandez ? = What do you recommend?

Like most other countries, a French menu will normally contain a dish with each type of meat option and one or two fish plates. Knowing how these dishes are cooked can sometimes require a bit more work.

  • Au four = Cooked in the oven
  • A l’étouffée / à la vapeur = Steamed
  • Fumé = Smoked
  • Grillé = Grilled
  • Haché = Minced
  • Mariné = Marinated
  • Mijoté = Stewed
  • Poêlé = Pan-fried
  • Rôti = Roasted dish
french menu
Useful phrases for dietary restrictions
  • Je suis diabétique = I am diabetic
  • Je suis végétarien(ne) = I am vegetarian
  • Je suis végétalien(ne) = I am vegan
  • Je suis allergique à … = I am allergic to…
  • Est-ce que vous avez des plats sans…? = Do you have dishes without…?
  • Sans gluten = Gluten free
  • Sans produits laitiers = Dairy free

Obviously, it could be more difficult to find vegetarian or vegan options in smaller cities than in Paris for example.

Vocabulary for your meat
  • Tartare = Tartare
  • Bleue = Raw
  • Saignante = Rare
  • A point = Medium rare
  • Bien cuite = Well done
  • Sauce béarnaise =  Sauce made of butter emulsified in egg yolks and white wine vinegar, flavored with herbs
  • Sauce au poivre = Pepper sauce
vocabulary for the meat
Ordering your meal in French

Then, when that you’ve successfully ordered drinks and selected from the menu, it’s time to order that food.

It’s generally more polite to use the French conditional when ordering food. Here are some phrases that will help throughout the rest of your meal:

  • Je voudrais = I would like (conditional tense)
  • J’aimerais essayer = I would like to try
  • Je vais prendre = I’m going to take (futur proche)
  • Je n’ai pas encore choisi = I haven’t chosen yet
  • Quelques minutes encore, s’il vous plaît = A few more minute, please
  • Quelle est le plat du jour ? = What is today’s special?
  • C’est terminé =  I/We have finished
  • L’addition, s’il vous plaît = The bill, please
french restaurant
Ending your meal

Finally, the waiter or waitress come to your table at the end of your meal to see how everything went. You will be asked:

  • Ca a été ? = How did it go?

I hope you will reply Très bien, merci ! (very well, thank you). In case something went wrong, it’s always better to say it at the right time:

  • Excusez-moi, la viande est trop cuite = Excuse-me, the meat is too cooked
  • Le plat est froid. Serait-il possible de le réchauffer? = The dish is cold. Would it be possible to warm it up?
  • Désolé, je n’ai pas aimé = Sorry, I didn’t like it

Furthermore, even though it’s getting a bit more popular, it’s still quite rare for a French restaurant to offer a doggy bag service. So if you don’t finish your meal, you probably won’t be able to take it home with you.

For the tip – a frequently asked question from my students – most restaurants in France will include the service charge. As a result, the total bill should be all you need to pay. However, if you would like to leave something as a nice gesture, you could 5 to 10%. It’s really at your discretion.

order food French restaurant

In conclusion, sampling the local food in a francophone country is a fantastic way to practice your French ! Feel free to also check our French idioms with food article. And if you’d like to build up your confidence when speaking French, you can send me an email for private or small group lessons.

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