Saturday, February 26, 2011

These incroyables (incredible) French waiters

"French waiters. If you're nice, they treat you like sh#@*
Treat them like sh#@*, they love you!

Kate (Meg Ryan). American tourist stranded in France.
French Kiss, 1995.

After traveling back and forth between France and the United States for over 30 years; after reading countless cross-cultural studies, books and articles on the two nations; after listening to friends and students' stories about their adventures in my homeland; I have concluded that dealing with French waiters may very well be one of the most challenging, aggravating, entertaining, and ultimately genuine experiences a foreign visitor may encounter in France. To that effect, I have recently researched (or "binged") these two apparently harmless words "F.r.e.n.c.h. w.a.i.t.e.r." online. I can't believe how many articles popped up on my screen. It seems French waiters have been -and continue to be - a huge source of inspiration for writers, all the more so if said writers are Americans who at some point, led the expat life in Paris.

Le French waiter
To save you some time, I will try and summarize what most writers seem to agree on:
  • First impressions are hard to change. Unfortunately, many visitors' first impressions are that French waiters are very different from their American counterparts, and not in a good way. They do not greet their customers with a big smile. They are not particularly friendly. They are not patient. Some can be plain rude. There is an air of seriousness about them: French waiters always wear the traditional waiter "uniform" (black pants, black vest, white shirt, bow tie, impeccable shoes).

  • Fortunately, foreign visitors (noticeably the people who have lived in France for extended periods of time) also report on more positive traits: French waiters are professional and knowledgeable. They are good at multi-tasking and very efficient. They may or may not write down an order but hardly make mistakes.  They are discreet and never rush their customers. They love offering recommendations and talking about the day's specials. Many comment that the language barrier is as frustrating to the waiter as it is to the foreign visitor. All too often, the waiter's wonderful sense of humor gets lost in translation. C'est dommage!
  • Perceptions aside, some interesting facts about French waiters include: They are highly trained. In France, you go to school to become a waiter. A good waiter knows how to work behind the counter (mixing drinks or pouring wine). He or she also knows how to serve food elegantly and efficiently, carrying heavy loads on the ubiquitous round tray. Waiters are proud of their profession and they have high standards (serving café au lait with lunch absolutely h.o.r.r.i.f.i.e.s. them and they might let you know!). Waiters respect their customer's privacy. They will not interrupt a conversation; won't hassle you to try and sell you another drink; won't rush you by bringing the check too early (a huge faux-pas in France). Since a 15% service charge is automatically added to your bill, the waiter does not work for a tip. Whether you decide to round off the bill and leave a few coins behind, don't expect him to grovel for a tip. He won't.

Since there is already so much information (and controversy) out there about French waiters, I wondered if I could still provide some valuable advice on how to deal with the French buggers. The answer is "Mais oui!". After all, theory is good, but how do you survive on a daily basis in France where you have to eat out at least once or twice a day? The most important thing you need to know when stepping into a French café or restaurant is how to catch your waiter's attention. After all, these guys are often best described as "professionally distant". They will not rush to you, greet you warmly, fuss over you when you arrive. Period. They may not even look at you as you are trying to decide if you should sit yourself or wait. Now what?

First things first.

You have to learn and use the magical word that opens many doors in France. That word is: "Bonjour" (listen to the pronunciation here). It is a lovely little word, France's finest greeting ("Good day")
 and you want to throw it out there in a lively, happy voice. If that is the only French word you ever learn, make sure to say it well, and say it often. Every time you enter a public place (une boulangerie, une boutique and of course un café); every time you approach a French native because you need help, you should always, always start with "Bonjour!" Consider yourself warned. I - and the other unfortunate souls - who have occasionally forgotten to say "Bonjour" before asking a question have learned the lesson the hard way. It does not matter if nobody answers, or if you did not make eye contact. You did the right thing. You greeted the natives. 

As soon as the waiter turns around, try and make eye contact. Wave at him if he is standing on the other side of the room. If he is closer, say: "Monsieur, s'il vous plaît" (muss-YUH see-voo-PLAY) but do not, under any circumstances, call out: "Garçon"-- that's if you expect a reaction. True, "garçon de café" is the traditional name of French waiters. True, it was used way back when to call a waiter's attention. Not anymore.

Once the waiter has acknowledged your presence, say "Bonjour", then start ordering or ask your question (more information about ordering food in a later post).

Often, you will get lucky and will be served by an excellent waiter, swift, attentive, courteous and professional. French waiters do professional like no other waiters in the world. Le Husband and I were reminded of this when we had lunch at the Ritz hotel last Christmas. You may remember that story.   But there are all kinds of waiters, and all kinds of people. Do not be turned off if your waiter does not smile, or seems brusque (abrupt) and impatient. Nothing personal. He acts the same way with everybody else around you. There are other customers waiting, and he is trying to serve them all. If you read last week's post, you already know how to order in a French café like a pro. Occasionally (ahem-- I am looking at you, Paris), you will bump into the rude or indifferent French waiter. When that happens to me, I do not try to set him straight, or teach him a lesson. He does not really need my tip, nor is he interested in becoming my friend.  I just leave and take my business somewhere else. Fortunately, there are cafés at every street corner in France.

Now that you have read all this, look at this picture. If you do not like the way this waiter is  looking at you, do not take things too personally. Remember, this is how he would look at everyone, including his French customers.

Why the frown? Maybe he is in a bad mood. Maybe the sun
 is in his eyes.  Does it matter?

A bientôt!


  1. Love your articles. When I was living in France, going into a restaurant or a cafe or even a supermarket filled me with considerable dread as I always felt that something was demanded of ME, the customer. But I found that the waiters were all very professional and as you said they do their jobs incredibly well. In Europe, I heard that being a waiter could be a career and not something to be ashamed of, whereas in the US a waiter is usually a student or a loser.

  2. I have been to Paris a few times and honestly I have never had a problem with the waiters and found them to be very professional and some of them were super fun and hilarious! I love the fact that you don't feel rush and can literally sit there for two hours eating and drinking delicious wine without having the check shoved in your face. Great article and I hope that people have as good of an experience with the waiters as I have!


Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle