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Deciphering French Menus

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Trying to find a decent place to eat in Paris is only half the battle. Then you have to figure out what’s on the menu. Even when you’re fluent in French it’s not always easy to understand exactly what to expect in a dish when you order, even if you’re sure it’s “something with duck and potatoes” or “a white fish with vegetables”.

Menus translated into English by well-meaning establishments often provide some good laughs, if not appetizing or even accurate descriptions. “Burnt cream” for crème brûlée is one thing, but translating a crottin de chèvre salad as a “goat turd salad” might dissuade most diners. 

Bon appetit cover

Bon Appétit is the latest English-French food dictionary from Gourmet Guides destined to help decipher French menus: “The purpose of this small volume is to aid the memory, to describe what gastronomic delight, or the opposite, is awaiting those who might order that otherwise unknown. It is also intended to help the adventurous, who seek out new or unusual dishes, to make the most of whatever is on offer. And it aims to avoid those sometimes comical translations often to be found even in the finest establishments.” They sent me a copy of the pocket booklet to check out, and I’ve found it quite handy and easy to carry in a small purse. The print guide is currently on sale for €3.25 (usually 4.99) through the Gourmet Guides website. If you have an iPhone there’s also an app in iTunes for €0.99. 

Win a Free Gourmet Guide

Share your own French menu translation mix-ups or mistranslations in the comments section below before September 23rd and we’ll send a free copy of the Bon Appétit print guide to the two we like best (we ship anywhere in the world by La Poste). 


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  • LL wins for the sage advice: "Menu Rule: If anything is on a restaurant's menu, it is edible. So I ate it." We should all be so daring. 😉 – Heather

  • My experience is such that french menues and dishes in France can be undestood easily. However I have had many troubles with deciphering french dishes outside of France – whan in "French restaurant" in Italy for instance, half of menu consisted of italian dishes simply transalted in french 🙂

  • Some years ago, a good Parisian friend took me to a neighborhood bistro for lunch. As we were entering, I saw a sign saying "Cuisine du Terroir". The look on my face must have been priceless because, after doubling over with laughter, he assured me it did not mean "cuisine of terror" (thank God for that). I have long since forgotten what I ate, but I do remember that, whatever it was, the "terror" was awfully good.

  • My grandfather fought in WWI as an 18-year old boy who had never previously left his small town in Wyoming. He and three friends went to a restaurant in Paris. The only thing they could read on the menu was "soupe" so that's what they ordered. When they heard the waiter yell "quatr' soupes" they got up and left. They knew food was scarce and didn't want to add cat to their diet. This is one of the few stories he would tell about his experience in that terrible war.

  • There is a restaurant called Notre Maison on rue Gadagne in Vieux Lyon that is a pretty standard bouchon lyonnais. For the longest time, they had an English menu that was absolutely hysterical. They have since corrected it unfortunately. They used to have a few items that featured "hollandaise wipe". It was obviously meant to be hollandaise sauce, but I spent the longest time trying to figure out how they screwed up that translation. It finally occurred to me that they must have been using some type of culinary dictionary to translate. Before the kitchen sends out a prepared dish to the customer, they often need to wipe off unsightly drops of sauce around the edge of the plate. And in French, this action is called "saucer". And so was born hollandaise wipe.

  • It's very interesting point, and definitely a need for those who don't master the language.I find that the menus have quite a good description of the dishes – but then again, it's probably much easier to read those too, when you know the language. And it's true that pictures don't really tell what you can choose – not that the menus provide pictures, anyway.Awesome, awesome resource.Thank you!

  • Not exactly a menu mishap but a friend visiting recently asked why the "entrées" were so cheap. Not thinking much of it, I just replied, "well, this restaurant is quite good and they do well from word of mouth but entrées aren't usually that expensive to begin with. I had forgotten that the main dish is called an entrée on several American menus.

  • Does Tahiti count? And this is more of a case of localized pronunciation, rather than translation, but it was nonetheless gastronomically memorable. My new wife and her sister and brother-in-law arrived early, early one morning in Papeete on a long awaited trip to Tahiti. By the time we made it to the local cafe it was not even 7AM local. Now I have a nearly perfect Parisian French accent (if there be such a thing), as my mother was a French war bride, and we lived in Paris from the time I was just one year old until we returned to the States when I was almost five. So I learned to speak only French long before I learned even a word of English (and we moved to Los Angeles, so I did not acquire any dramatic twangs or drawls.)Now my vocabulary may be a bit challenged, but my pronunciation is excellent. And one word I know better than any other in the French language is my favorite word, as well as my favorite food: Croissant. I am sure it was probably my first and most frequently used word as a child… and probably as an adult.So we sat down at the local cafe in Papeete in the early morning dawn and I took charge immediately, as neither my wife nor my in-laws spoke French. When the waiter approached, I gave him a solid, "Quatre Croissants, s'il vous plait." And what soon arrived was four bowls of fish… raw fish. Yes, although I had clearly said "Quatre Croissants" what the waiter had clearly heard (and what apparently made sense to him at 7 in the morning) was "Quatre Poissons". And as long as I had not specified any particular species or preparation of fish, he felt that naturally I wanted four bowls of the local equivalent of Ceviche. My wife and in-laws were most impressed with my linguistic skills.Well, the upshot was that we got our croissants, although we had to keep and pay for the fish as well. But we did learn that raw fish is remarkably good with croissants. But then, what isn't?

  • In my younger days, traveling to France for the first time, we stopped in Epernay for lunch, and I decided that pizza with "crevettes, ananas et boudin de xxx" looked safe enough. I asked the server what "boudin de xxx" was (in my best, if nervous and canadian accented, french), and he replied… "mais… c'est un type de boudin!". No clarification, really, so I ordered it and then had to push around the black turd like substances to get at the pizza. I still had no idea what it was until I came home and translated it! (PS: the little shrimps still had their heads on, which was also disturbing to my teen-age sensibilities, until then, I'd only had them cleaned!)

  • On my first trip outside the USA in the 1960's, having just finished one year of high school French and thus making me the linguist in our tour group, I ordered steak tartare ("Tartar steak") while the adult next to me, being less adventurous, ordered Steak american ("American steak"). I figured that Tartars probably stewed stuff and what could be wrong with steak?When a steak with a fried egg on top arrived, the tour member decided it must be mine, as no American would ever eat that. The waiter gave it back to him and gave me a pile of raw meat with a raw egg cupped on top and an artful arrangement of little piles of things around it. I had to think fast. So I developed the Menu Rule: If anything is on a restaurant's menu, it is edible. So I ate it. And the capers and chopped hardboiled egg and a few other unidentified things. Except for the raw onions. I hate raw onions.

  • Ah yes! A new Thai place opened up on our rue. We thought we'd try it out and as the lovely proprietor was informing us of the plat du jour I heard "ris poêle", fried rice. In fact I got some concoction of fried sweetbreads "riz poêle". Sounds the same…but definitely not what I was expecting. I've learnt to clarify that one each time I hear it.

  • I speak French adequately, and always try to use my French in restaurants. I was in a very sophisticated bistro, and decided to order oysters as an appetizer, and the lotte ( a white fish common in Europe) as my main course. I only spoke in French, and I have a good "accent" so the waiter assumed I knew what I wanted. The description was "asperiges du Lotte" which I deciphered as fish with asparagus on the side. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that if a noun is capitalized it is either a person or a place, so I was extremely surprised when my main course arrived and it was 4 white asparagus grown in the town of Lotte!! I humbly consumed my vegetables.