Parisians take their food seriously, so to feel comfortable when dining out, it helps to know a few guidelines of politesse.
A good place to start is with general etiquette to learn about the top etiquette faux pas that foreigners in Paris unknowingly commit.
Specific Dining Etiquette
Don’t ever call a waiter garçon unless you want a bowl of hot onion soup dropped on your lap. Monsieur, is the proper address, madame or mademoiselle for female servers.
French food usually comes with the condiments already applied to the chef’s liking. Aside from salt and pepper, which are usually on the table, you’ll have to ask if you want mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise. In general, it’s not possible to request substitutions or changes to a dish, so if you do, be as charming as possible, especially if you have an allergy (allergie, conveniently).
Don’t talk on your mobile phone in a formal restaurant or a tiny bistro where everyone would be able to hear you. Turn off the ringer. Go outside if you have to.
Your hands should be above the table at all times, not on your lap. Don’t ask why. Elbows on the table are still a no-no.
Bread is placed on a tiny side plate for formal dining, but in regular dining you place it directly on the table cloth next to your plate, not on the plate. Don’t fret about the crumbs. Don’t expect butter, oil, or anything else to top your bread while waiting for your meal unless you’re dining formally. When eating bread, tear off bite-sized pieces with with your hands, not your teeth.
When you’re done eating, put your knife and fork on the plate together in the middle. If you intend eating some more, put them one each side of the plate, but still on the plate. French waiters usually don’t clear any dishes until everyone at the table has finished.
Don’t expect your server to return to the table more than absolutely necessary. There are several reasons for this. First, there are usually fewer servers working than in the US (because they get a full salary), therefore they have a lot of tables to watch at once. Second, in France service is supposed to be “discreet”, not “friendly”. Servers will leave you in peace unless you get their attention by catching their eye or discreetly raising your hand if you need anything. The great part is that you can linger as long as you like without being shoved out the door as soon as your dessert is finished.
When you want the bill, you’ll need to ask for it (l’addition, s’il vous plaît). In France it’s considered rude for the server to “rush” you out by presenting the bill before you’ve asked, even if they’ve already cleared your plates and asked if you want anything else.
The 15% service fee is included in your bill already, even if you don’t see it (what you may see is the TVA, or value added tax, 5.5% for food, 19.6% for drinks). This is the law. But it’s not a “tip”. Tips are something extra in France and only given if you’re happy with the service (and even then, most French people tip 5-10% max). Read more about tipping here.
Finally, don’t take it personally if your server seems brusque, or worse, rude. Even the French think that Parisian servers are rude. It’s part of the act, like New York taxi drivers. No matter what happens, keep repeating the mantra patience, patience, patience…
Hands o the table : you know French can be quite flirtatious. Having your hands on the table guarantee that you’re not doing “illegal” stuff under the table Ah Ah ! And to be honest I view it as quite elegant.
I remember years ago when teaching French to young children at ASP Summer camps, we had some games on how to set a table, to hold your cutlery and where to put your hands French/ versus American; It was fun.
Well if you hands are ON the table, who knows what you do with your feet ?