Parisian waiters are legendary for both their skill and their sometime-brusque attitude but — above all, they are professionals … even artistes in their own way. Waiters, (and I use this title for both sexes), should be addressed as Monsieur or Madame. Calling the waiter garçon went out with the 60s. The staff of a restaurant moves like a choreographed ballet. Whether a Michelin-starred legend or a small family owned menu-on-the-chalkboard kind of place, waiters will discuss the daily offerings and recommend wine pairings. They are expected to be knowledgeable. Most are trained via apprenticeships beginning at age sixteen.
What does this mean, practically? Well, the following. Parisian waiters will never:
Introduce themselves; as in “Hi, my name is Troy (or Tiffany) and I’ll be your server tonight.”
Ask “Are you still working on that?” We hear this often in local restaurants. It makes me think of vultures and road kill. Why not just ask “Have you finished?”
Remove one person’s plate from the table before all have finished. This has become a common practice in some American restaurants. It tends to make those still eating feel that they should hurry up and finish. In Paris, it helps to know the code. Only when everyone at the table has put their knife and fork next to each other diagonally on the plate, will the waiter ask, (phonetically) “Termeenay?” (“Finished?”). Just answer “Oui” and the table will be skillfully cleared.
You will not be served salad dressing on the side. And if you ask for ranch, Thousand Island, blue cheese or any other American dressing, you will be met with a look of incomprehension. They do not exist! France has a universal salad dressing. It’s called vinaigrette and is used on green salads and other vegetables. It never overpowers, but you know it’s there. Vinaigrettes usually involve a combination of champagne vinegar, olive oil, garlic, Dijon mustard, an egg yolk, salt and pepper. My favorite recipe is from Barefoot in Paris by Ina Garten, also known as the “Barefoot Contessa.” Lunch in heaven to me is a warm goat cheese salad with vinaigrette and a glass or two of chilled Rosé, knowns as Salad de Chèevre Chaud.
The waiter will not present the check before you ask for it. Just say, “L’addition s’il vous plaît!” The check will not have a line to add a tip. Although gratuities and taxes are included in the prices, it is customary to leave some change on the table in a café and five-to-ten percent after a great experience in a great restaurant. Any tip should be in cash. Tips cannot be added onto a credit card. While tips are appreciated, wait staff do not rely on them for their livelihood. Their employers know how critical they are to success and they are well paid. I’ve seen small restaurants operate smoothly with only one talented server in the dining room, taking orders for three or four course dinners, uncorking bottles of wine, carving the roast tableside and lighting flaming desserts.
Dining out in Paris is always to be enjoyed at a relaxed pace. No one rushes diners to “turn over” tables. Smaller living quarters encourage people to linger at cafés until late in the evening. We don’t count calories, but it’s perfectly acceptable to share a first course by saying “pour partager” (for sharing). Note that, in France, the first course is called the entrée (the entrance), but in the U.S., entrée means the main course. The main course, called the, plat principal, is never shared. When we succumb to dessert, it’s also acceptable to order “un dessert, deux cuillèrieres”, (one dessert, two spoons). City living helps to work off long lunches or dinners. It’s normal for us to walk several to ten miles in a day strolling or running errands. Exiting the métro station does the job of a Stairmaster, and there are always the 100 steps up to our fifth floor apartment if we eschew the elevator.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 - Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris.