[Paris] – The chance to spend a few weeks in France this summer provided both the time and the detachment to reflect – on politics, the U.S. relationship with, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, “old Europe,” history, art and, of course, food and the enjoyment of a good lunch or a fine dinner. The richly appointed bistrot Benoit on the Rue Saint Martin in the heart of Paris – the photo is of the main dining room – is one of my favorites.
My conclusion after happily eating and drinking my way across Paris: the French way of dining in a nice restaurant is superior in most ways to the same type of experience in the United States and there are at least six reasons for my belief and they have nothing to do with the quality of the food, which is almost universally great.
1) The noise level in a French restaurant rarely, if ever, leaves your head throbbing. Typically the tables in a French restaurant are very close together, even uncomfortably close by U.S. standards, but the conversation at the adjourning table hardly ever leaves that table. For some time the New York Times has been noting in its restaurant reviews the “noise level” of New York establishments. I cringe when I read one that says “obnoxious” or “deafening.” Admittedly, I’m getting older and don’t tolerate all that background noise as well as I once did, but frankly it’s never a problem in a French restaurant. Among other things, in France you’ll seldom hear the obligatory background music soundtrack that is a feature of many U.S. restaurants. As a consequence the noise level is restrained, civilized and accommodating of a conversation with your meal. No shouting is necessary. I like that.
2) I also like the fact that a French waiter or waitress doesn’t consider a total stranger a long lost friend of the family. You’ll never hear in Paris – “Hi, I’m Phillippe and I’ll be your waiter…” Rather you’re treated as a customer. The approach is friendly, accommodating, professional, but with no hint of phoney intimacy. The table top chit-chat with a waiter, unless you want to engage, is limited to offering a menu, taking a drink and food order and then leaving you alone. I flinch at the U.S. restaurant tradition that now seems to demand that the waitress immediately ask “how is your dinner?” I frequently have to swallow my first bite before I can answer. I increasingly find myself wanting to say: “Give me a couple of minutes to taste everything and I’ll let you know.” The French wait staff will return and ask if everything is to your liking, but they’ll do so only after you’ve had a decent interval to sample and consider. They then disappear and let you eat and talk. I like that.
3) Wine is a big part of a nice dinner for many people these days in the United States and also in France. Two things the French do with wine is superior in my considered opinion to the American approach. I have watched uncomfortably many, many times in a nice U.S. establishment as a waitress removes the foil from a wine bottle and then attempts to cork screw open the bottle while holding the darn thing suspended in mid air. I want to say: “Sit the bottle down on the table and remove the cork like you would at home.” When did it become illegal to sit a wine bottle on the table and use the natural leverage that provides to extract the cork? It’s not illegal in France. A French waiter will also leave you to pour the wine for your table after the first glass. I like that. In the U.S. too many waiters seem to hover and refill your glass after every sip. Maybe the theory is to get you to race through the bottle and order another, but after observing the French method I’m going to start asserting myself and telling U.S. waiters – nicely – to let me pour. That way I control the pace and the waiter can have more time to go ask someone else if “everything is fine” with their meal.
4) It’s my observation that most men eat a meal more quickly than women. In a U.S. restaurant this frequently has the waiter saying to the men, “still working on that?” Actually, no I’m not, but keep your mitts off the plate. It would be more polite, not to mention that it might slow down the generally over-fast pace of male eating, if all the plates stayed on the table until the last – and slowest – eater is finished. That’s the way they do it in France and I like it.
5) In a French restaurant you always – always – need to ask for the bill. The waiter will simply not produce the accounting of financial damages until you are ready to pay. This, too, is a good practice. I choose to believe that the gesture of asking for the bill – L’addition s’il vous plait? – is an acknowledgement by the waiter and the restaurant that you can have all day and half the night if you want to enjoy the meal experience. You’ll be asked whether you want a dessert or a coffee, but even if the answer is “no” you’ll still be in charge of exactly when you want to leave the French restaurant. During a long lunch at another great Paris bistrot we enjoyed watching two elderly gents, good friends obviously, talk and laugh and eat and drink their way through a very long lunch. The waiter never lurked nearby, but was always there when something was needed. The two old guys, slapping each other on the back, eventually left, but not before pausing near the door to bid adieu to their waiter and the guy in the dark suit who is a fixture in many French restaurants. I don’t know what these dark suit fellows really do, but they certainly smile a great deal and generally make you feel welcome and well taken care of. The old guys had a grand time at lunch and they left when they were ready. No one even subtly suggested it was time for them to head for the door. It’s even considered rude to present the bill before you ask for the bill.
6) Finally, there is the tipping, or lack thereof. Generally speaking there is no tipping in France. The cost of service is built into the bill. There is no need for the mental math required in a U.S. restaurant to calculate 15 or 20 percent of the total check and then add it on as a tip. Waiters are paid a salary in France, unlike many in the U.S. who depend on a share of tips to contribute to their total compensation. If you receive particularly good service a modest tip won’t be rejected, but it’s not expected. The expectation is that you’ll get attentive, professional service – and I almost unfailing did – and that the service goes with the meal. Another reason to like the French system.
French politics are messy and about as dysfunctional as our own. The country has deep and profound issues relating to immigration and minorities. Antisemitism remains an ugly feature of the far right in French politics. I doubt whether French worker productivity would compare well with ours. France has it’s problems, as we do. But when it comes to the restaurant experience the French have that down cold.
Hold on there – I’ll pour the wine and, no, you can’t have my plate just yet.