Every first-time traveler to France has a moment of realization when sitting down for a meal that the standards of etiquette followed at home do not always apply abroad. The rules are different, and to thrive in the new country, visitors must adapt doing things the ways the locals do.
Attending a Dinner Party
When invited for dinner, bring a gift for the hostess. Good ideas include flowers, a good bottle of wine, or a pre-agreed dessert or cheese dish or something that was purchased in the local market.
However, if the invite is for apéros, a pre-dinner drink with finger food that can last can span anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, no gift is necessary. A French dinner often consists of a salad with vinaigrette for the starter, main course, cheese course, dessert, and coffee. Bread, wine, and mineral water are offered throughout the meal.
After being formally seated at the dinner table, wait until the lady of the house places her napkin in her lap, and then you and the other guests should follow suit. If a request is made to “please pass the salt,” only pass the requested spice. While in the U.S., the salt and pepper are sometimes “married,” meaning they always stay together on the table, that is not the case in France.
Wait for the host to lead the way, whether an aperitif or dinner course. Once everyone has been served a drink, the host will generally make a short toast after which the glass-clinking begins.
It is polite to make eye contact as you say, “Santé.” And don’t forget, if you are four or more, you shouldn’t cross over while clinking which is said to bring bad luck. Rather, clink above or below the other people doing the clinking.
The Rules of Bread
At a dinner party, bread is placed directly on the tablecloth, unless it is a formal meal in which bread plates are used.
Bread should be torn into smaller pieces before eating as it is considered very impolite to take a bite directly from a piece of bread. Don’t worry about the crumbs, though; if you’re having a croissant at breakfast in a cafe, you’ll probably be served that on a plate.
After each course, you should wipe your plate with a piece of bread. However, this should be done gently as a means of cleaning the plate for the next course, not slopping up the leftover sauce. It is more polite to use a piece of bread on your fork, rather than in your hand. In a more formal setting, each course is served on a new plate, so cleaning the plate is not necessary.
French Fries aka Pommes Frites
While fast food has made its mark in France, eating foods with your fingers is still strictly limited when you are at the dinner table. If in doubt, follow the lead of your host.