"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Staggered" dining in Paris, Oh mon dieu!, c'est pas possible!

Will that be for a 7pm or 10 pm seating?
A new phenomena is happening that happens throughout America and other parts of the world today, no not an invasion of “polyester” again, but “staggered” dining or what people in the restaurant business call “turning the tables.”  This basically means that restaurants try to increase their profit margins by having as many people in and out of their doors during meal times. 

I can only speak to my observations of what is happening in Paris as opposed to France.  In Paris, typically if you make reservations for dinner, you have that table for the whole evening. In fact, we have gone to restaurants at 7:00 pm wherein the restaurant is literally empty, but we were told that they’re booked? Since it was summer and their patrons reservations start at 9 or 10 pm.  we told the maitre’d that we promised we’d be out before 9 pm for a quick bite, but we were told no.  This is not uncommon since the French like to linger over a meal, and stay at a restaurant dinner table for hours on end, even up to the restaurant staying open well after 1 a.m. until their patrons leave.

Before I speak of the “staggered dining”, let me describe a little bit about what happens in a typical French restaurant. Typically, at French restaurants everything runs at a slower pace.  In the U.S. this is sometimes viewed as poor customer service. On the contrary, why should you be rushed at one of the most enjoyable human functions, eating.  I never understood rushing.  There’s a saying, “slow down, smell the roses”, I say slow down and savor your food.”  Eating should be an event that is enjoyed, like watching a movie without fast-forward.

The father of French nouvelle cuisine!
Like any big city, Paris is hectic, crowded and just plain busy. So, when it comes to meal times, it gives Parisians time to slow down and enjoy one of the finer things in life.   First you’re given a menu to peruse. Then the wait person will come back and ask if you want an apéro.  You're given time to finish your apéro and also continue perusing the menu and discussing with your guests or the wait person the different dishes on the menu, how it’s made, wines to have etc., this is to help you make the right decision.  These discussions in itself are a great exchange of ideas and discovery.

Next steps:

Amuse-bouche At some restaurants they will give you a little amuse bouche, meaning to say “amuse the mouth”. It’s typically a very petit portion (tablespoon size) of something tasty e.g., a stuffed mushroom, foie gras.

Entrée:  Although an entrée is the main course in the U.S. in France it’s the first course (e.g., appetizer, soups etc.)

Plat:  A plat is your main course and it can be meat, poultry or fish. And, in some cases it can be a pasta dish.

The following are optional, although oftentimes for a pre-fix dinner, desserts are usually included.
  • Salad course:  Salads are usually served after the main course to help cleanse the palate and aid in digestion.
  • Cheese course:  This is one of my favorite courses because France has some of the best cheeses in the world. Typically it’s served with bread, but at times can be served with a small salad as well.
  • Dessert:  No explanation needed. French pastries, gateaux, ice creams etc., are wonderful.
  • Coffee:  is never, ever served with your dessert, but after dessert.
  • Digestif:  cognac or brandy of some sort. 
Since you reserved that table for the whole evening, you can literally sit at that table until they close, in other words it’s yours, you rented it. And, it is considered rude to retrieve plates before every one is finished, or get the check until you ask for it.

Now at most ethnic restaurants, especially in the 13eme (Chinatown) or off of LaChapelle Metro (Little India), these ethnic restaurants have been turning their tables for years, since they’re not known as “haute cuisine” or fine dining.   Because these restaurants don’t serve “course, after course, after course” meal time is usually faster when compared to the French cuisine.  And, don't get me wrong, staggered dining has and does exist in bistros and brassieres in Paris, but mostly in tourist areas such as the "Latin Quarter" where the food is just mediocre at best, but also not considered fine dining by any means! Now I want to clarify, when I say “fine dining” I don’t mean it has to be expensive, in fact, you can go to very fine dining establishments and pay “average prices” e.g., 30-45€ per person for a pre-fix meal. I'm referring more to the "dining experience."

My first experience with the staggered dining was actually in the Latin Quarter when we first arrived in Paris.  No-one spoke French in this French-style restaurant, I knew then we should have turned around, but we were "newbies".  We got our table, and they had a pre-fix menu, which we all decided to try.  The service was very, very "American" asking you how's your food? joking with us, etc., etc., they were definitely "working it" for their tip, even though tips are included in the meal price.  If I didn't know any better, I felt as though we were still in the U.S.  We ate our meal, yes all 3-courses in 1-hour.

In some restaurants in the 13eme, especially Asian style restaurants they do not accept reservations, you just come in and they give you the next available table, and once you’re finished they will give your table to who’s ever next in line.  You sort of expect this at some ethnic restaurants and tourist areas, but not in French restaurants, e.g., in residential areas catering to the locals as in the 15eme or 16eme.

With the onset of the recession and globalization, French restaurants are starting to realize that their profit margins could increase if they have staggered dining. I find it amazing, cause some of my French friends don’t question this, almost as to say, “every one has a right to make a euro”. However, for the Foodies (French and ex-pats alike) in Paris it’s almost scandalous!  Many years ago, we went to an upscale restaurant in San Francisco. We had an early reservations, 7:00 pm.  At 9:30 pm, the maitre’d came to us and said, I have a party waiting for your table, “can I bribe you to be my guest at the bar?” we had already finished our meal, he was very polite about it, plus I can be bought, so I said sure.  I felt mischievous, so when we sat at the bar, I ordered the most expensive cognac I could find. I believe it was $45 for a small shot, and I don’t even like cognac, go figure? But I felt since they disrupted my experience I’d make them pay for it, porquoi pas (why not)! I’m wondering if this will become standard at the more upscale restaurants in Paris? It almost seems like it’s defeating it’s purpose of making a profit. Who knows they may have a cap on what you can order at the bar or give you a small choice of inexpensive drinks.
"What time is your reservation?"
Recently, we went to a Greek restaurant in the 5eme (Les Délices d'Aphrodite). We had 3-courses and we knew upfront they had 2-seatings (7pm, and 10 pm). Because we knew that there were 2-seatings, we knew what to expect. So, when dishes were cleared before every one finished or the bill came before we asked, it seemed OK.

Although, staggered dining is starting to slowly be introduced to Paris, I have mixed feelings about this. I realize that if some restaurants do not do this, they will cease to exists and we’ll wind up with just a bunch of mediocre tourist style restaurants where their goal is to make a quick euro. Also, will turning tables change the quality of their food?  On the other hand, I love long evenings of savoring good food, good wine, and enjoying the company of great friends.  I hope this doesn’t become standard practice throughout Paris. I can’t stop them from doing this, but give us a choice! In other words, let me have a choice whether I want to go to a “staggered” restaurant or to a traditional “French style restaurant.”

Anyway, my thoughts about turning tables in Paris.


  1. Oh cool! I was on your site because I was responding to the email you sent through my blog, I clicked on something else on your blog, and then back to the homepage, et voilà! A new post appeared! It's a great one, too. It explains so very much about a dining experience in Paris and how that experience is evolving.

    I'm with you: I have become accustomed to slowing down and lingering in restaurants, and now that I have, I am loathe to think of it being different. I totally understand a business wanting to become more profitable, but I also hope that there will be some choice involved in the future re: staggering. Kind of like there used to be with smoking versus non-smoking sections in restaurants, maybe? A "lingering" section and a "non-lingering" section, perhaps? :)

    I think that there will be plenty of French that will keep non-staggered restos in demand. I can't imagine the average dining Parisian wanting that much change in a full dining experience.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. I enjoyed reading them!

  2. I'm with you! One of my favorite things about dining out here is that we are free to take our time and enjoy our meal, our companions, and our evening. It would be awfully disappointing to feel like I couldn't do that.

  3. A Parisian friend recently asked me, why do Americans put so much emphasis on the home (e.g., remodeling), response: because we entertain in the home. Even when we go to a restaurant in the US we can't linger as we do in France; henc, we typically ask if they want to "come-over" for a night-cap.