On Service in Paris

25 01 2010

Warning: this might get a little rant-y.

A lot of people, particularly Americans, like to complain about the service in restaurants in France.  The servers ignore them, requests for substitutions are met with visible irritation, it takes forever to get the bill, etc.  While it’s true that getting a waiter’s attention can feel like it needs to devolve into a contact sport, generally these complaints come down to cultural differences.  Just because the waitress doesn’t flirt with you or try to be your best friend or sign the check with a smiley face doesn’t mean she doesn’t care.  Ditto for the infinite refills on water – do you really need a top-up every time you take a sip?  No.  I think in France they’d rather let you enjoy your meal in peace than subject you to constant interruption under the guise of friendliness and service.

It’s actually very simple to get what you need in a Parisian restaurant.  All you have to do is ask.  Need a menu item explained?  Ask.  Want more water?  Ask.  Ready for the bill?  Ask.  Just do it politely, and they will be happy to help.  (The trick with the bill is to ask for it when they clear your plates and offer coffee.  If you don’t, you will be sitting there for 45 minutes with empty coffee service and water glasses in front of you.)

All this is not to say that bad service doesn’t exist in France.  I’ve had plenty of experiences where the service was, at some point, off-putting enough that I seriously consider not returning, despite having eaten well.  Want some examples?  I know you do.  Here goes.

Last winter I arranged a dinner for six at Auberge Pyrénées-Cevennes.  Known for its hearty fare and warm bistro welcome, I thought it would be a great place to take a couple of visiting friends and a local friend who was leaving soon.  On this particular visit, that “warm” verged more on the side of pushy when the waitress refused to accept that I didn’t want to order a starter (no, not even the 8 euro salad of green beans).  And the much-lauded cassoulet was disappointingly oversalted (that’s really more of a kitchen problem, but seems to be in keeping with the assertive attitude). 

More recently, I ate at Liza, a trendy modern Lebanese restaurant in the 2nd.  We arrived at 8pm, the time of our reservation, and found the place completely empty.  When somebody finally came out to greet us, he claimed that he had cancelled our reservation because of a misunderstanding on the phone.  There was obviously plenty of room for us, so he sat us near the bar and offered apéritifs.  We made our selections (all of this is happening in French), and then he proceeds to tell us that he doesn’t speak English, but he can bring us English menus.  We say we don’t need them, French is fine, and he brings us menus.  In English.  It went on like this, the waiter treating us with more and more condescension as the evening wore on.  There were a couple of very good dishes, but nothing that left me with an urge to return.

Oh, I’ve got more… you with me?

Every year for my birthday, instead of throwing a party, I like to go out to a nice dinner with a group of friends.  Last year, I managed to finagle a reservation at Le Baratin, a wine bar in Belleville.  There were six of us, and when I made the reservation I was told that we would have to be cleared out by 10pm to make room for another party who had reserved first.  Fair enough.  Three of us arrived right on time and were seated immediately.  We were not offered wine or even water while we waited for the rest of our party.  Strange, I thought, considering it would be in their best interest to get us moving along as soon as possible.  When we were finally graced with the waiter’s presence, I asked to see the wine list.  He explained that it was on a chalkboard behind the bar and proceeded to give me the third degree about what kind of wine I like.  I like the kind I’m not pressured into choosing, thanks.  Again, the food was quite good, but the service left a bad taste in my mouth. 

For this year’s birthday dinner, which is coming up next month, I wanted to go to Le Chateaubriand.  I had an absolutely fantastic meal there in December, and thought that its lively atmosphere would be perfect for a celebration.  I anticipated a longer guest list, so I wanted to get my reservation well in advance.  When I called, I was told that seating 10 people is impossible, as it is just a small restaurant.  While there may be many small restaurants in Paris of which that statement is true, Le Chateaubriand is not one of them.  (I can’t help but wonder if it was my accent…)  However, my next choice, a tiny wine bar called Chapeau Melon agreed to seat us, with the only caveat being that I call and let them know if the number changes.  No problem.  Hopefully this will end up being a place I can count on for excellent service as well as food, like L’Ambassade d’Auvergne or Les Fernandises, two places where I have dined repeatedly and always had a wonderful time.

My point (I do have one) is that in a city like Paris there is no reason to put up with bad service.  Why should I when there are so many other, equally good or even better restaurants to choose from? 

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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11 responses

25 01 2010
kseverny

very true.
you have the right idea

26 01 2010
emiglia

Let me know how you like Chapeau Melon… I’ve been twice and I absolutely adore it. I think it might be in my top five restaurants in Paris.

26 01 2010
Jessica

You shouldn’t have to put up with bad service no matter the city and no matter how popular the restaurant! I hope you have a great experience on your birthday!

26 01 2010
Loulou

Happy early birthday and I hope the evening is a great one!

Your “rant” is well deserved. And well intentioned. One shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of attitude! There are too many other places who would appreciate your business.

26 01 2010
purpleceline

Nothing pisses me off more than being brought menus in English, after speaking to the host & waiter in (accented but correct) French. Or when you speak in French and they respond in constipated English. Ugh.

Happy almost birthday!

27 01 2010
Michel

I really enjoy your posts! I hope you have a very happy birthday.

27 01 2010
croquecamille

Thank you so much, everyone, for your support. I admit that as soon as I hit publish I was worried that people would think I was whining or being petty, so I really appreciate all of the positive comments. And thanks for the early birthday wishes, too!

emiglia – I’m very glad to hear that. So far, they’re doing well on the service front, agreeing to seat such a large group. I’m really looking forward to the dinner.

Loulou – Exactly. When I was turned down by the Chateaubriand, I said to myself, “Fine. Me and my ten friends will spend our money elsewhere.” I will be back there, though. When I managed to get a reservation before, the service was good and the food was amazing. The place’s main problem is hipster overload. (We wouldn’t want a table full of anglais cramping our style, now, would we?)

purpleceline – Me, too. It’s one (or two) of my biggest pet peeves. So when do you arrive? ;)

27 01 2010
hungry dog

I guess poor or snobby service can exist anywhere! I enjoyed reading about your encounters though, and although they were not ideal, they really made me want to go to France! one day soon, I hope. In the meantime, happy early birthday!!

28 01 2010
croquecamille

hungry dog – To be fair, these are pretty much ALL of the bad-service incidents I can remember. Not bad for two years!

4 02 2010
ezingano

Camille,

I visited Paris in 2006 (we actually managed to rent a small apartment on the 11th, close to Boulevard Voltaire, for our 21 days – as good an experience as we could get, I guess).

Being a tourist and speaking just a bit of French (I use to say “Je parle le Tarzanais. C’est le Français parlé à façon de Tarzan…”), but enough to manage, I was a bit worried about the treatment I would get, in general.

What I noticed was that people tended to be very helpful and very polite, because I was trying to speak the language and I was using all the right phrases on politeness that I could remember (we had a bunch of French teachers – I mean, actually born in France – that were very persistent on teaching us all the right formalities).

Sometimes, they would switch to English as soon as they could (most of the times, I was able to carry on in French). But sometimes, while I was getting a good treatment, I could spot other tourists being badly treated at the same time. I’m sorry to say that a few times they seemed to have some bias against Americans (and was given a free pass on this because I’m Brazilian).

My experience is not at all a rule of thumb, but just that: mine. I had only one issue in a restaurant and that was not in Paris, but in Blois (otherwise a lovelly village). The waiter was grumpy, in a hurry, furious that he had to teach us what each plate was and what was the proper pronounciation for ratatouille (that was before the movie). He managed to piss us all off and we did not tip at the end.

What I also found very funny is that I seemed to be a magnet for English and American tourists. They would stop me and ask for help or directions, in English. And I would gladly help them (whenever I could) and think “Oh, boy, try that with a Parisian and see what happens”.

Anyway, enough sharing. You have a lovely blog and I’m always fond of my time in Paris.

Cheers!
Everson

5 02 2010
croquecamille

Everson – I’m glad to hear your experiences are mostly good. Mine are, too, but it surprises and irks me when the service is bad, because competition in this town is stiff. Thanks for stopping by!




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