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?

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