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.