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5 ideas to steal from Paris restaurants … and 3 things the French can learn from us

Foodies and travelers complain that eating in Paris has gone downhill. Parisians are becoming like Americans, they grumble, shopping in homogeneous supermarkets, buying processed, packaged food and grabbing a Starbucks latte or McDonald’s burger on the run instead of slowly savoring a meal.

So my excitement was tempered a bit when I traveled to Paris recently, intent on experiencing an authentic bistro dinner, a coffee and croissant at an outdoor café and a shopping trip through a classic Parisian food market. In one week, I accumulated dozens of delightful taste memories. I also observed some Parisian best practices that are worth sharing and perhaps adapting to the American restaurant scene.

1. Separate seating areas for families with kids

I’m all for exposing children to restaurants at an early age. I did it with my own sons, although I never subjected fine-dining customers to their restlessness. And neither should anyone else. At the Paris bistro Miroir, management keeps everyone happy by relegating families with children to a separate semi-private area, away from the couples and groups enjoying dinner in the front room. It’s a win-win—parents don’t hesitate to patronize the restaurant and guests without kids can enjoy an uninterrupted dinner.

2. Reasonable portion sizes

Why don’t French women get fat? The answer is obvious when you go into a Paris restaurant in any price range: the plates aren’t overloaded with food. Health reasons aside, American operators can cut food cost and waste with smaller portions. And there seems to be more acceptance among today’s consumers that cutting back on portions doesn’t cut back on value.

3. Life-work balance

By law, restaurant employees in Paris are limited to a 35-hour workweek. Daniel Rose, the American-born chef-owner of upscale Spring Restaurant, opens only five days a week to accommodate this restriction. “Otherwise I would have to hire a second staff,” he says. He does enough business in those days, he adds, and both he and his staff have fuller personal lives.

4. Wine at the food court

In the shopping complex adjacent to the Louvre, there is a busy international food court offering everything from Thai to Italian to McDonald’s. At most of the quick-service eateries, it was possible to purchase wine with the meal, making a hectic food court experience a lot more enjoyable. Plus, it raises check averages for the operators. Grab-and-go wine is starting to show up at U.S. airport kiosks—why not mall food courts?

5. Taking time with the check

In the Paris restaurants I visited—from a bare bones falafel joint to the chef’s tasting at Spring—never once was the bill plopped down on the table until requested. Too often, waiters in American restaurants rush customers through service in order to turn tables faster, bringing the check before the last bite of dessert is eaten.

But Parisian operators don’t do everything right. They might want to pick up these pointers from their American counterparts:

1. Take a little less time with the check

While it’s pleasant to linger over a nice meal, it’s not pleasant to be ignored when you’re ready to leave. It’s sometimes tough to get the attention of Parisian waiters once service is over. There must be a happy medium between rushing guests out the door and making guests antsy.

2. Refusal to split the bill

There seems to be a universal policy against using two credit cards to split the check. I can understand the hassle when customers ask to use three or four credit cards for a single dinner, but two should be logistically possible.

3. Free tap water and more ice

Water and ice must be precious commodities in Paris. I know it’s the European custom to pay for bottled water at restaurants, but that dates back to the days when tap water was not the safest to drink. Not so any longer. And bars are really stingy with the ice, adding just a couple of tiny cubes to a cocktail when you order it on the rocks. I’ll take American water and ice service any day.

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