Our guide to eating out in Provence will help you negotiate the menu, order, pay and tip – even if you speak no French at all.
Lunch and dinner (less so breakfast) are taken seriously in France – rarely will you see the French snacking in between meals or eating on the go. Lunch is often a three-course affair with a glass of wine and usually a cooked main course. Time will be taken over dinner – in the more expensive restaurants you may end up with five courses.
Types of restaurant in France
Restaurant: Here you’ll get a complete meal of 3 to 5 courses and a choice of ordering a la carte or from a fixed price menu. The quality and price range of restaurants will vary widely. We say look for where the locals are eating or do your research well. (See our restaurant recommendations – we only mention those we have eaten in ourselves – and we are fussy!)
Brasserie: A more relaxed affair, brasseries tend to have similar menus with dishes such as steak frites (steak and fries), salads, croque monsieur (cheese and ham on toast). Again, the quality and price range of brasseries does vary. Menus will usually be on display outside and they are open all day.
Bistro: A small, family-run restaurant. We recommend looking for one with a limited menu – a sign of fresh and local produce.
Café: Basically an establishment that serves all kinds of drinks, from coffee to aperitifs. They may serve some basic food – sandwiches, desserts, ice cream – and are generally open all day.
Bar: You’ll find coffee here in the mornings and drinks the rest of the day. They will also sometimes offer some prepared foods and cigarettes.
See our article on ordering coffee for getting it how you want!
Booking a restaurant in France
In high season we recommend you book in advance for an evening table, especially outside of the big cities. Lunch is usually served from 12-2pm – do watch out as some restaurants stick rigidly to 2pm last orders. Though restaurants open for dinner at 7, they won’t usually get busy with locals until 8pm.
Most restaurants offer outdoor seating in summer for lunch and dinner. Eating outside is part of the charm of Provence – it’s rare to be inside in the summer months.
Except for the fanciest eateries on the Cote d’Azur, there isn’t really a dress code any more. At lunchtime you will be eating with the local working crowd and beachwear isn’t really appropriate other than on the beach itself. In the evening locals tend to dress up a little.
With the dry climate and cooler evenings, air conditioning is usually not found in restaurants – a shawl or sweater may be all you need to take you from day to night.
Even if you speak no French at all, do say bonjour on arrival, before anything else – it will make all the difference. Usually restaurant staff will speak some English but any French you use will be appreciated.
Note: Just saying merci in French can be taken to mean ‘no thank you’ – so if your waiter offers more wine and you say merci he may not fill your glass!
If you want to be on the ball with your French, expect the first thing your waiter asks you is whether you would like water or an aperitif (see below).
Tipping in Provence
In general tips are not as high as in the UK or US – 10% is a generous tip here and appropriate for a good restaurant. Locals will generally leave small change. If you are all out of change, don’t panic – though appreciated, a tip is not assumed.
Unless you are in a very busy cafe your waiter won’t bring you the bill until you ask for it. This is a bit of French worth trying, to ask for the bill: l’addition s’il vous plait. Of course the international hand gestures for the bill also work, whether you mime signing a cheque or tapping on a keypad.
Visa and Mastercard are much more widely accepted than American Express and don’t worry about splitting the bill. Your waiter will bring the card machine to the table and will handle the most complicated bill division with aplomb.
Don’t expect frequent visits to your table to see how things are – French service tends to be more discreet – don’t take this as rudeness! At the end of the course you may be asked ‘c’a été?’ – how was it? – a straightforward ‘tres bon’ will suffice!
Menu or a la carte?
Just about every restaurant offers a set menu – menu du jour or formule at lunch time. This is a package of two or three dishes and a coffee. For example you may choose a starter and main dish, main dish and dessert, or all three courses. Coffee, bread and tap water are usually included in the menu du jour. A set lunch menu will average between 15€ to 30€.
When the waiter comes to take your order, you will first be asked if you have chosen to eat the menu du jour or a la carte. Note that menu du jour is often shortened to menu and confusingly the French for a menu is la carte.
A starter is an entrée, a main course is a plat principal and helpfully dessert is dessert.
The plat du jour is the dish of the day – and can be part of the menu du jour or la carte.
In more expensive restaurants you may be served an amuse-bouche – a very light appetizer that literally translates to ‘mouth amuser’ – this will come automatically before your starter is served. Cheese will be offered before dessert.
Wine & water
One of the first things your waiter will ask is if you’d like water. If you are happy with tap water (it’s safe to drink and tastes good) ask for une carafe d’eau (pronounced oon karaf doh). If you don’t specify you will most likely be sold bottled water – either platte (flat) ou gazeuse (fizzy).
Wine is sold by the glass (un verre de vin), by the demi (half) bottle or carafe (375ml), or the normal bottle (750ml). If you’re happy with house wine just ask for the colour – rouge, rosé or blanc.
Aperitif & digestif
Before you order your waiter may ask if you’d like an aperitif. This is usually a light alcoholic drink but it’s also the time to ask for a soft drink, soda or a beer.
A popular aperitif in Provence is a kir (champagne or white wine mixed with cassis – a blackcurrant liqueur) but if you really want to act local order a pastis. This spirit gets its flavour from star anise and liquorice root and is very popular across Provence. It’s served with a jug of water which you pour in to dilute, and the pastis changes from clear to cloudy. Some of the big pastis names are Pernod, Paul Ricard and Henri Bardouin.
And don’t worry – pastis is not the same as absinthe, which though also flavoured with anise has a higher percentage of alcohol and used to drive artists mad.
At the end of your meal you may be offered a digestif – said to aid the digestion. Common digestifs are cognac, armagnac, limoncello , eau de vie, or sweet wines.
If that all seems a bit much, ask for a tisane (pronounced ‘teezan’) – a herbal tea. You may get a choice of mint, verbena, thyme or rosemary, or the restaurant may make their own mix.
Ordering meat in France
If you are ordering red meat, you’ll be asked how you want it cooked:
Bleu Barely cooked, may still respond to its name
Saignant Very rare
A point Rare to medium rare
Bien cuit Medium rare to medium
Tres bien cuit Medium to well cooked
*A ‘tartare’ is uncooked meat – chopped and mixed with onions, egg and herbs. A ‘carpaccio’ is also uncooked – but cut extremely thinly. Both are also ways of serving fish.
Depending on how adventurous you are you may want to watch out for these ingredients:
Foie (liver), escargots (snails), rognon (kidney), cerveau (brain), tripes (tripe), ris de veau (sweetbread), andouillette (sausage made with pig intestines), tete de veau (calf’s head), oursin (sea urchin)
Coffee and Dessert
See our article on cafes to be sure to get the coffee you want – remember un cafe is an espresso!
A cafe gourmand is a good thing if you can’t decide which dessert you want – a coffee served with a selection of mini desserts.
Other typical desserts that may not have made it on to international menus are île flottante (meringue and custard), café liégeois (coffee, ice cream and cream), clafoutis (flan-like cake), financier (sponge).
Eating breakfast out in Provence is a simple affair – usually a coffee and a croissant. Some cafes and brasseries offer a breakfast menu that includes juice, coffee and a pastry.
If a cafe doesn’t serve pastries they will usually be happy for you to buy from the local boulangerie and eat at their table if you order a coffee.
A traditional alternative to the pain au chocolat and croissant is the tartine – a slice of thin baguette served with butter and jam – simple but delicious! The morning is when the French usually drink coffee with milk or hot chocolate.
And for your next trip to Provence, have a a browse of our hand-picked Provence vacation rentals.