Refined cuisine might be a French trademark, but anyone thinking that sophisticated meals belong to every Frenchman's daily routine will be mistaken. In fact, French cooking is clearly divided into two separate styles: the classical, so-called haute cuisine of elaborate dishes and the ordinary, simpler cuisine of regional dishes prepared on the basis of fresh seasonal produce. Every region in France has its favourite ingredients that are used in most recipes. For instance, butter, cream and apples are widely used in northwestern France. Southwestern France is the home of foie gras. The south of the country exhibits a visible Mediterranean influence, with an abundance of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs. Inhabitants of the north display a preference for pork and potatoes, while sauerkraut, sausage, lard and other elements of German cuisine form the basis of the culinary tradition in eastern France.
What all of the French share, however, is their love for cheese and wine, invariably omnipresent on restaurant menus all over the country. As France produces nearly 400 varieties of cheese, its inhabitants proudly emphasize the fact that one can taste a different type of cheese every day of the year.
The essence of feasting in a truly French style is moderation. The French consume cream, white bread, chocolate and other foods that are considered unhealthy, and they drink wine on an almost daily basis; however, all of this in reasonable quantities. In France, food is taken seriously and considered an important aspect of life. An entire meal can pass with the conversation focused on the details of preparing a certain dish, and places where the best-quality ingredients can be purchased. The French don't eat just to fill up their stomachs; meals are carefully composed, prepared, matched with the right wine, served and enjoyed as an experience.
Typical French eateries range from star-rated Michelin restaurants to classic brasseries and bistros, offering standard menus of moderately priced cuisine. It's a good idea to ask around and select a venue popular among the locals; this usually results in a memorable culinary experience. Every region boasts its own specialised type of eatery, such as Lyon’s bouchons lyonnais and Brittany's crêperies. In order to gain a full cultural picture of an area, it's necessary to visit such an establishment for a real meal. Ethnic food is very popular all over the country, with Greek, Italian, French and Indian restaurants present in virtually every town.
In French restaurants, you can order from prix fixe (fixed-price menus) or à la carte. A fixed-price menu typically includes an entrée or hors d'œuvre (appetizer), plat (main course), and to conclude, dessert (dessert) or fromage (cheese). At the end of the meal, coffee is usually served. Fixed-price menus usually don't include beverages, so remember to order them separately. You might want to ask for a carafe d'eau (a jug of tap water); it's free and safe to drink.
Taxes (20%) and service (15%) are always included in the bill. Anything you choose to add to the bill will be an additional tip. It's a custom among French people to leave a coin or two if you’re exceptionally satisfied with the service. Lunch à la carte with wine and coffee for two in a renowned restaurant usually costs 70-100 Euro, and in a local bistro the total bill shouldn't exceed 50 Euro. A fixed-price menu for two typically amounts to 30-40 Euro. The cheapest option for a dinner out could be a Chinese restaurant, where main courses are priced at around 6 Euro.
Contrary to what is widely believed, restaurant prices outside of the major cities aren't always lower. The only visible difference is that the menu usually includes a fourth course, most commonly cheese. Remember to carefully check the opening times of the restaurant that you want to visit, as most venues admit patrons during a strictly designated time of day. Lunch is served until 1:30 pm and dinner until 9:30 pm. It's difficult to find an eatery with longer service hours outside of the centre of even the larger cities. Finding an open restaurant on Sunday can be equally challenging.
Bear in mind that a large number of restaurants, especially those situated outside of the major tourist areas, require prior booking. Don't be surprised if you're turned away without one, even if you see that there are free tables at the restaurant of your choice. It's a good idea to check with venues in advance in order to make a reservation and avoid disappointment.