There is more to French Table Etiquette than “Bon appétit”: did you know for example that you needed to wait for your host to start eating AND drinking? The French keep both hands on the table and cheese is only passed once…
Although French table etiquette is continental, there are many habits that are quite unique to the French. Feel prepared next time you are invited to a French home or go to a restaurant in France.
I also encourage you to make flashcards to memorize all the French table etiquette related vocabulary and expressions – they will come in handy.
Un/une Hôte = French for Both Host and Guest
Let’s start by explaining something quite tricky: the word “un / une hôte” in French refers to both the hosts and the guests… We usually say “la maîtresse de maison” for the hostess, “le maître de maison” for the host, and “les invités” (sometimes “les convives” but it’s quite old fashioned) for the guests.
For more on this subject, I suggest you read my article on how to be a polite home guest in France.
Proper French Etiquette For Sitting at and Leaving the table
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Often, the hostess will have decided on a particular order to sit the guests. There might be nametags, but usually she will show you your seat. The guests of honor should be seated to the right of the hosts, and after it always goes man, woman, man, woman whenever possible.
In France, when sitting by themselves, a couple always sits one in front of the other, not next to each other.
Men will wait for the hostess sit first – if you are a man you could pull the chair of the woman next to you, it’s still very much done in France. And when a woman leaves the table and come back, some men still stand up – that is quite old fashioned, a bit much in everyday life.
Before starting to eat, in a not too formal setting, the hostess will say “bon appétit” (enjoy your meal) and everybody will answer the same. Among younger people, a shorter version “bon ap’” is pretty common.
You should not leave the table during a meal, which might very well last several hours. Plan on using the restroom before (Here is my article on how to ask where is the restroom in French).
If a child wants to leave the table early – common in France since the meals can be so long – he/she should ask the hostess “est-ce que je peux sortir de table s’il vous plaît” (may I be excused please).
How To Politely Accept or Refuse Food in French
At home, soups, salads, cheese and fruits should be offered only once. All the rest twice.
Accepting a second serving of the main course will please your hosts, but don’t forget there is still salad, cheese and desert coming, so save some room!
- To accept a second serving, say something like “volontiers, c’est délicieux” (with pleasure, it’s delicious).
- To refuse “non merci, c’est délicieux mais je n’ai pas très faim” (no thanks, it’s delicious but I am not very hungry).
What Should You do if You Don’t Like Some French Food?
Eat what you like, try the rest (unless you are allergic of course), and leave whatever you don’t feel like eating neatly put together on one side.
Do not push the food apart and search and pick a couple of bites: this is considered very impolite in France. You eat it, or you don’t.
And if you don’t eat it, don’t make a big fuss about it: no-one should comment as not to embarrass you.. If they do, say “c’était délicieux mais je n’ai pas très faim”. (it was delicious but I am not very hungry).
General French Good Manners
You should keep your hands on the table, on each side of the plate, in a relaxed manner. Palms may be down, or your hand can be on the side, but both hands should be on the table, never under the table. No elbow either, although elbows are OK in a more relaxed setting as far as you are still sitting somewhat straight.
When holding your knife and fork (le couteau et la fourchette), your index finger should be extended on the handle: don’t hold your knife in a fist like position. There is actually much to say about how to place your hands and silverware at a French table that I wrote a whole article about it, so follow this link for more :-)
Always wait for the hostess’ signal to start drinking and eating. This may look old fashioned but it’s still very much done in France: no one eat or drink before the hostess says “bon appétit” and starts eating / drinking herself.
Furthermore, it’s still quite common in France to make a toast, so it would be a faux-pas if someone did make a toast and you had already finished your glass…
Oh, and here comes a big one: traditionally in France, women don’t pour wine for themselves. The man sitting next to them does. Of course, if there is no man at the table, a woman will do the pouring. But otherwise, the men should gallantly pour the wine for the women sitting next to them.
Last tip: try to eat as quietly as you can. No slurping, no loud chewing… certainly no burping. Try also not to blow your nose at the table.
Also, be careful with the level of your voice, or laugh. Especially in a fancy restaurant where the ambiance can be soft and rather quiet, someone speaking a bit loud in a foreign language can really stand out.
Voilà. This should get your nicely started. If you liked this article, you may also enjoy “how to comment on food in French” or “Tips on What is Very Polite and Very Rude At the French Table“.
To learn the French way of doing things in context, check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation.