The French love their food, and they love it so much that a large part of the time spent eating is also used to talk about food … how the dish is prepared, how it can be eaten, with which wine …. no wonder it is not uncommon to sit at the table for four hours or more!
Eating good meals should be an intrinsic part of visiting France. The occasional visitor rarely gets the chance to join a family for a meal, but even in restaurants, it is possible to get a taste for the essentials of French table culture.
But what is that culture? what are the do’s and dont’s? how about the table, how is it laid? what is the etiquette? how does a French dinner party go?
Today I’d like to show you a typical French dinner party, a special moment shared with friends – french living as if you were here!
So, you are invited to dinner with your new french friends. They asked you to come 8-8.30 …. you will be expected to arrive around 8.40.
It is good to arrive with a small gift, some say you should never bring flowers for the hostess because you make her rush around looking for a vase just when she’d prefer to be chatting with her guests. Chocolates are good, a book is lovely, a sweet smelling candle … you get the picture.
You may be ushered into the sitting room where a fire will be crackling in the fireplace and glasses ready on a table for drinks to be served. Sometimes you’ll enter the kitchen first, to keep the ‘cook’ company during the last preparations of the meal, in which case you’ll be served a glass of wine or champagne while you watch and of course join in the discussion about the best way to filet a fish or the compared merits of slow cooking a leg of lamb.
Wherever you enjoy your pre-dinner drink, there will be ‘amuse-bouche’ (literally mouth entertainment!) to open your appetite and let you have a feel for the great meal that is just around the corner.
This eating and chatting could well continue to 10pm, when you will be invited to sit down to the table and commence the meal.
Wine will be served with each course (ladies never serve themselves by the way, they are always served), and your host will probably explain why he chose that particular wine to go with the dish. You’ll have a separate glass for water, and possibly a new glass for each new wine.
You will be served a first course, main course, cheese and dessert, in that order, often with a salad to accompany the cheese. Plates will generally be changed after the first course, but not necessarily between the main course and cheese. You may also notice that there is only one set of cutlery, in which case you should hold on to your knife and fork between courses if the plates are changed, and simply lay them on the knife rest beside your plate.
Compliments to the chef are most welcome throughout the meal, and you may serve yourself more than once if you wish, although french women rarely do so.
The end of the meal is finished with a sweet flourish, and then coffee or tea, served at the table or back in the ‘salon’. You will rarely rise from the table before midnight, and sometimes not before 1am.
Conversation is wide and varied and can cover politics, sex, books and invariable a dose of local gossip. Guests should be interested and interesting, amusing but never overpowering, and should be able to recognize the right moment to leave without outstaying the welcome.
Voilà, a quick resumé of a typical dinner in our part of the woods … how about you? does it play out the same way?
All photos taken at Le Chateau de la Marine
by Franck Schmitt for my book, My Stylish French Girlfriends.
Fabulous! It sounds like a truly perfect dinner……
Sounds wonderful. Do you always eat so late? ☺
Hi Victoria, we rarely eat before 8.30, but everything gets later when friends come to dinner 🙂
And in Provence things can start/end even later…certainly if it is summertime!
I think that I am French…at least in spirit! Dinner is always late according to Canadian standards at my house but I see that I am right on time with la vie en Francaise!
The photos of the food look delicious, particularly the last one! Are the recipes given in your book?
I can’t get my family to change from the english way of cheese as the last course
My French friends tend to start dinner earlier. Maybe because they’re older and don’t like to stay up late? (One dinner ran to 4 a.m.–big surprise as everyone thought it was around midnight. That’s what good conversation does.) Invitations here tend to be for 7. And they usually arrive quite on time!
The florists here will create a vase with the plastic wrap. It’s temporary but attractive and lets the hostess not have to worry about a vase until the next day.
Have you heard of the “fruit juice signal”?
After the dinner, when the guests have left the table for the living room and have been offered coffee or herbal tea, or some spirits (think Calvados…), when the hostess brings some fresh fruit juice it means it is time for every one to leave.
Guests should accept a glass of fruit juice, drink it quickly and say their thanks and good bye.
Thanks for your beautiful blog!
(Stéphanie, a true Parisian who enjoys to read about France as seen from your eyes)
Bonjour Stéphanie, merci pour votre commentaire et merci d’etre si gracieuse vis à vis d’une anglaise qui ose ‘expliquer’ la France!
Non, en effet je ne connaissais pas le signal jus de fruit! On m’a jamais fait ce coup là
We live in a very beautiful part of South Africa, a place called Skeerpoort about an hour from Johannesburg. It’s actually quite ‘French-countryside’ looking! We tend to have long summer dinners on the verandah – if it’s a beautiful evening guests are invited for 6 – 6.30 to enjoy the last rays of the sun. We start with bubbly, served from enormous wine coolers, and move onto other wines of choice. It’s all very relaxed and casual, and more often than not, guests stumble home full of good food, good wine and happy memories!
THIS IS EXACTLY my “cup of tea!” There IS a French gene in my personality!! franki
I looked up the word “commence” just to make sure. 🙂 I realize there are differences between having people over for dinner and a dinner party. Plus, the where, when, and who of it changes the course of things. From memory, a meal over an hour after arrival would be uncomfortable in my neck of the woods.
Interesting the variety when only a few miles between us. In our part of Normandy our invitations are generally for 8pm but one is expected to arrive in good time? Drinks, which are almost without exception Champagne, are never served until the last arrival has arrived. It doesn’t do to be late or everyone stands around empty handed until they have. Plentiful amuse bouches are sometimes served in the salon as an alternative to an entrée, and it is always always fish on friday! Once a couple rang to say their car had broken down and that they would be late, there was a good five minutes discussion between the host and hostess, and then the hosts and guests about whether offering drinks to every-one else before their arrival would be considered terribly rude. Almost to exception all the guests have always got up at the same time as each other to leave and rarely later than 1am.
Ah, I loved this post – super helpful for anyone that is learning the basics and how I wish that I had this bit of help fourteen years ago when I first moved to France! Oh me, the mistakes that I made…
My companion says to never talk religion or politics unless it is someone that you know very well…but he is quite old-school…
And I am sorry to be tacky but…people don’t usually visit the WC during a dinner party…which can be a little challenging during evenings that last six hours but that is how it is!
Heather, I had heard the WC issue regarding dinners in Paris! Difficult with all that wine, I’d imagine. Here in North Carolina, my powder room is always spic and span, with nice guest linen, a candle and small vase of flowers,
and I expect it to be used.
I used to spend a lot of time en France with relations and friends. The meals lasted for hours as you say. I particularly loved the weekends in the Summer when we dined outside under the trees. Sitting there with good wine and good conversaton was bliss.
Recently I invited some friends to my home for a typical meal from the Alsace region.
“La choucroute d’Alsace” was my choice. Two of them said they didn’t like French food and could they have fish an chips and reluctantly I agreed. The others and myself had the Choucroute with all the cold meats, and bockwurst as in the recipe.
What amazed me was that when the food was put in front of them the speed at which they ate! I don’t think they even tasted it! Added to that they wanted the television on whilst eating, and watched that instead of talking. As soon as the food had gone, they took their leave and went. They didn’t even stop for a drink and a chat. . .
I had spent the best part of the day preparing and cooking the meal, the dessert, and bought some nice French cheeses for after, which wasn’t even touched. The whole fiasco was over in less two hours. Well, I learned a lesson that day.
It’s right what my friend Benoit once told me, “The British eat to live, but the French live to eat”.
Keith, you need to get some new friends!
I’m afaid I agree with Rita here, or just see those friends for a drink!
I was put in that position once when an invited guest gave me a list of likes, dislikes and preferences for what they eat, then picked over what should have been exactly what they requested. They have never been invited back!
Great blog! Always a pleasure to read it. I am getting copies of your book for my American friends so they can better understand “the French woman”.
Do the French still put the forks and spoons facing down in order to show the family initials or crest. Or, is this an old fashion concern???
A French woman transplanted in Texas.
Yes Danielle, forks and spoons point down to the table, and I could also have added that hands should always remain visible, with or without cutlery in them! So if you are drinking soup from a spoon held in your right hand, then the left wrist will rest lightly on the table edge, never in one’s lap …. something to do with proving you are not armed I believe
I was told it was to prove that no funny business was going on under the table…heehee…I guess that just goes to show the classy kind of crowd I run with… 😉
I am truly enjoying the blog and comments. I am especially happy to learn this tidbit about visible hands. Always felt awkward to keep one in my lap. I really enjoy my meal better when using both hands. I really need to look up my lineage; one of my great grandmothers, it is said, came from France. I think I got a lot of her genes!
This ALL sounds VERY familiar to me as that is the way the ITALIANS do also……..
However,we eat about 7:30pm here in the STATES which is LATE for MOST people……..if we are invited out at say 5 my husband willNOT GO!!!Who wants to eat SO early he will say!Unfortunately, the table manners and the conversations do not go too long here.Everyone leaves our home by 10pm I would say………unless it’s a SOIREE then midnight!The TIME at the TABLE is getting shorter and shorter here…………..
Perhaps a BOOK on table etiquette is a GOOD IDEA!HOW THE FRENCH EAT.XX
So all this time, I was not late in preparing dinner, I was just French and didn’t know it. I live in America’s Midwest where we hold on to traditional values maybe a little more than other parts of our nation, but alas even here, family dinners and dinner parties are rare. Our enjoyment of time together around a meal has succumbed to our busy lifestyles. It is a issue I care about deeply. I am actually writing about it today on my own blog. Thank you for the beautiful photos, (as always) and thank you for an invitation to dinner!
What a lovely post Sharon. The French just have such a lovely way of enjoying food and vibrant company of course. Who can say no to champagne and amuse-bouche.
Thank you so much for giving us real insight into the French lifestyle.
Sunny (and currently heatwave) greetings from South Africa.
A beautiful post. We need to revamp our dinner hour. Too much TV and not enough conversation.
I loved reading this post Sharon. Fascinating to read of the French dinner party style. I can only speak for myself & some of the same rituals we do here. It’s rarely that late that we dine & rarely that late till we are done for the night. Everyone gets up quite early so that’s usually the reason. Otherwise, everything else is very much the same. Thank you, wonderful as always. X
Absolutely loved the post! – I think my favorite of all the ones that I have read and enjoyed. What is the fabulous dessert?
Enjoyed your post, lovely table settings and long conversations over dinner is my idea of a good time. Are knife rests still used on a regular bases?
My family, in France, still uses knife rests on special occasions, when the family initialed tablecloth is used. I use them all the time in the U.S. They are very practical and prevent staining on your table cloth and placemats. They can be very interesting and attractive . Or, may be, I am a little old fashion???
Sharon – I enjoyed this post so much. What a lovely and genteel way to enjoy an evening as you wine and dine with good friends.
I so enjoyed this article as I was just recently in France for three weeks. I noticed so many things that surprised me about the French lifestyle, especially in Paris. Most PariSian french women DO wear sneakers, at most restaurants my husband and I ate at, the French ate a lot at the meal and hurriedly! Of course we did not attend a dinner in their home but I would imagine it to be as you’ve described, which is so much better. Thank you!
I assume everything is “plated” i.e. No help yourself from communal platters? I am awestruck by the ability to time food readiness given the pre-dinner phase! Effortless entertaining will, alas, never be my forte. I notice in my own group that as we all age and yet have more time on our hands, the sometimes-competitive elegant dinners of the past have been largely abandoned for simpler fare. In the end good company is all that really matters. Interesting to see if the “wired ” generations to come will even put down their devices for long enough to eat, though they seem to enjoy taking interminable instagrams of their food as it rapidly cools. Perhaps that’s a North American thing?
Hi Sharon, I love all your post. I have no French ancestors but this blog nails me to a tee anyway. We returned from a visit in Paris and a few areas in Italy just last week. Are the rules different in the city or dining out? We had troubles looking for open restaurant after 10:00. Around the local attractions you could find them open but those were near awful. We managed to find a great late spot but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. To check out some pics from our trip look at Instagram @darnthatdream
Just like we do in Italy , but we would never serve the chese in the same plate of the second course
We had a lovely week in Provence and a week in Paris this summer, and all the food was amazing. We had a sweet fourteen year old girl from Paris stay with us for 3 weeks and she always helped with dinner and setting the table. She always put the forks and spoons upside down and the spoon at the top, is that customary? I noticed you didn’t here.
Thank you so much for your beautiful blog
Sharon, this is the perfect way to enjoy a fine meal with friends and I loved listening to you describe it!!
The Arts by Karena
Artist Lee Bowers
I love your blog Sharon and your photos! Even though I live in the US, my maternal side has quite a bit of French blood on it and since I was a small child, we’ve always kept the tradition of a late evening meal a couple nights a week (one always on a weekend night). Of course, my relatives had to change up things slightly…they settled in the southern Virginia and Kentucky area, where moonshine was prevalent…not going to give more detail on that but…instead of wine being offered as people and family members arrived, the adults were always offered moonshine. Different wines were offered throughout the meal. Children were given apple juice or white grape juice as guests and family arrived, and depending on their age, they might get a small glass of watered down wine with the main course and then back to juice for the remainder. We dined outside on those nights until it was too cold to sit outside for hours at a time! We used family china and table service every time. I didn’t want to miss out on the conversations after dinner as a child and would frequently fall asleep on the settee next to my grandmother! I was lucky enough to inherit what remained of those beloved dishes and silverware and I still use them today. Having no children, I invite friends that I consider to be family for my dinners now but with a heavy workload, I’ve had to reduce the dinners to twice a month but I look forward to them as much as I did as a child. I am firm believer that the conversation and interaction helped to make me a well-rounded adult with the ability to socialize and converse in any setting today.
Table set in French euro settings is a give ni here at our home and aolng with entend family. Of my daughter and I sit for a meal at home we still like to set the table, and so little of that is done these days with so much going on in busy lives, and divided homes.
Love your setting and the French toast made me smile,,we often serve up some French toast in our home. We eat our main dinner at or before 5:00 PM and then perhaps a snake later in the evening about 7:00 PM but always lite. Or perhaps a desert later.
Our family always eight dinner before 6:00 PM unless it was dinner out with Friends it always seemed to end up much later, the night life of dinning out got the best of us here in the states.
I am always at home when visiting you and your French beauty in all you inspire… I am sharing your book with family and friends who stop by my home for a visit and we pooh and awwww! Over the wonderment of France.
I have dear friends who will be in France hitting the brocantes this coming week, and my daughter and I are planning to visit soon.
See you soon and all the beauty you inspire.
Thank you Doré it is always a pleasure to hear from you, and thank you for saying such nice things about the blog.
I am glad you are enjoying the book – keep up the sharing!! 🙂
First of all loved your book. It has a prominent place on my side table. We also thoroughly enjoy our dinners. Our family is known for enjoying the whole proccess of entertaining guests for dinner. We have a large table which seats 10 made of reclaimed wood taken from an old house built in the early 1900’s. Our dinners usually last about 4 hours although we have been known to linger til the early hours of the morning. No matter the season I always look forward to hosting a dinner. The greatest secret is to have a right mix of guests to keep the conversation both lively and intersting.
How do you stay awake?! Especially with all the food and wine. I’d be asleep in the spare bedroom with the guests’ coats!
I have always entertained in the french style, and to me, it’s the only way. And, it makes so much sense to have your cheese before dessert, not after, doesn’t work for me, particularly with the wine, even though I’m English. These days though, I always serve the main course on platters in the centre of the table, then everyone can take as much, or as little as they want. I find it a bit sad that there are so many people who have no idea how to entertain these days, or how to eat. Thanks for taking the time for a little education.
When we have people over for dinner I do like to set a nice table with flowers, serve good wine and hopefully the meal is tasty and I’ve followed the recipe properly.
I do like the custom of bringing a small gift to the hostess. In Australia dinner guests arrive with wine or beer to drink themselves (which does save the hosts a bit of money) or a bottle of wine for the table. Some arrive with dessert which adds to the already prepared dessert made by the hostess.
Its like there is no set rule so people get confused. Arriving with a gift would make other guests think they had forgotten it was a birthday dinner. I think its great that the French have sorted it all out making it easier for everyone.
Sounds divine to me – when can I come!
This sounds wonderful! Americans tend to expect guests to be on time. Some arrive early! They eat fast and don’t stay late. haha. Not nearly as laid back as the French.
I do wonder… Are Americans different than others about the dinner meal? Do Southern Americans have such different habits about the dinner meal? I see people dining out for dinner as early as 4:00 in the afternoon. The older the person, the earlier he or she eats dinner.
When we have people in our home, we usually invite them for 6:30, have drinks and an appetizer, then ” commence” for dinner about 7:30.
We are also part of a supper club that meets once a month ( no alcohol is served), and we often have themes to our dinners. Examples, The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, a pajama party with breakfast foods served, Presidential Inauguration party every 4 years, Christmas caroling to many elderly friends, …shall I go on?
I hope I haven’t bored anyone with this post. It’s so different than the long leisurely dinner described. I like the idea of long leisurely, but think I would fall asleep unless I had music and dancing… Another type of fun evening.
Just bought your book at Barnes @ Noble and lovin it!
Thank you for your lovely post about French dinners.
As of Hugarian meals and entertainment: Hungarian generally eat a lot and huge portions.
Meals with family and friends last long and have several courses. Soup is a must (cock meat,vegetables and some kind of pasta in the soup) wiener schnitzel and other meat sorts with potato or rice andsalad and finally very sweet and cremed pastry.Genarally more choice for every course.
I do not like this kind of invitations and from childhood on I’m accustomed to your kind of dinners.
I always have a certain theme for my dinners with different friends i.e. asparagus dinner in May, fresh cucumber dinner with grills in summer and compulsory pumpking dinner in October and in Advent time some Christmas theme.
The invitation calls for around 6 PM that is the guests arrrive half an hour later and appetizers are offered with a drink (we drank champagneor a cocktail earlier but nowadays everone is driving so almost no alcohol or at least just one in a family) I never offer pastry with butter cream but fruit, cheese or light pudding like desserts in a glass.
The dinners last until 10 or 11 PM as they have to get home that takes time too.
I select the guest to have vivid conversation all the evening about all kinds of themes but no politics this is very delicate point these times.
Love from the windy and rainy Puszta in Hungary Dorka http://www.dorottyaudvar.co.hu
I love the European style and have visited France and Italy as well as Turkey, Germany, etc.. They eat dinner much later than Americans and spend much longer time at the table. I think it’s lovely and very romantic, but I also believe Americans have very long work weeks, getting up at 5:00 am, and often times not getting home til after 6:00 pm. My husband would never last eating that late and staying up that late. We live in the Southern Region of the U.S., where manners are important. We always bring a hostess a gift, arrive promptly, and leave by 10 ish. I wish we could instill more European ideals of enjoyment of food, preparation, and conversation, but I’m afraid our whole culture would need to change, especially our work schedules. Love my country, but love traveling too! Xxox
Such a beautiful and informative post! I love the relaxed way of French dining. One of my daughters and I experienced one of most most special evenings in Avignon, under moonlight with a French couple who made us feel so at ease. I love everything about enjoying the moments of life!
I love this post, and like Stéphanie, I love to read the way French are seen by foreign people. It’s funny, and so true ! Food and table have a great importance in France. Even for business, lot of things are easier around the table. Less formal.
I’ve never heard about the “Fruit juice signal” either.
What I do now when I have a dinner at home, it’s that I don’t make any “Entrée” (First course or apetizer ?) because people love to spend time during the “apéritif” and it’s always a nice time. So I make many” amuse-bouche” and after, directly the main course.
Thank you Sharon for your nice blog