All establishments must post their menus outside, so take a look before you enter. Most restaurants have two basic types of menu: à la carte and fixed-price (un menu or prix-fixe). The prix-fixe menu is usually the best value, though choices are more limited. Many of these include three courses; however, it’s increasingly common to see set menus with two—either a starter and main course (entrée et plat) or a main course and dessert (plat et dessert).
Fast Food, French Style
Many say that bistros served the world's first fast food. After the fall of Napoléon, the Russian soldiers who occupied Paris were known to bang on zinc-top café bars, crying "bistro"—"quickly"—in Russian. In the past, bistros were simple places with minimal decor and service. Nowadays many are upscale and trendy, but you can still find cozy, low-key establishments serving straightforward, frequently gutsy cooking.
Brasseries—ideal places for quick, one-dish meals—originated when Alsatians, fleeing German occupiers after the Franco-Prussian War, came to Paris and opened restaurants serving specialties from home. Pork-based dishes, choucroute (sauerkraut), and beer (brasserie also means brewery) remain the mainstays here. The typical brasserie is convivial and keeps late hours. Some are open 24 hours a day, a good thing to know since many restaurants stop serving at 10 or 10:30 pm.
Like bistros and brasseries, cafés come in a variety of styles and sizes. Often informal neighborhood hangouts, cafés may also be veritable showplaces attracting chic, well-heeled crowds. At most cafés the regulars congregate at the bar, where coffee and drinks are cheaper than at tables. At noon tables are set, and a limited lunch menu is served. Sandwiches, usually with jambon (ham), fromage (cheese), or mixte (ham and cheese), are served throughout the day. Sometimes snacks are also for sale. Cafés are for lingering, for people-watching, and for daydreaming. If none of these options fit the bill, head to the nearest traiteur (deli) for picnic fixings.
Breakfast is usually served from 7:30 am to 10 am, lunch from noon to 2 pm, and dinner from 7:30 or 8 pm to 10 pm. Restaurants in Paris usually serve dinner until 10:30 pm. Many restaurants close on Sunday—head to the Latin Quarter, the Champs Élysées, or Montmartre for the greatest choice of eateries open then.
By French law, prices must include tax and tip (service compris or prix nets), but pocket change left on the table to round up the bill in basic places, or an additional 5% in better restaurants, is always appreciated. (Don't expect the dangling generous tip to guarantee friendly service, though: customer service is practically nonexistent in France.) Beware of bills stamped service not included in English. The prices given in this book are per person for a main course at dinner, including tax (10%) and service; note that if a restaurant offers only prix-fixe (set-price) meals, it is given a price category that reflects the full prix-fixe price.