France Food Culture: Everything to Know + Top 10 French Foods
If France has a reputation for anything, it’s excellent food and wine. With governmental organizations and independent groups ensuring the highest quality of French cheese, wine, produce, and meats, it’s easy to see why France has such great food. Enjoying French food culture is an important part of traveling to France! There are lots of little distinctions and rules in French food culture, and knowing these nuances will help you better understand and enjoy your time in France. Keep an open mind when it comes to French food, especially when visiting France for the first time! I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, so I just tried everything, and most of the time it was great (and the other times made for great stories!). First, we’ll start with some basic French food terms you need to know before going to France before moving on to the difference between cafes and restaurants and the top 10 French foods!
Check out the rest of my food + drink posts for more international flavors.
French Food Vocabulary
La Boulangerie: Bakery – Where you can buy croissants, fresh bread, and sandwiches. Great for quick breakfasts and lunches! You might find some basic pastries, like macarons, here as well.
La Patisserie: Pastry shop – Where you can get amazing French pastries! Think along the lines of Laduree and Pierre Herme! This normally doesn’t sell bread, but might sell some of the same pastries or sweet breads that boulangeries do.
La Boucherie: Butcher shop – You can find great sandwiches or charcuterie plates at some boucheries!
Le Fromagerie: Cheese shop
Le Chocolatier: Chocolate shop, of course!
Le Cave à Vins: Wine shop – Some shops will serve wine by the glass as well!
Le Supermarché: Supermarket – Popular supermarkets in France include Monoprix, Carrefour, Auchon.
Le Petit Déjeuner: Breakfast
Le Déjeuner: Lunch
Le Dîner: Dinner
Entree: Appetizer – Entrees are not the main course in France like they are in the USA!
Plat: Main course
Meilleur Ouvrier de France: Best Craftsman in France – There’s a competition every four years to determine the best artisans of several categories, including chocolate, cheese, and pastries! Any shop that has won this distinction (decided by the French Ministry of Labor) is likely worth the visit!
Check out this list of 10 things to know before visiting France to prep for your trip!
French Eateries: Difference Between Cafe and Restaurant (and Bistro vs Brasserie)
Once you get to France, you’ll notice that there are a number of names for places to eat food: brasseries, cafe, bistro, and restaurant. These names can be kind of confusing for people visiting France for the first time, and although they aren’t drastically different, there are subtle differences that are helpful to know. I’ll break down the difference between cafe and restaurant (and all the other types of eateries that are part of French food culture), and talk about bistro vs brasserie, so you know what to expect!
Difference Between Cafe and Restaurant
In France, the main difference between cafe and restaurant is the level of formality. A cafe is usually casual, and it usually serves very simples dishes. I would say cafes are the most casual of French eateries (besides chains like Starbucks or McDonalds, which I’m not really including in this article). Restaurants are normally more formal, serving full dinner menus. The difference between restaurant and bistro is less drastic- a bistro is another casual restaurant, but you can expect slightly better food options here than at a cafe normally.
Bistro vs Brasserie
So, now that you know what you can expect at cafes, restaurants, and bistros in France, what’s the difference between a bistro vs brasserie? A brasserie is a restaurant that serves simple, casual food, just like a bistro. The naming distinction between the two eateries mostly can be attributed to the days when brasseries served alcohol and bistros did not (but now, you’d be hard-pressed to find an eatery in France that didn’t serve alcohol). Food-wise, you can expect fairly similar menus, so there’s really not a huge difference between a bistro vs brasserie these days, but both are staples are French food culture!
Once you’ve learned the difference between all these eateries, check out my favorite restaurants in Paris!
France Food Culture: French Meals
Because French food is so good, the French people are pretty serious about their meals! For breakfast, the classic croissant or pan au chocolat (chocolate croissant) is fairly standard. Parisians don’t necessarily eat this every day (think more yogurt and fruit), but the breads are so good! While you’re visiting France, I recommend heading to a boulangerie every morning for fresh treats!
You can grab a quick lunch at a cafe or boulangerie if you’re pressed for time while visiting France, but it’s not uncommon for French people to have three-course, 1+ hour-long lunches at local bistrots! I loved enjoying long French lunches because we oftentimes feel so rushed eating lunch in the United States! Lots of bistrots will offer a menu du jour for a very reasonable price at lunch, so if there’s a restaurant that you really want to eat at that’s a little out of your price range, check to see if they do a weekday lunch menu! Dinner is the most formal meal of the day, and it’s the most expensive if you’re eating at a restaurant.
Top 10 French Foods
- Croquet Madame: Although this ham and cheese sandwich topped with extra cheese and an egg may seem simple, no one does it like the French! The yummy French cheese adds a great flavor to this cafe sandwich.
- Coq au Vin: Chicken cooked in a wine sauce- another simple, yet delicious, classic French dish.
- Galettes and Crepes: Galettes are savory crepes made with buckwheat batter, and crepes are the dessert made with a sweet batter. Try Nutella and banana or salted caramel for a classic French flavor.
- Cheese: Okay, so including all French cheese as one entry might be considered cheating when you consider the variety of amazing cheeses- fondue, camembert, raclette, bleu, and so many more! Eat them all!
- Steak frites (+Moules frites): Again, I’m cheating a little here, but both of these are classic bistro dishes that almost never fail to please!
- Cassoulet: Slow cooked casserole with meat and beans. Simple and hearty.
- Croissants (+ all the Baguettes): Does this even need a description? Hello, delicious carbs.
- Macarons: These adorable, round cookie pastries can be found at almost every patisserie in France! Check out my guide to the best macarons in Paris for some suggestions!
- French Onion Soup: Although not my personal favorite, I know people really love getting some classic French onion soup in France! Really warms you up on a cold day.
- Nicoise salad: This salad, from Nice, is normally made with olives, hardboiled eggs, anchovies, and tomatoes, but other ingredients can make an appearance.
Honorable mentions (because you can never have enough good French food): Bouillabaisse, Tarte Tatin, Ratatouille, Escargots, Gratin Dauphinois, Quiche
Other Helpful Tips:
Service is much less attentive than you might be used to in the US, so don’t feel awkward getting your waiter’s attention if you need the check!
French food is often cooked with a lot of butter, cream, wine, and other yummy additions! If you are vegan or vegetarian, there are options for you, but I recommend learning phrases like “I am vegan” and “I do not eat any meat products, what do you recommend I get?” before going. The same goes if you follow a halal or kosher diet or have other dietary restrictions.
Want to try some classic French foods? Try a French food tour in Paris!
France Food Culture Conclusion
France food culture is nuanced and unique, and I hope these tips help you experience it to the fullest when you visit this beautiful country! Although the difference between cafe and restaurant (and bistro vs brasserie) and the various food terms may seem silly, these little things are what make French food culture unique.
What are your favorite French foods? Which of the top 10 French foods are you excited to try when you visit France? Let me know in the comments!