Argus Abroad: Midnight Snack in Paris

By Laura Hess, Foreign Correspondent
Thursday, May 1, 2014

c/o Laura Hess

ed foodie with a fairly strong handle on the French language, I was definitely excited to be living, studying, and, most importantly, eating in Paris for a whole semester. Paris is widely accepted as one of the food capitals of the world, so I was going to make the most of my stay.  I wanted to try as many different things as possible. I spent a lot of time trying to discover where to find “the best” of everything: the best baguette, the best croissant, the best cheeses, etc. I did this work mostly solo, with the exception of the quest to find the best crêpes in Paris, in which case an Australian exchange student from my university helped me.  In case you were wondering, the best place to find crêpes in Paris is on the rue de Montparnasse, a street completely lined with crêpe restaurants.

Something that interested me a lot beyond all the delicious flavors I tasted was the different set of customs surrounding eating and buying food in Paris. The restaurant and café experience, for example, is totally different. When you go out to eat in Paris, the whole process is slowed down. It’s normal to take a two-hour lunch break. People often sit down and sip coffee for more than half an hour. Once, some of my French friends laughed about how they felt like they were in an American TV series because they were drinking coffee out of to-go cups while walking down the street.

When you go to a café in Paris in the evening, the server might bring your check with your drink, but you aren’t expected to pay, drink, and dash. Instead, you’re expected to sit for a while and sip it slowly, preferably over a good book or animated discussion. I write “drink” rather than “coffee,” by the way, because, by the afternoon, most café patrons have replaced their coffees with beer or wine.  Their is no line of demarcation between cafés and bars in Paris; everything from the menu to the décor is similar.

The restaurant experience is even less hurried. Even their familiar expressions take twice as long. If you’re taking a while to decide what to order, you would ask your server for “deux minutes” (two minutes) as opposed to our “just a minute.” Dinners start later. With 7:30 p.m. designated as “tourist hour,” most Parisians wouldn’t dream of eating before 8 or 9.  When you do start eating, it’s common for dinner to last two or three hours if you’re having multiple courses.  The order of the courses is a bit different too, with the salad coming after the main dish. If you don’t know French, be aware that in France, the “entrée” is the starter, not the main course. And if you’re in a traditional “brasserie,” don’t be surprised to find a pot of mustard on your table next to the salt and pepper. Mustard in France is a staple condiment, and it is much stronger in flavor than American mustard. When you are ready to leave, you must flag down your server and ask for “l’addition” (the check); otherwise, they won’t bring it to you. I’ve found that actually, it’s really nice to sit and relax without anyone hovering over you, waiting to kick you out and seat the next customers.

There are a lot of myths about buying food in Paris.  We have an idealistic vision of visiting open-air markets, small butcher shops, cheese shops, and bakeries. However, shopping at a variety of stores simply isn’t practical for day-to-day life. It may have worked decades ago, but today, most people no longer have time. Instead, most people go to supermarkets, perhaps stopping at a bakery for bread or in the other specialized shops for special occasions. Refrigerators are smaller here, on average, and fewer preservatives are legal, so it’s necessary to go grocery shopping a couple times a week. Sure, the small stores have better quality goods, but they are also more expensive, especially for someone on a student budget. Something French supermarkets seem to do better than American ones, though, is encourage the reuse of shopping bags. Much in the spirit of Weshop, stores charge for bags and usually expect you to bring your own.  I’ve hardly ever seen anyone actually buy bags at the grocery store.

Now that my time in Paris is almost up, I know that I’ll have a lot to get used to once I return to the U.S. I’ll probably have some trouble finishing my lunch at Usdan in only 45 minutes.  I won’t have delicious bakeries on almost every street.  I won’t be able to order a glass of wine at a restaurant.  However, it will be nice when salads are the least expensive thing on the menu again.