Most of my students are confused as to how to read a menu at a restaurant in France. Especially when there is no translation, even in English, which is generally the case in most of the French countryside. I tell them to simply ask the waiter any questions they may have but I must admit it can still be a challenge!
A typical menu in France will follow the fixed structure of France’s traditional gastronomic meal, listed by UNESCO in 2010 as a world’s intangible cultural heritage: first comes the entrée (starter), then comes the plat principal (main dish) with a choice of fish or meat usually served with vegetables, then fromage (cheese), and, finally, desserts. Wine and beverages and sometimes desserts may be pulled out as a separate menu. To impress customers and because it is the commonly accepted language for fine cuisine, French prose is often used by elegant restaurants everywhere in the world.
But what is a menu? The word itself (which means "little") originated during the French Middle Ages. The use of this word to describe a list of detailed dishes to be prepared and served, along with the ingredients used, dates back to 18th century. Originally, such documents were intended only for the officier de bouche (an archaic term designating a master of fine dining for French royalty) and cooks, that is, those who organised and prepared the meals, rather than the dinner guests*. A similar practice existed in China, as dictated by rigid and elaborate imperial etiquette. Under the Qing dynasty, menus for each meal were prepared by the 'culinary service' and validated by the Office of Internal Affairs. A record was made of each dish's composition, the exact quantities, the name of the cook and the service order of the dishes (due to the fear of poisoning!)*.
As far back as the late 18th century, it was in Paris that restaurants further adapted the concept of the menu, making it a list of the dishes available (menus-cartes or 'menu cards') along with their respective prices for the perusal of customers. Brillat–Savarin wrote that ‘’a restaurant's menu is the list of the names of dishes with price labelling". Menus became an essential object for dining and contributed to the evolution of the art of entertaining as of 1810, the year in which service in the Russian style was first introduced to France, whereby the dishes were presented one by one. During distinguished dinners, etiquette came to dictate that each guest be informed of the full list of dishes and the service order. Each guest was provided with a menu at his or her place setting: the menu had become individualised. This French practice then spread throughout Europe.
At the end of the 19th century, once a basic cardboard object, the individual menu became more than a simple list of dishes, evolving into a work of art. It was also the memento of what one had eaten and the event to which one had been invited -- today, such menus have become collectors' items. Menus became more and more luxurious. There appeared the illustrated menu (embossed illustrations, printed, hand-drawn) -- such menus were used during diplomatic or presidential dinners, in order to demonstrate all of the refined manners and savoir-vivre that a state such as France could represent. The Élysée Palace even commissioned renowned artists, including Chagall, to create menu decorations. After all, France's prestige was at stake! Menus also became public relations tools for major French brands, from champagne to cosmetics (e.g. promotional menus released by the Benedictine liquor company of Fecamp, Normandy). As the 19th century began, transatlantic companies invested in the French art of living and adopted menus that revealed spectacular meals and would soon include a second section to accommodate an English translation.
Regrettably, nowadays, the individual menu has lost its panache. It is no longer as beautifully illustrated, and has re-become a single or double sheet printed in black and white, even at the Élysée Palace…
Restaurant Etiquette Tips:
Let the host take the lead when ordering.
It is not appropriate to order the most expensive food and wine unless the host leads the way or indicates it is fine.
Avoid to order difficult food to eat such as spagetthis, mussels, crab legs and food you do not know how to eat.
* William Chan Tat Chuen : A la table de l'empereur de Chine
* Patrick Rambourg: Le Menu du Moyen Age au XX siècle. http//patrimoine.bm.dijon.fr/pleade