The Things I'll Miss Most about French Food and Dining

I’ll say it again: American fine-dining has caught up with that of France; I’m home now—back in Amerique profonde—and I’m sincerely looking forward to going to some of our best local restaurants.

That said, there are some small things I’ll miss mightily about French dining and food in general. Here’s where the French have us beat:

1. The Snack with the Drink.

No matter how modest the cafe or restaurant, whenever you order a drink, they bring you a little snack to go alongside. Not to be confused with the amuse-bouche found in high-end restaurants. This is everywhere, in the simplest of spots. And it's just so gracious.

Just one of the many snacks served alongside our apéritifs in France.

No matter how modest the cafe or restaurant, most everywhere you order a drink, they bring you a little snack to go alongside. Not to be confused with the amuse-bouche found in high-end restaurants, it’s usually something quite simple. You see, the French understand that drinking on an empty stomach isn’t a good idea. But they also don’t expect you to order a huge appetizer that will (paradoxically) ruin your appetite for dinner. This little touch is everywhere, in the simplest of spots. And it’s just so gracious.

2. The Little Treat with the Coffee

Ditto the little cookie you usually get with your coffee. Here's a chocolate Madeleine that helps keeps that strong coffee from burning a hole in your stomach. It's so thoughtful!

It’s just so….civilized.

Ditto the little cookie you usually get with your coffee. Here’s a chocolate Madeleine that helps keeps that strong coffee from burning a hole in your stomach. It’s so thoughtful! (PS: The coffee pictured is “une noisette”: espresso with a little touch of milk. Find out more about how to order coffee in France here.)

3. Magret de Canard!!!!!!!!!

Yes, I've used up my monthly allotment of exclamation points, but it's worth it. Magret de Canard is not to be confused with just any duck breast. You see, in the US, we get mostly White Pekin duck. The French serve Moulard (Mulard, en français), a different breed. And it's the breast of the duck that's been fattened in foie-gras fashion, so it's pretty amazing. You can't find this in the US unless you're in a major city, and want to shell out major cash. This dish is as ubiquitous as chicken, and usually costs about 18 Euros ($20), tax and tip included.

Magret de canard: Not to be confused with any ole duck breast!

Yes, I just used up my monthly allotment of exclamation points, but it’s worth it. Magret de Canard is not to be confused with just any duck breast. You see, in the US, we get mostly White Pekin duck. The French serve Moulard (Mulard, en français), a different breed. And it’s the breast of the duck that’s been fattened in foie-gras fashion, so it’s pretty amazing. You can’t find this in the US unless you’re in a major city, and want to shell out major cash. This dish is as ubiquitous as chicken, and usually costs about 18 Euros ($20), tax and tip included.

4. Artisan Butchers

Yes, I wrote about this in my last post on cooking in France, but it bears repeating. I sorely miss artisan butchers, who cut your meat fresh and to your specifications. Pork had beautiful marbling and great flavor. The veal. The farmer chicken. The sausages. I could go on and on.

Pork chops from a great artisan butcher in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Yes, I wrote about this in my last post about cooking in a small French kitchen, but it bears repeating. I sorely miss artisan butchers, who cut your meat fresh and to your specifications. Pork had beautiful marbling and great flavor. The veal. The farmer chicken. The sausages. I could go on and on.

5. Drinking (Cheap) Wine a Stone’s Throw Where It’s From

Nothing beats drinking wine a stone's throw from where it's produced, especially when said wine costs about 8 Euros ($8.80) a bottle. (You can buy cheaper wine, but this year, we decided to "splurge"--ha!--since the exchange rate was so good.)

Three wines we enjoyed in our Menton studio: A rosé, a red, and a white, all produced nearby.

Nothing beats drinking wine a stone’s throw from where it’s produced, especially when said wine costs about 8 Euros ($8.80) a bottle. (You can buy cheaper wine, but this year, we decided to “splurge”–ha!–since the exchange rate was so good.)

6. The 50-cl Bottle of Wine (Three-Fourths a Bottle) Served in Restaurants

Speaking of wine, restaurants serve full size bottles of wine, to be sure. But they also offer 50-cl bottles (which is 3/4 of a regular bottle). It's PERFECT for two people, especially when said two people have started with an aperitif. (A bottle, at this point, is too much; a half-bottle is not enough. A 3/4 bottle is brilliant).

The 50-cl bottle, served in restaurants.

Speaking of wine, restaurants serve full size bottles of wine, to be sure. But they also offer 50-cl bottles (which is 3/4 of a regular bottle). It’s perfect for two people, especially when said two people have started with an apéritif. (A bottle, at this point, is too much; a half-bottle is not enough. A 3/4 bottle is brilliant).

7. Service Is Included!

Tax and service are included in restaurant bills. See that second to the last line at the bottom of this bill? It says "Service compris," which means, "service included." There are so many reasons why I like this system--too many to go into here. First and foremost, it means that servers earn a living wage that does not rely on the whims of tips. For the diner it means that the price you see on the menu is the price you pay.

See that second to the last line at the bottom of this bill? It says “Service compris,” which means, “service included.”

Tax and service are included in restaurant bills. There are so many reasons why I like this system–too many to go into here. First and foremost, it means that servers earn a living wage that does not rely on the whims of customers who tip varying amounts. For the diner it means that the price you see on the menu is the price you pay.

8. Affordable Wine Prices!

Look at this price: Two kirs (white wine with crème de cassis in one and liqueur de pêche in the other) cost 7 Euros and change, TAX AND TIP INCLUDED. Last night, here in Amerique Profonde at a casual bar, two of us spent $20 for two glasses of wine (after tax and tip). The above photo was on the French Rivieria. Last night, I was in Des Moines. What is WRONG with this picture!?

Check out the price.

In the above photo, two kirs (white wine with crème de cassis in one and liqueur de pêche in the other) cost 7 Euros and change (about $8), tax and tip included. Most wines cost around 5 euros a glass; the most I ever spent was 8 euros (tax and tip included), but that was a premium Bordeaux splurge. Last night, here in Amerique Profonde at a casual bar, two of us spent $20 for one glass of wine each (after tax and tip). The above photo was on the French Rivieria. Last night, I was in Des Moines, Iowa. Why are wine prices so high here? It certainly can’t be the real estate!

9. Espresso Served in an Espresso Cup

I have no idea why large coffeehouse chains (and even some local spots) in the US serve shots of espresso in cups (often paper) meant to hold larger drinks. It cools down the drink way too fast. Yes--in larger US cities, you can find coffeehouses that serve espresso as it should be served, in a tiny cup. But here in flyover country, it's an exception, not the rule. Gah!

Espresso–in an espresso cup. What a concept!

I have no idea why large coffeehouse chains (and even some local spots) in the US serve shots of espresso in cups (often paper) meant to hold larger drinks. It cools down the drink way too fast. Yes–in larger US cities, you can find coffeehouses that serve espresso as it should be served, in a tiny cup. But here in flyover country, it’s an exception, not the rule.

10. The After-Dinner Stroll

The after-dinner stroll in Menton.

Random photo taken on an after-dinner stroll in Menton.

Sadly, some of the best restaurants where I live in Amerique Profonde are nowhere near anyplace you’d like to stroll around afterwards. Basically, you drive there and drive home. And even though my own home is near a beautiful park, it’s not the kind of park where you see people strolling around. I miss the civic beauty and street-life that makes the after-dinner stroll so fascinating in France.

That said, I’m thrilled to be back. I love my city and community and country. And it’s really nice to live somewhere where you don’t have to worry about what’s going to be closed because of the next strike (gas stations? ATMs?). Still, it’s hard not to long for a few things à table that are now so distant…..

What do you miss most about France? And what do you love most about being back? I’d love to hear your comments here (or on my Facebook page).

A bientôt, mes amis!


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14 comments to The 10 Things I’ll Miss Most about French Food and Dining

  • Rick

    I think it’s interesting that all of these items you mention are really small things. Don’t you miss French food and the great restaurants in general?

  • Wini

    Oh–that’s worth an entire blog post. In short, I’ll say this: I think the French have us beat on the more casual side of fine dining: when you want more than a pizza, but aren’t down for a splurge. In France, I rarely spent more than $85 for dinner for two, including plenty of wine (and tax and tip). These weren’t brag-worthy, instagram-shot kind of wowing gastronomy, but more like the magret de canard I posted above.

    When you start to spend $150 for two and above, frankly, I think American chefs pull out ahead. The few times we splurged in France this year, we were nonplussed. It wasn’t awful, but we felt that for $150-plus, we would have eaten much, much better in Chicago, Kansas City, Savannah—places I’ve all visited in the last few months.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  • Martha

    I miss the amazing Saucisson.

    • Wini

      No kidding! It’s so amazing how many great ones there are out there. They’re a beloved part of my “French Coldplate” lunch (with little French salads and bread). Gosh, I’m missing that so much right now.

  • This list echoes my own. I would also add the fact that no matter how small the restaurant, they give you new utensils after every course. Again, a small thing, but all those small things add up to a wonderful experience.

    We have not been to any “over the top” restaurants in France, mainly because the lesser lights are so good!

    • Wini

      Good heavens! You were posting this right as I was posting a similar comment to Rick. The “lesser lights” as you put it, are just SO good in France. I’m with you–why splurge when you can get such good meals in the moderately priced category?

      And you’re right about the silverware. When I was the dining critic for the Des Moines Register, I used to complain about “saving your fork” at nicer restaurants. So many people thought my standards were too high. I think the service industry gets that now, but it’s amazing how long it took.

  • Exactly. Its the small details that make you feel cared for by the hospitality services in France. The little extras make such a difference. And magret de canard! I don’t think I ever ate it till I moved here. Wow a wonder of flavors. And then there’s the leisurely after dinner stroll or any time if day. Strolling in NYC was a dangerous activity. People mow you down. You’re in their way after all. I don’t miss New York one bit. Thanks for all the reminders why I’m very glad I moved here.
    Now to get to Menton!

  • Manhattan Girl

    In life, its the little things that often makes all the difference! Didn’t you get the memo Rick?

  • Kathy

    I totally agree with you on all points. Viva la France!

  • Gary McClelland

    We went a large house for a month in Bédoin and lots of friends come visit. To show their appreciation, the guests always want to treat us to a splurge restaurant. We suggest instead a nearby restaurant in Crillon-le-Brave with a classic Provencal terrace (stone wall, lights in the trees, drop-dead gorgeous view of Mont Ventoux and the Vaucluse) with a 30 euro prix fixe menu of three courses with three or four choices for each course. Everything delicious and most is local. The wine list is inexpensive and if you know the geography you can probably see the vineyard where the wine you are drinking was grown. No one is waiting to have your table so we linger long into the evening watching the light go down over the valley and the lights in the trees take over. Friendly, attentive staff. That is what I miss!

    When the same visitors return in a subsequent year, they never suggest a splurge restaurant but instead ask, “have you made the reservations for Vieux Four in Crillon?”

    • Wini

      That’s it exactly, isn’t it? The 30-Euro menu in a beautiful spot with food that isn’t meant to be fawned over–just thoroughly enjoyed as you linger into the night with friends. That’s what I miss, too!

  • Jenny

    Enjoyed this very much.. You must share more in your cocktails that you drank!

  • Lorraine

    I miss the feeling of lightness I always have in France. I just feel different, in a wonderful way. I also miss my husband’s French family. I’m always thrilled to arrive in France, but also always happy to return to my country.
    And of course I miss the food and the importance it has and yes, the details. I’m with all of you in preferring a 30 euro menu or a delicious home cooked meal with family to the over the top and expensive meals in restaurants that make me feel out of place!
    Wini, I love your blog and your cookbook. We will be driving to Omaha from a Chicago suburb in August and might make a stop to explore your hometown!

    • Wini

      Wow thanks for this, Lorraine! I got chills reading your description of “lightness.” I, too, feel different when I’m in France. I never thought about it as lightness, but there is that! Maybe it has to do with that uplifting feel one gets….as well as the light itself….the light in France, especially the south, is so freeing.

      Thanks for your kind comments, Lorraine! If you make a stop in DSM, let me know! I’m happy to offer a few places to check out.

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