Ah, France, where Julia Child and so many others learned to cook, where the very idea that eating could be an art was invented (by Brillat-Savarin).
We did have several excellent restaurant meals in France: perfectly cooked, beautifully presented. But our day-to-day search for calories brought a lot of irritation with it, too. France is where you cannot buy lunch before 12 or after 2pm, or find breakfast on a Sunday before 9am. And where you should never go into a restaurant for supper unless your schedule allows at least 90 minutes for your meal, and it's a struggle to keep it that short. But hold the complaints while we talk about something consistently good, breakfast.
The Universal petit déjeuner
Go for breakfast in an American restaurant and you'll choose from a multi-page menu; in England, from a variety of yummy-greasy fried foods (fried bread, num!); in Germany from a spread of breads, cheeses and sliced meats. But in France, there is just petit déjeuner, which is:
- Coffee (espresso) with zero, a little bit, or a lot of hot milk (café, café crême, or café au lait respectively),
- A deliciously buttery and flaky croissant,
- Orange juice, at additional cost,
- Outside Paris, a 10-inch chunk of baguette in a basket with butter and jam packets
Petit déjeuner is available at many cafés, although rarely before 8am, often not until 9am, and "never on Sunday" or at least, darn hard to find on Sunday. But when you can find it, it's economical, ranging from €8 ($11) in Paris to as low as €4 ($5.50) in Nantes. It's good, and it's filling: even the Parisian version with only the croissant stuck with us until lunchtime.
And when you can't find a café, there'll be a bar that will provide the coffee and may suggest that you provide your own croissant from a nearby boulangerie.
Light Meals and Snacks
On many days we ate lunch in the car. We kept the trunk of the Renault stocked with cheese and sausage and water and soda. Find a boulanger and buy a loaf or baguette for €1.50, maybe some fruit if we saw a market, and stop by the side of the road and picnic. But some days that wasn't possible and we had to find a lunch place.
In any American town, if you find yourself in need of some calories, it's easy to find a quick snack or a light lunch. Macdonald's and Arby's and Applebees are everywhere, serving around the clock or at least, sunup to sundown. In France, the universal quick meal is some form of the crêpe, served in a crêperie (or in Paris, from a street vendor). A crêperie can be found near the center of any town, from a large village on up. There's a square in the center of Quimper where there are five of them.
The basic item is a single large crêpe. It's laid on a plate and some kind of stuff is put on it, then it's folded artistically toward the center of the plate and served. The menu will have a long list of different kinds of stuff: sweet stuff—from the basic sugar sprinkle (crêpe au sucre) or a drizzle of caramel or Grand Marnier, or a glob of ice cream; and savory stuff—egg, ham, cheese, a scoop of cooked mushrooms.
When the crêpe is made with buckwheat flour it is called a galette, at least, in Normandy and Brittany. It's a darker brown and a little crunchy around the edges. A savory galette is often served with a bit of green salad on top.
One crêpe costs from €2 to €6 depending on the stuff. We ate a lot of crêpe luncheons, some crêpe suppers as well and an occasional crêpe afternoon snack.
In the larger towns you can usually find a place selling sandwiches, Italian style panini, to go; or a place that sells pizza or hamburgers; or a McDonalds (we never got that desperate for calories).
We were happy to have a good boulangerie near us in Nantes where we could buy a sandwich or a packaged salad to go. But out in the small towns a crêperie is about the only choice for a simple—and a delicious—lunch.
In any size town, at almost any time of the day, you can find a boulangerie that sells delicious bread and scrumptious pastries and a brasserie that serves boissons (drinks)—hot or cold, alcoholic or not.
OK, it's the end of a long day of touristing and you want a proper meal. In any sizable town there will be several restaurants, and you wander through the middle of town going one restaurant to the next, reading the menus that they all post on the street, as well as the chalkboards where most of them will post what is fresh or different today. You pick one that's serving things you like at prices you accept and go in. Smile and say a bright bonjour, madame! or bonjour, messieur! to the server who looks inquiringly at you and add Deux, pour manger (Two of us lookin' to eat) and you get seated and get handed what we call the menu. But it's la carte because menu means something else.
All restaurants offer one or more menus, set three-course meals at a fixed price. Each menu lists a choice of a few entrées (starters), a choice of a few plats (main courses), and a choice of desserts, for a flat price. The cheapest menu we noticed was €14; €17 and €20 menus were common, and at the high end you can pay €50 and more.
If you don't feel like eating three courses (and we often didn't), you find that all the same entrées, plats and desserts are also on la carte with individual prices. So you tell the waiter you like to order a la carte, perhaps the entrée of the salade niçoise and the dessert of fondant chocolat. This is perfectly acceptable; however, if you do the arithmetic you find that the menu is the best deal. Three individual components out of the €20 menu, ordered a la carte, will add up to more than €20, often quite a bit more. Also, sometimes there are arcane and unstated rules about which items you can order. More than once we ordered something a la carte and were told we couldn't have it—it was only on the menu.
Restaurant suppers were generally good and sometimes very good indeed. The drawbacks? Too many calories, and especially, too much time.
It's an important principle of French life that you never hurry a meal or a drink. Once you are seated anywhere, you are free to occupy that chair as long as you like, right up to closing time if you want. The staff will never do anything to hurry you. Since this is the rule, meals are paced very, very slowly.
After you've placed your order, there'll be a wait. The entrée will come, and you'll eat it and after a while, that plate will be taken away. And after a while the main course will arrive. When you've disposed of that, there'll be another pause before the dessert arrives. And when you are done with that, the plate will be taken away and that's the last you'll see of the waiter. They won't bring the bill; you have to catch their attention and ask for it. You can be holding your credit card when you ask; they still won't bring the credit card machine until after they've brought the actual bill and you've had a chance to read it.
To go into a restaurant, order, consume, and pay for a three-course menu will take at least 90 minutes, more often two hours, sometimes longer. Now, mind you, the restaurants don't even start serving supper until after 7pm, and if you go in at 7:30 you will likely be the only clients until after 8. So you don't eat until 7:30 or so and you don't get back to your hotel until 9 or later.
OK, no big problem, you're on vacation, so what? Well, so what is if you also want to pick the keepers of the 75-100 pictures you took today, and write a blog post, and get a few minutes to read or relax, and still get to bed before midnight. The formal restaurant meal just took too big a chunk of our day, and we avoided them when we could.