When do we Eat? Understanding Parisian Food Customs

It was about five o’clock and we had just finished wandering the tunnels in the Catacombs, when we ascended from the winding stairs and out onto Rue de Denfert. My friend and I went back and forth and decided we needed to eat because we had not eaten for hours. As we walked down the street our stomachs started gurgling—angry at our carelessness for leaving them empty for much too long. Each time we approached an establishment that looked like it might be a restaurant, we saw a sign signaling it was a Café et Boulangerie, and we saw people sitting at petite tables circling the establishment with a cigarette in one hand with glass of wine, spirits, or cup of coffee in the other—but no food.

The whole street seemed like a hot spot for this type of business, and everywhere we turned we saw the same sign— Café et Boulangerie after name variations, but as we passed each one we noted the same commonality—no one was eating food. Finding this quite odd, my friend and I started to peek into the establishment windows thinking maybe people ate inside restaurants in France and drank and smoked outside. To our dismay, people had a coffee, beer, or cocktail in hand and were chatting while sipping their drinks just like they were outside-minus the smoking. We wandered around for an hour attempting to find a place that was serving food, but unfortunately found none.

This strange phenomenon occurred for several days. We ate a very small breakfast following the lead of the people eating breakfast before us, and skipped lunch because we were out busy seeing sights in the city, and when we were good and ready to have a heavy meal around three to eight pm we only saw people smoking and drinking. We became very confused and desperate:

“Do the French not eat Dinner?” We inquired to each other frustrated and hungrier with each passing day.

“That would explain why they are so thin.” We commented decidedly.

After this conversation, we began to note that we were completely unaware of French eating customs and wondered when and where we could eat. One day around eight thirty pm we passed another strip of restaurants in the Marias district, but this time there actually were people eating. The next few days we noticed that establishments and eateries were open for a few hours for lunch, and actually served food. Finally, after about a week and a half of wandering around Paris famished because we kept misjudging meal times and customs, we finally figured out the customs that are so different from the way Americans eat, where meals are plentiful and available at all times.

If you want to get the most of your dining experience in Paris, it is important to keep the customs in mind. When you visit, it is traditional to eat a small pastry and coffee for breakfast, a nice sustaining lunch between twelve and two pm, and end the day with a small dinner between the hours of eight to ten at night. If you choose to have something else in between lunch and dinner instead of coffee—cocktail drinks and wine are readily available to you from lunch into the evening. Hopefully, instead of wandering around trying to find your next meal, you can easily find your way around as an informed American in Paris without going hungry.

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