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FOOD AND DRINK

Reader question: Do I really need to reserve before going to a restaurant in France?

When visiting France, you are probably looking forward to the French gastronomy, but can you just turn up at a restaurant and get a table?

Reader question: Do I really need to reserve before going to a restaurant in France?
A waiter takes an order at a French brasserie in Paris. (Photo by FRED DUFOUR / AFP)

For many foreigners, eating delicious food is at the top of their priority list when coming to France. However, you might find that you should make a reservation before eating out, depending on where in France you are visiting and the type of food you are looking to enjoy. 

Do I need a reservation? And if so, where would I need one?

Whether you are staying in Paris or in a small town in the countryside, you might be surprised that the small bistro on the corner is fully booked when you walk up looking to dine in. Lots of restaurants in France, including small family-owned type places, are often more in demand than you might think. This is especially common in small towns where locals may be consistent patrons of the town’s crêperie, for example.

Also when it comes to small towns – especially those in touristy areas such as Brittany or the south of France – much will depend on what time of year you are there. If it’s the height of summer or the school holidays make sure to book in advance. 

In big cities, like Paris or Lyon which are home to scores of popular restaurants, making a reservation might not be necessary – depending on where you want to go. If you wander around for long enough, then you will likely be able to find a restaurant that will take people on the spot. In fact, several popular or trendy restaurants even have an explicit policies against reservations, in which case you will need to plan to stand in line for ‘first-come, first-serve’ table. If the restaurant has a website or social media presence, you can check online to see if they clearly state ‘no reservations’. 

However, traditional French restaurants mostly take reservations, and typically they do so by phone call. Some might allow you to come by in person in advance and make the reservation. 

READ MORE: Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

Even though France is becoming more tech-friendly, many restaurants continue to rely on phone calls, rather than the internet, for their reservation planning. Calling ahead can also allow you to clarify the restaurant’s hours of operation, as they sometimes differ from what might be listed on Google Maps or there could be an unforeseen closure or shift in the schedule.

Typically, it is best to book about one to two days in advance, but if you are on holiday and generally make last-minute plans then calling as soon as a restaurant opens to get a table at lunchtime, or as soon as it reopens in the evening might be OK. If the restaurant is highly coveted then you may want to see if it is possible to book about a week (or more) in advance. 

High-end restaurants, especially those featured on the Michelin guide, will expect reservations in most cases. 

READ MORE: 5 eco-friendly French restaurants from the new Michelin guide

When booking for holidays, such as Christmas or Valentine’s Day, you may need to book several weeks (at least two to three) in advance. 

What time should I make my reservation for?

Even though they are neighbours, the French certainly don’t follow Spanish dining habits of having the evening meal at 10pm, but having said that dinner in France is usually eaten later than in the US or Scandinavian countries.

Of course, dinner time in France varies between families and regions, but here are some guidelines.

Lunchtime tends to run between 12pm (noon) and 2pm – that’s when restaurants operate their lunchtime service, so that’s when it’s time to eat. 

Following the restaurant opening rule, the evening meal period typically starts from around 7pm. That’s when the tables are ready and a lot of restaurants won’t accept a booking before 7pm (some might even start at 8pm).

If you want to eat after 2pm but before 7pm you need to look out for a restaurant that advertises ‘service non-stop‘ (also called service continu), these are quite common in tourist areas and big cities, but are generally not the best restaurants. 

In Paris, people tend not to book a table before 8pm to 8.30pm – and plenty of restaurants (not just fast food joints) remain open until midnight.

READ MORE: Reader question: What time do the French eat dinner?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that means Parisians don’t eat until late every evening. Most don’t go out for a meal every night, and may dine a little earlier when they’re at home.

In most towns, cities or villages, restaurants and bistros open for evening service between 7pm and 7.30pm, although tourist resorts often have places that are open all day.

In smaller towns, you may find that restaurants don’t open every night – shutting on Monday is common – or shut their doors earlier, perhaps, than you’d expect, so your window of opportunity for a meal may be slim – especially in the colder months.

How can I go about making a reservation? What websites can I use?

As mentioned previously, you will likely need to make a reservation on the phone, especially for the French countryside. 

In order to do so, you will need to say a few things: that you want to reserve a table, the number of people who will be in attendance, and the time and date you would like to request.

First, you should begin by saying hello and asking if they take reservations: “Bonjour, est-ce que vous prenez des réservations ?”

If they say yes, then you can proceed with your request – let’s say you want to reserve a table for three people on March 30th at 8pm, you would say: “Est-ce que je pourrais réserver une table pour trois personnes le 30 mars à 20h ?”

If you are generally wondering if they have any availability that night, you might say “Avez-vous des places disponibles pour trois personnes le soir du 30 mars ? Et si oui, à quelle heure ?”

Be prepared to give a name phone number if they need to follow-up with you. It may be wise to write down your French phone number (or your international number with the correct area code) before the call.

In urban areas, some restaurants take their reservations online – either on their own website or on sites like TheFork.com. You may also be able to book on OpenTable.

Should I tip?

When asked, more than a quarter of readers of The Local France said that they tip sometimes (if they felt like it or had spare change), and almost half (43.5 percent) said they would reserve tipping for those times the service had been particularly good. 

One reader based in Strasbourg, Lauren Lever, said: “At a café if I pay in cash or have a few extra coins I will leave the spare change … [but] I often pay with a card and do not tip. However, if we have a really nice experience with great service we will tip nicely to show our gratitude, usually around 10 percent of the bill”. 

READ MORE: ‘We tip less in France than in the US’ – readers reveal who they tip, and how much

Helpful vocabulary

Couverts – This translates to “Cutlery”, but in French restaurants it is used to reference how many people will be seated at the table.

Réserver – To reserve

Combien de temps dure l’attente ? – How long is the wait?

Vous êtes combien ? – How many are in your party?

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

July 14th: What to expect from France’s Fête nationale this year

From military parades to fireworks and the arrival of the Olympic torch in Paris, here is what to expect on Bastille Day, or July 14th, this year.

July 14th: What to expect from France's Fête nationale this year

July 14th is the Fête nationale in France, often known as Bastille Day in the anglophone world, which marks the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 – the event that symbolises the beginning of the French revolution. 

There are many ways to celebrate, including fireworks displays, traditional parades and the highly popular bals de pompiers, where French firefighters host parties in their station houses.

Normally, July 14th is a public holiday, meaning most workers get a day off, but as it falls on a Sunday this year, there will not be an extra day away from work. 

This year the event comes just a few weeks ahead of the Olympic Games, and it also coincides with the final match of the Euro 2024 tournament, which will take place at 9pm.

Here is what to expect for the 2024 Fête nationale;

Parades

Most towns and cities across France have some sort of event on July 14th.

In Paris, there is a large military parade, with the President in attendance, to mark the event. Normally, this takes place along the Champs-Élysées, but this year it has been moved to Avenue Foch (which runs from the Arc de Triomphe toward the Bois de Vincennes) due to the Olympic Games preparation.

It will take place in the morning of Sunday, July 14th at 9.20am, and it will run until close to noon.

This year, the event will have two themes – the Olympics and the Armed Forces. There will also be a recognition of the 80th anniversary of the Liberation of France. 

As part of the parade, there will also be a flypast with 23 helicopters and 45 planes involved. The first will take place at 10.30am.

Olympic Torch arrival

July 14th will also mark the arrival of the Olympic torch in Paris. It will start off at about 12.50pm from the Champs-Elysées traffic circle.

Afterwards, it will visit several landmarks across the city, including the Luxembourg Gardens, the Île de la Cité, and the Louvre before arriving at the Hôtel de Ville. 

You can see the full schedule on the town hall’s website here.

READ MORE: MAP: Where will the Olympic torch visit on its journey through France?

Fireworks

It’s traditional for towns and cities across France to put on fireworks displays either on the night itself or on July 13th – these happen even in quite small towns so check your local mairie’s website or Facebook page for details.

In Paris, the famous Bastille Day fireworks will still happen at the Eiffel Tower, but there will be no viewing area at the Champ de Mars or Trocadéro this year, as they are undergoing preparations for the Olympic Games.

You can watch the fireworks from different locations in the city or on television on France 2. They will go from 11pm to 11.35pm.

Concert

If you are visiting the capital, there will be a ‘Concert de Paris’ with choir music and an orchestra. This time it will take place at the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, located in the 4th arrondissement.

According to Radio France, the concert will be free with no need for a reservation.

Many other French towns and cities will be holding concerts too.

Bals de pompier

French firefighters traditionally open up their stations to visitors on the evening July 14th, but this year most will do so on July 13th instead (owing to the fact that July 14th is on a Sunday), and they host the famous bals des pompiers (firemen’s balls).

Some of these events are family-friendly and laid back, while others – especially in Paris and Marseille – are a little more raunchy where les pompiers show off their famously well-honed physiques to an appreciative audience.

Euro final 

Sunday also marks the conclusion of the Euro 2024 football tournament, although since France got knocked out in the semis this won’t be as big an event in France as it might have been. The match kicks off at 9pm and is showing on French free to air channel TF1.

READ MORE: How to watch the Euro 2024 semi-finals on TV in France

Traffic and weather

According to La Chaîne Météo, the weekend could see mixed weather across France, with a possible cold drop, showers and unseasonably low temperatures on Saturday.

As for Sunday, forecasters say that the weather may be unstable in the north and east of the country, with a risk of rain and chilly temperatures. In the south and the west, they expect a return to calmer, drier weather. 

Maximum temperatures may range from 17C in north-east France to 28C near the Mediterranean. Overall, they are expected to stay about 1-2C below seasonal norms.

When it comes to traffic, the most congestion will occur on Saturday.

On Friday, though there will be some slowdowns across the country, and traffic will be most heavy for departures in the upper north-west, with Bison Futé predicting that zone will be ‘red’ for ‘heavy traffic’.

Bison Futé predictions for Friday

On Saturday, departures across the north-west and into parts of central and south-eastern France will also see red-level heavy traffic, with the rest of the country expected to experience moderately more traffic than usual.

Bison Futé predictions for Saturday

As for Sunday, the roads will be mostly clear, with some slowdowns in the Paris area for departures and returns, as well as parts of eastern France for departures.

Bison Futé predictions for Sunday

Closures and operating hours

As the Fête Nationale falls on a Sunday this year, several places will already be closed, such as banks and government offices. Shops may also have reduced opening hours.

Larger chains such as supermarkets, especially in the cities, may be open for part of the day, but may have different or limited opening hours. Bars, cafés, restaurants and tourist attractions should be open as normal.

Politics

Historically, it is not uncommon for the French president to make a speech on July 14th – however France is in a turbulent period right now, so whether Emmanuel Macron will make a speech or not remains to be seen.

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