Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Misunderstood Parisian Waiter

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal had me smiling and nodding my head in agreement.  The subject was that most intriguing, intimidating, misunderstood and enigmatic of Parisian symbols – le serveur parisien – the Parisian waiter. 

Illustration Vincent Mahé
In her delightful article, “In Defense of the Notoriously Arrogant French Waiter,” Cristina Nehring, an American expat living in Paris, attempts to unravel the mystery of what makes the Parisian garcon de café tick. 

Of course, everyone from the tourist to the native to the parisien de souche has his or her own favorite stories about this most redoubtable of French institutions.   And so, I thought I’d share with you one of mine. 

Photo:  Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
It was very late one evening, even by Parisian standards, when my husband and I sat down at the terrasse of a café for a bite.  It had been a long day and we were exhausted.  The café was full inside and out, and the busy waiter threw two menus at us as he whizzed past.  We had barely opened the menus when he reappeared, stamping his foot in annoyance that we had not yet made a selection.  The minute my husband spoke to me in English, the waiter rolled his eyes and stalked off. 

As I looked into the café, I saw our waiter sitting at the bar knocking back shots of Armagnac.  “Well,” I said to my husband, “this is a new one.  I’ve never seen this before.”  We may have been tired, but I was not about to give up without a fight.  Besides, now I was intrigued. 

By the time the waiter returned, I had decided on my plan of action – a two-pronged charm offensive à la française-américaine.  I would couple my French language skills with that quintessential American quality which can be found in abundance only in America – Niceness.  The French can disarm you with their charm, which they can turn on and off at will, but Americans are by far the nicest, most helpful, most sympathetic people in the world, and over the years I have seen more than one haughty Frenchman crumble in the face of it. 
As he stood there in front of us tapping his foot in annoyance, I looked at him, smiled sweetly and said in French, “Monsieur, you are clearly having a bad day.  I’m so sorry.”  The next thing I knew we were having an Oprah moment.  His girlfriend had moved out the night before and a colleague had not shown up for work today.   Not only did he serve us beautifully after that, but it was Armagnacs all around, on the house, after dinner. 

If you are going to Paris for the first time and plan on eating in a restaurant, here are a few things to keep in mind concerning the Paris waiter: 

1)   He is not an out-of-work actor/model/singer/musician as is usually the case in the USA.  He is a professional who knows his business, which is food and wine and how to serve them;

2)   As a tourist/customer, you are seen as an annoyance, ranging from minor to major depending on your behavior and his mood that day.  Try not to take it personally; and

3)   He will always reserve his best service for his regular customers, which, from his point of view, is good business.  You will probably not return but they will. 

Parisian waiters notice everything, and, over the years, they have dropped the most interesting little tidbits into my plate.  Here are just a few of them (Take them for what they are worth.): 

Parisians are the quickest to complain – about everything. 

American children are the most badly behaved, followed closely by British children.  Of course, once they are old enough to text, they become less disruptive, but they still have very poor table manners. 

German tourists are the most demanding.  As one older waiter put it, “Someone should tell them they didn’t win the War.” 


  1. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    What a lovely, straight to the point post! LOVE it and it is oh so true what you say about taking special care of regular customers with whom they have built up a special relation over many years. So different from here in the USA!
    LOVED the compliment you paid for the American quality and I wholeheartedly agree.
    Hugs and stay warm!

    1. Dearest Mariette,
      I knew you would appreciate this post. I'll do my best to stay warm, although it was 1 degree when I woke up this morning. Brrrr!

      Big bisous, my friend,

  2. I loved this. The parting wisdoms from the Parisian Waiter are priceless. An Oprah moment:). I can just picture it now. Enjoy your week my friend.
    xx Jennifer

    1. Actually, I have more stories about Parisian waiters I can share. I'll save them for later.

      We'll chat soon.

      xoxo, M-T

  3. Oh, my goodness, this brings back a memory from Paris. My husband and I were seated in a small restaurant and when the waiter came over to take our order, realizing that we didn't speak french, he just walked away. I assume he was hoping we would leave, as there were a number of people waiting of tables. What I remember so well, is how my cheeks burned with embarrassment. As fortune would have it, the German couple sitting next to us witnessed the event and asked what we would like to order (by that time I would have eaten cardboard). She called the waiter over and very nicely ordered for us, in french. They were finishing their meal, but waited while we ate. After we were done, we all walked for an hour and become friends. I sent a gift when we arrived home to thank them for rescuing us that evening. They were living in St. Cloud for a year,,,,,so all turned out well. By the way, the waiter was QUITE put out! The next evening, I wanted to go to Burger King, but my husband said no, we came to Paris to experience everything and so we did. He was much braver than I was!

    1. Dear Grams,

      Your experience is not unique; however, I'm so glad to know that you were rescued by a charming German couple. I have always had wonderful treatment in Germany, even though my German is limited to what I have been able to pick up through Wagner's operas (king, queen, death, etc.).

      Your husband was quite right about experiencing "everything" Paris has to offer, especially, but not limited to, the magnificent cuisine. I hope the rest of your stay in the City of Lights was more pleasant.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Cheers, M-T

  4. Have you seen the Olivier Girard show "How to be a Parisian in One Hour"? Tongue in cheek and poking fun but in some ways true….I have found that as returning visitor (I stay in Paris for several months and frequent my corner restaurant), the waiters are friendly and helpful.

    1. No, I have not seen it, but I did a post about it when it first became a hit. Friends living in Paris (expat and native) have raved about it, especially his take on the Parisian waiter. ("Oh c'est trop vrai!")

      I, also, make a habit of returning to favorite haunts when I'm in Paris, and they always remember me.

      Thanks for stopping by, Madame Là-bas,

      Ciao, M-T

  5. Replies
    1. I know you can appreciate this, even though you spend most of your time in the south of France.

      My pleasure, Josephine,

      Cheers, M-T

  6. Dear Marie-Therese

    I adores this post! It brought to mind an experience my husband and I had during a Paris visit. We decided to have an early dinner in Brasserie Lipp's enclosed cafe as the indoor tables were all reserved. (We were later able to witness the chic Parisians walking passed us, often carrying their dogs, into the interior restaurant.) Upon our arrival, our waiter was focused on putting place settings precisely on his tables. He was very displeased when we almost sat down at a table. It later occurred to us that his unhappiness was due to him wanting to set the stage before the curtain opened on his audience.

    1. Dear Cynthia,

      I love your story. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. You clearly understood what was going in this waiter's mind, albeit belatedly. How insightful of you. It would be as if you had arrived early to a dinner party and sat down at the table before the hostess had finished setting it. She would, no doubt, be most unhappy.

      Glad you stopped by and took the time to comment. Much appreciated.

      Cheers, M-T

  7. Hello great website! Does running a blog likke this requure a great deal of work?

    I have virtually no knowledge of programming but I was hoping to start my own blog
    soon. Anyway, if yoou have any ideas or tips for new
    blog owners please share. I understand this is off topic however I
    just needed to ask. Thanks a lot!


My dear Readers, I do so love reading your comments and appreciate the time you take to make them. To make it easier to leave your comments, I have disabled that annoying "Word Verification" setting, which Blogger (in its infinite wisdom) enabled without my consent.

If you have a problem posting your comment, just send it to me at frenchtouchimage@gmail.com.

I will be happy to post it for you and link back to you. I look forward to hearing from you.