Sips, Tips, and Potato Chips

Since 1910 guys like Picasso and Debussy have hung out here. Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on their novels. George Gershwin composed part of his well-known “An American in Paris” over cups of coffee. But I didn’t know any of this trivia two days ago, I was just in it for the snacks.

I’d been at Café de la Rotonde once before with a friend and noticed my glass of wine didn’t arrive alone: three small ceramic bowls of peanuts, potato chips, and olives marinated in herbs-de-Provence came free of charge. This is rare even in the café capital of the world, and it was duly noted at the time. So when I found myself back in the Montparnasse neighborhood during a Goonie map expedition, I was all too happy to warm up with a pit stop. My visit this time prompted me to jot down some things about Parisian café culture.

For starters the customer/waiter relationship is a unique one here, and has surely been the cause of frustration for more than a few tourists. The lack of traditional tipping in France has far-reaching effects in the land of customer service. The wait staff is either on a salary or a set hourly wage, regardless of how many customers come or how happy they are when they leave. For this reason I wasn’t surprised when I sat at my table virtually ignored for the first 15 minutes. The server knows you’re there – these guys have an uncanny spidey sense for it – but they have stuff to do, stuff that may not include taking your order just yet. And it’s not just for foreigners; I noticed all the regulars sat in isolation much the same way after entering. It’s assumed you’re a laid back European expecting to spend some quality time in that seat, and it’d almost be offensive to be waited on immediately.

When my guy finally appeared there was no “Hi, I’m François and I’ll be your waiter this evening”. And he most definitely wasn’t wearing any pieces of flare. He instead took my order by forgoing all eye contact, mumbling Monsieur? while cleaning someone else’s dirty table nearby. I don’t think he even noticed my gender. As I ordered my glass of Bordeaux his body language alone showed he’d already moved on in his mind. It’s not that he was rude, just incredibly efficient, which is the thing: if you choose to embrace this cliché rather than scoff at it, you’ll see that the lack of pleasantries comes from years of honing the craft of service in its most basic sense. They’ve seen every type of customer, heard every dish ordered with all possible substitutions, they know that café down to the last bus pan. That kind of repetition culminates in an expertise bordering on surgical precision. The idea of a professional waiter exists here due to the steady income and benefits it provides, and sometimes you feel you’ve been served a helping of the tough love that only a pro could give you.

The check often arrives along with your order but it’s not to hurry you, rather the opposite. As mentioned before, once you sit down it’s implied that your table is your own unalienable piece of the globe for as long as you want it. In fact after that first less-than-memorable exchange with my waiter, that was the end of the evening’s communication – verbal or otherwise. But this freedom to linger as if you’re chez toi is a luxury we don’t always enjoy in the states, especially in a bustling restaurant with a line outside. They haven’t lost their respect for the smelling of roses around here, and as we speak there’s probably a Parisian in New York confused and offended by his waiter clearing empty plates before he’s left. In these parts once the order’s taken, even the wait staff respect your table as private property.

Finally, I noticed how common it was for people to be sitting alone in this café. Two men across from me, one carefully chilling his carafe of rosé in a bucket of ice, another nursing a mixed drink with lemon and staring out the window at bundled Parisians rolling suitcases to the nearby train station. A kind-faced woman in her 40’s was sat to my right and ate a meal + dessert, seeming content to quietly watch the theatrics of the café play out in front of her. Observation, philosophy, and intellectualism were always synonymous with the cafés here and I wonder if that still pervades a little bit. Whatever it is, my new favorite watering hole has a lot going for it, enough so that Picasso was inspired to paint it in his Café de la Rotonde.

For other, more modern customers, it makes you wanna…I don’t know, write a blog.

58 thoughts on “Sips, Tips, and Potato Chips

  1. Interesting post. I currently blog from Haiti and before that lived in Vietnam–where there is really no tipping to speak of, but the service is still exceptioanl. Here in Haiti people tip, but the service is still sometimes lacking. But then again, there’s a lot lacking here in Port-au-Prince–so maybe that’s just life post-disaster.

    Thanks for sharing and congratulations on being freshly pressed!

  2. Thank you for writing this for those of us that have yet to experience Paris. So many Americans return from Paris and say “They’re so rude!” when perhaps they just communicate differently and are very efficient at what they do. I look forward to immersing myself in this culture when I visit in the years to come.

    Cheers!

    http://yourlifesentence.wordpress.com/

  3. Great Post and very well described and written! It is not rudness from the waiter but just a cultural thing and a French cafe. But this is the way we like it… Cafes in France is a place to hang-out, observe what is going on around, thinking by yourself and just enjoying the food or drink you are having. It is a place to resource yourself for the French people (kind of like a SPA) or to be with friends and spend a good time. I live in Asia now and I miss my moments alone in a Cafe in France!!
    On an other note, we find it weird in the States when the waiter calls you Honey/Dear and keeps asking every 5 minutes if everything is fine and if we want the bill hehehe but like I say each country has it’s own culture and that is great!!
    Bisous (like we say in France)

  4. Well, now I just definitely have to find a way to make it there at some point in my life. This way of serving and being waited on would be my dream come true! I don’t care for waiters/waitresses that want to converse/joke with me or come to my table every 3 minutes to see if I’m okay or need anything (I find it extremely annoying and they always come when I’m in the middle of chewing.). I know how to get there attention if I need something–without being loud or rude. I understand they are relying partly on their friendly nature to make a tip, but it can be annoying just as much as a rude waiter/waitress.

    I have been to two very nice places in my whole adult lifetime where I thought the service was the best I ever had in my life. And it was because both servers (one was male, and one was female)took our order, brought our food, and then left us alone to enjoy the meal (checking back “verbally” only once, but always with their eye on us in case we needed to motion for something else)in the most professional way. It was the best thing ever! The food was already known to be of great quality, so the fact that the service was so professional made the experience even more enjoyable.

    Believe me, they were tipped well!

    1. Aw thanks a lot Gloriadelia! Yes it’s more than ok to order another glass, it’s just that the waiter will tend not to ask out of the blue. But yeah, you can motion to him saying “S’il vous plait?” and the wine will be flowing shortly thereafter. Thanks for reading and take care!

  5. Order coffee in the Netherlands and you’ll get a cute little Danish cookie. :)

    When I’m in Europe I tend to really enjoy myself because I get to be myself and take my time. People just don’t meddle into your private life and nobody’s going to take your plate as soon as you empty it. I love it when I’m allowed to take my time and sit at a cafe without the staff trying to kick me out as soon as my cup/glass/plate is empty so they can let the next paying person in.

    In Indonesia professional waiters also exist. And so does tipping. And so does kicking people out as soon as they finish.

    One question: do a lot of the other customers bring laptops/netbooks/iPads to the cafe nowadays?

    1. Thanks for commenting mia1984. The French don’t carry their work around as much, so no there’s not as much of that. For better or worse, the mentality here is to separate work life distinctly from home and leisure time, so cafés are mostly for people watching, meeting a friend, etc. Hope that helps, thanks again and take care!

      1. Thanks for answering. I wish I could move to Paris. I love that kind of mentality. I think it’s always a lot like that in Europe. Because when I was in the Netherlands people were very strict about closing shops at 17:00 so they could have personal time to live their lives. Shops were also closed on Sundays (except for certain dates in a month). It’s really mentally healthy. It makes happier people.

    1. Yes, the olives! They were so good they almost got their own paragraph. Not only were the herbs there but maybe a bit of garlic or onion as well. It’s the kind of thing I used to buy in NYC specialty shops expressly to fantasize a bit about being in Europe, and now here I am! Thanks a lot for reading and commenting.

  6. I love it, No introduction of the waiter, I DON’T care who HE is, I’m there to relax…I’m not there to make friends…JUST business, great as it SHOULD be… refreshing…

    evelyngarone.com

  7. Oh, your prose…it is warmth for my heart! I could read your stories all day and night and miss Paris all the more.

    Hugs XO

  8. What a great write-up of european cafe culture. Very romantic in my view. Even though I do find the French custoimer service a bit lacking… then again, not so great on this side of the English Channel all the time either..lol. What America gets right is that the consumer or customer is King.

  9. this is really GREAT ! of all things, I’m just uploading to this blog my first Paris, not a lot just a video I made of it…than feeling satisfied I look to this word press to enjoy other stories and waa laa there this is, Bravo, I’m three days old here and so glad I came, I had no ideal these types of things were posted after my own heart ….love your style
    ty ty ty :)
    http://j3dnight.wordpress.com/
    -Jeannette

  10. Dining is an experience which is not meant to be rushed. Thanks for bringing this point to the forefront.
    Great picture of the table. It conveys a rich ambiance.
    Enjoy Paris!

  11. Drinking, eating, relaxing and people watching. It sounds perfect! Especially not having to rush your drink/meal. Now I’m even more determined to get my butt over that way! Great post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed :)

  12. great post! damn I want to be back in Paris. It is culture shock but once you get used to it, you CANNOT GO BACK!

    congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  13. All waiters in Paris are polite and kind and they’re all about serving you and making you feel like you belong there…and then comes the check…lol

  14. “It’s assumed you’re a laid back European expecting to spend some quality time in that seat, and it’d almost be offensive to be waited on immediately.”

    LOL

  15. I once read a book a book about an Australian who moved to Paris and married her french boyfriend, where she says the only time waiting staff were ever rude to her was when she was too polite to them, and that they expect you to be nochalent with them, because you are the customer!

    1. Yep, it’s called Almost French and it’s actually sitting on my bookshelf right now. An Australian friend gave it to me as a going away present. Thanks for the comment and take care!

  16. What a great vantage point you have, and what a great lesson on culture for the rest of us. A formal education can teach a lot, but traveling and understanding the subtleties in cultures refines even more.

    I can’t help but think that “sometimes” though, the kind of service we get is an underlying intolerance for the clientele. Even at La Rotonde.

  17. Different cultures alwaysintrigue me. This post was especially of interest. I recently went to a Persian restaurant. Although the server was quick to take the orders it did take a while to get the food. Anyways, we ordered appetizers, entree and dessert. I thought surely the server would reach across and get the empty plates out of the way but he didn’t.So, I figured he was shy. Later we were talking with the server and found out he was living in Europe for a while. After reading your blog I’m thinking it’s maybe the culture and that he was being respectful of our ‘private property.’ Thanks, What an interesting read.

    Sepi.

  18. so that’s what it was; I couldn’t quite define it while in Paris, but you have perfectly described it, all the way down to “someone else’s dirty table nearby” :-). for those that have heard “terrible, terrible stories” about French waiters: they are totally not rude in any way, they just don’t have that artificial “my customer is my master actually” attitude, and that system functions perfectly, you ask for what you need and they bring it to you. it is a wonderful city with wonderful people.
    of course, it might be that I understand it because I’m a European :-)

    1. Thanks Lucky, I’m sure there are a few other cafés giving free treats but so far I haven’t seen it other than this place. I’ve already been back since writing this. Thanks for reading and take care.

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