Blog Description

A French-Inspired Garden and Home by Judith Stringham

French Design on Friday 24

Friday, August 11, 2017


~ Dining en plein air
Knowing the culture

Sidewalk cafes are synonymous with France. Thus, synonymous with French design. Dining en plein air (in the outdoor air) is prevalent in cities, towns, and villages. No city is too big nor too small for eating outside. No restaurant is too elegant nor too rustic to have outdoor dining. The smallest village has outdoor tables and chairs for its lone restaurant, and metropolitan areas have a variety of outdoor dining options. Settings everywhere can be on terraces, in courtyards, along narrow passageways, overlooking rivers, in town squares, on sidewalks, and in pea gravel gardens.  

Savvy travelers should realize a few basic facts about French culture and how restaurants charge for meals based on where the meal is served. Prices within the same restaurant for the same food/meal may be different. Diners may be given different menus that reflect the different prices. 

Four Price Categories at French Restaurants

Typically there can be four price categories for French restaurant food. Not all options are available at every restaurant, cafe, or bistro, and some restaurants may charge the same prices for indoor and outdoor meals. Just do not be surprised if prices outside are higher than inside. It is important to let the restaurant host know where you would like to sit. 
  • at an inside table... more expensive than eating at the counter, but can be less expensive than eating outside  
  • at an outdoor table (en plein air)... can be the most expensive priced version of a meal
  • at the bar/counter... one of the two least expensive priced categories 
  • to order food "to go"... one of the two least expensive priced categories... large, elegant restaurants probably will not offer this option. 
    • a take-away meal is called plat à emporter 
    • a take-away drink is called boisson à emporter 

Dining en plein air 

Eating at sidewalk cafes and terraces in France is one of my favorite things I look forward to every time I get to go to France. The experience is worth any extra expense. Cool evenings often require a sweater or light jacket even during the middle of summer. Meals are not hurried, and waiters do not rush diners so another party can have the table. 

Nestled within the walls of the old city of Sarlat, this restaurant reflects old-world ambience in its outdoor terrace. French restaurants are required to display their menu and prices where customers can see them. Many restaurants use blackboards that are easy to change from day-to-day because chefs prepare recipes based on what is available fresh in the daily markets. A dish available at lunch may not be available at dinner or the next day if the ingredients are no longer available. 

You do not want to commit a major faux pas (an embarrassing or tactless act) of ordering a take-away meal and then sitting at one of the outdoor cafe tables. Remember, sidewalk tables are a restaurant's prime real estate, and meals cost more at outdoor tables. An angry waiter may chase you away, muttering under his breath the whole time. 

This table, chair, and stool are not at a restaurant, but are items available for sale at this store. City apartment balconies are tiny, and this set is a perfect size for a small space. 

Sometimes big city (Paris, Nice, Marseille...) sidewalk tables and chairs are the same style for adjacent restaurants and can cause diners to be confused about which tables go with which restaurants. Take a moment to determine which tables go with the posted outdoor menu you think looks delicious. There are several cafes in the Passage des Panoramas in Paris shown above. 

Feel free to dine in restaurants attached to hotels. One summer, Avignon was our base for daily excursions to visit the surrounding lavender fields and hilltop villages. We enjoyed the meals at this restaurant so much we ate there several times, but stayed in a different hotel. The menu had many options which allowed us to choose different meals each time. Watch for Plat du Jour and Menu Express options that offer value-priced meals. 

Small regional restaurants often have superb meals since most French restaurants use fresh local vegetables, meats, and fruits to cook "from scratch." Several of my memories of outstanding meals are from restaurants in small towns. When my sister and I begin reminiscing about our favorite French courses, we salivate over a lemon cake with blueberry sauce, an in-house made blackberry sorbet, a trout with lemon sauce, a beef bourguignon with local mushrooms, and a freshly-pressed walnut oil salad dressing. 

.... all eaten in outdoor settings. 

Galerie Vivienne is an up-scale shopping passage in the 2nd arrondissement in Paris. The small dining area was closing for the day when this late afternoon photo was taken. French design market umbrellas are often used by cafes on their terraces and sidewalks. 


To capture French design back home, set an outdoor table with flowers, a tablecloth, and nice china. 

Dining outdoors is an easy way to create your very own 

French-inspired garden and home. 

Do you have a favorite sidewalk cafe in France? 

See the following for detailed information about places mentioned in this week's French Design on Friday.