How To Order At A French Restaurant Without Sounding Dumb (Or Pretentious)by Chiara Atik on October 24, 2011
There’s something about French restaurants that immediately conjures an image of a snotty, extremely expensive bistro where your waiter sneers, just waiting for you to mispronounce something. While this is certainly accurate in some cases, the truth is that French food, like any cuisine, is extremely varied in taste, price, and regional differences. From French cafes to casual bistros, there’s a world of more casual, wallet friendly options in addition to traditional high-end cuisine.
The reason French restaurants in general make such great date spots is that the French put such an emphasis on the meal. A traditional French repas is usually divided up into four or five parts: the appetizer, the entree, the cheese plate, the dessert, and of course, the wine. The important thing is not to rush: whether you order one plate or five, take the time to enjoy the food, the wine, and the company. French restaurants are practically made for lingering. A good date is therefore easily extended, past dessert and onto coffee, then followed by an apertif, etc, etc…
Of course, because the French take their food so seriously, and foodies take French food so seriously, some basic vocabulary knowledge is good to have.
The “eu” sound, in oeuf, boeuf bourgignon, and d’heuvre is pronounced with the same vowel sound we use in words like “uhm” or “uh”. Consonants at the end of words aren’t altogether dropped, as some assume, but they’re definitely not stressed. “Ls”, like the ones in bouillabaisse or sommelier are usually pronounced softly, more like the English “y.”
But what matters most of all, in ordering French food, is trying: take a stab at pronouncing and go for it. People will appreciate your effort, and anyone who dares correct you (especially on a date!) is not worth your time.
Bra-ser-ee. Not “brassiere.” Honest mistake, but try to leave undergarments out of your first date conversation.
“Maitre” Doesn’t Rhyme With “Waiter”
Thank goodness maitre d’s have gone out of fashion in the past few years, because this is a tricky one to navigate in terms of pronunciation/pretentiousness. In French, maitre d’ means “master of –”, which is shortened from “master of hotel/restuarant/the world. (So, the head waiter/restaurant manager of, say, Applebees, would be “Maitre D’Applebees.”)
In French, this is pronounced “meh-treh deh”, but in English it’s been colloquially butchered to “Mayder Dee”, which is awful, but not nearly as awful as showing up at a restaurant and demanding to speak to the “mehtreh deh”.
Few restaurants have maitre d’s these days, but when faced this one, you can easily sidestep the whole problem by simply saying “the restaurant manager” or “the host”.
Hors d’oeuvre: Not “Orderves”
For some reason, the common English pronunciation of this switches order of the “v” and the “r” in the word. So it’s not “orDERVEs”, but rather “orDEVREs”s.
Pronouncing this word correctly is like walking a tightrope. If you go too hard on the vowel, you’ll end up incorrectly pronouncing it “craype” (like the paper). Too soft on the vowel, and you end up saying “crap”, which is pretty darn unappetizing.
It’s “crehp”, with the same vowel sound you make with “meh.”
Crepes, by the way, are a delicious and light dish which can be prepared either savory or sweet. Probably not something you’d order as a main dish at dinner, but a perfect lunch item. As for dessert, they’re of course delicious when prepared with ingredients such as chocolate or nutella (what isn’t delicious when made with nutella?), but may be best in the original “au sucre” form, with just lemon and sugar.
Au Jus: Oh, Joos!
Au jus has such a disgusting definition for such a delicious thing: it basically means something that is cooked/served in its own juices. *Shudder.*
Anyway, this is sometimes confusing because it means “juice” and it isn’t too much of a stretch to interpret the spelling as “juice”. Alas, the term is actually pronounced “oh joos.” No risk of sounding pretentious saying it that way: it’s of French provenance but a common English expression, too.
We Are The Champignons
If you pronounced this word as it is written, you’d probably end up ordering something like “Champ-pig-nons.” The French word for mushroom is, however, “sham-pee-gnon.”
Vichyssoise is a soup made from leeks, onions, potatoes, chicken stock, and, most importantly, cream. Julia Child claims that this “French” dish is actually an American invention, which means you can pretty damn well pronounce it however you want. BUT, for the sake of erudition: vee-she-swahz.
Your Sommelier Probably Didn’t Come From Somalia
No offense to the Sommelier from Somalia who is inevitably reading this and outraged right now, but, chances are your wine expert for the evening is not of Somalian descent. (Because it’s a small country! It’s just the odds!)
This is just to say that while most people say “Soh-MAH-Lee-Ay”, the term is actually “SEHM-eh-yay.” In French the “l” is silent, but you can bring it back if you’re worried about sounding too tres: Seh-Mel-yay.
Coq Au Vin: Get Your Mind Out Of The Gutter
Are you really able to say “cock” on a first date without blushing? Power to you. If the thought of it makes you want to avoid this dish at all costs, don’t worry: it’s actually pronounced more like “kok” (not “cawk”): kok-oh-van (without going too hard on the “n”). Or go ahead and overemphasize “cock” with a straight-face and gauge how cool your date is based on their reaction.
If You See The Word “Grenouilles”…
…don’t even bother trying to pronounce it because this is the French word for frog and the dish you are looking at most certainly consists of frog’s legs and it is this writer’s opinion that no one is going to want to kiss you after they see you eat frog’s legs.
A Macaron Is Not A Macaroon
Macarons are starting to be as popular as cupcakes were a few years ago: they’re chic, pretty to look at, and come in a seemingly endless variety of flavors. However, these sweet almond confections are not to be confused (or pronounced like!) macaroons, which are meringue-like cookies of Italian descent. The French treat is pronounced “mah-cah-rohn.”
In French, profiteroles are pronounced “pro-fee-trolls,” with an emphasis on the last syllable. However, this dish is common enough in the US that it’s perfectly acceptable to pronounce every syllable in the American way: pro-fee-ter-oles.
The Croissant/Kwa-ssant Debate
The croissant, while obviously French in origin, is now sold at every bakery, Starbucks and 7-11 in the country. Because of this, it’s completely fine to pronounce this “cruh-sahnt”. Yep, in French, it’s “kwa-ssant”, and if you’re completely committed to sticking to this pronunciation, then go right ahead, but if you ever fault someone for saying it the English (normal) way, you’re going to come off as insufferable.
On a different note, what in America is usually referred to (logically) as a chocolate croissant is sometimes billed as “pain au chocolat”. (Look for the square shape.) This is pronounced pan-o-sho-ko-laht.