How to Read a French Menu

Vocabulary Tips, Courses, Special Terms

French menu

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Reading the menu in a French restaurant can be a little tricky, and not just because of language difficulties. There may be important differences between restaurants in France and in your own country, including what foods are offered and how they are prepared.

Types of menus

Le menu and la formule refer to the fixed-price menu, which includes two or more courses (with limited choices for each) and is usually the least expensive way to eat out in France.

The choices may be written on the ardoise, which literally means "slate." Ardoise can also refer to the specials board the restaurant might display outside or on a wall at the entrance. The sheet of paper or booklet that the waiter hands you (what English speakers call the "menu") is la carte, and anything you order from it is à la carte, which means "fixed-price menu."

A couple of other important menus to know are:

  • La carte des vins, which is the wine menu
  • Une dégustation, which refers to a tasting menu, with small servings of multiple dishes (déguster means "to taste")

Courses

A French meal may include numerous courses, in this order:

  1. Un apéritif > cocktail, pre-dinner drink
  2. Un amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule > snack (just one or two bites)
  3. Une entrée > appetizer/starter (false cognate alert: entree can mean "main course" in English)
  4. Le plat principal > main course
  5. Le fromage > cheese
  6. Le dessert > dessert
  7. Le café > coffee
  8. Un digestif > after-dinner drink

Special Terms

In addition to knowing how French restaurants list their food items and prices, as well as the names of courses, you should also familiarize yourself with special food terms.

  • Le plat du jour is the daily special (literally, "dish of the day"), which is usually part of le menu.
  • Gratuit and offert both mean "free."
  • The waiter will often add the word petit ("little") to his offer: Un petit dessert? Un petit café?
  • When you're full, say: "Je n'en peux plus" or "J'ai bien/trop mangé."

Other Terms

To really feel comfortable ordering from the menu in a French restaurant, you'll need to learn a number of common terms. The list below includes almost all common terms you would need to know to impress your friends while ordering in French. The list is broken down by categories, such as food preparation, portions and ingredients, and even regional dishes.

Food Preparation 

affiné

aged

artisanal

homemade, traditionally made

à la broche

cooked on a skewer

à la vapeur

steamed

à l'etouffée

stewed

au four

baked

biologique, bio

organic

bouilli

boiled

brûlé

burnt

coupé en dés

diced

coupé en tranches / rondelles

sliced

en croûte

in a crust

en daube

in stew, casserole

en gelée

in aspic/gelatin

farci

stuffed

fondu

melted

frit

fried

fumé

smoked

glacé

frozen, icy, glazed

grillé

grilled

haché

minced, ground (meat)

maison

homemade

poêlé

panfried

relevé

highly seasoned, spicy

séché

dried

truffé

with truffles

truffé de ___

dotted/speckled with ___

Tastes 

aigre

sour

amer

bitter

piquant

spicy

salé

salty, savory

sucré

sweet(ened)

Portions, Ingredients, and Appearance 

aiguillettes

long, thin slices (of meat)

aile

wing, white meat

aromates

seasoning

___ à volonté (e.g., frites à volonté)

all you can eat

la choucroute

sauerkraut

crudités

raw vegetables

cuisse

thigh, dark meat

émincé

thin slice (of meat)

fines herbes

sweet herbs

un méli-mélo

assortment

un morceau

piece

au pistou

with basil pesto

une poêlée de ___

assorted fried ___

la purée

mashed potatoes

une rondelle

slice (of fruit, vegetable, sausage)

une tranche

slice (of bread, cake, meat)

une truffe

truffle (very expensive and rare fungus)

Typical French and Regional Dishes

aïoli

fish/vegetables with garlic mayonnaise

aligot

mashed potatoes with fresh cheese (Auvergne)

le bœuf bourguignon

beef stew (Burgundy)

le brandade

dish made with cod (Nîmes)

la bouillabaisse

fish stew (Provence)

le cassoulet

meat and bean casserole (Languedoc)

la choucroute (garnie)

sauerkraut with meat (Alsace)

le clafoutis

fruit and thick custard tart

le coq au vin

chicken in red wine sauce

la crême brûlée

custard with a burnt sugar top

la crème du Barry

cream of cauliflower soup

une crêpe

very thin pancake

un croque madame

ham and cheese sandwich topped with fried egg

un croque monsieur

ham and cheese sandwich

une daube

meat stew

le foie gras

goose liver

___ frites (moules frites, steak frites)

___ with fries/chips (mussels with fries/chips, steak with fries/chips)

une gougère

puff pastry filled with cheese

la pipérade

tomato and bell pepper omelet (Basque)

la pissaladière

onion and anchovy pizza (Provence)

la quiche lorraine

bacon and cheese quiche

la (salade de) chèvre (chaud)

green salad with goat cheese on toast

la salade niçoise

mixed salad with anchovies, tuna, and hard boiled eggs

la socca

baked chickpea crêpe (Nice)

la soupe à l'oignon

French onion soup

la tarte flambée

pizza with very light crust (Alsace)

la tarte normande

apple and custard pie (Normandy)

la tarte tatin

upside down apple pie