The one where we skipped the bill at a fancy restaurant
So I get it. Paris isn’t exactly known for friendly waiting service. Believe me, I’ve seen it all. Haughty waiters who refuse to speak to you in French; haughty waiters who speak to you in French but adopt a pained expression trying to understand your response; and haughty waiters who seem to be able to perform all of their waiterly duties whilst persistently staring at their shoes, the walls, out the window - anywhere but your helplessly flailing arms! (Anyone who wishes to truly understand the French waiter should watch Paul Taylor’s Les Terraces 😂)
Recently I had my single most haughty French dining experience, at restaurant that I am not going to name because I really like going there, and generally the service is only moderately haughty. I was having dinner with my cousin who was visiting from Australia. It was during summer and we wanted to eat outside. On approaching the restaurant, we noticed a table that was free, but I preferred to ask the waiter first before plonking ourselves down.
“Excuse me, it’s two of us for dinner.”
“OK, he replied, in a totally nonplussed tone.
“Can we sit outside?”
“If you like,” he replied as if our decision to do had nothing whatsoever to do with him.
“OK, but is that table free?”
“I don’t know.” At this point I was beginning to feel as I were in an episode of Fawlty Towers.
“Isn’t it your job to know?” I blurted exasperatedly. French people and the French language often have the effect of driving me to new levels of directness.
“No, it is not my job.”
“Is this a joke?” It was not a joke, he replied, before helpfully suggesting that I go outside and see for myself if the table in question was free.
I turned to my cousin, expecting his face to mirror the frustration that was surely written all over mine. He looked surprisingly unperturbed.
“What did he say?” he asked. The entire conversation had been in French, and he hadn’t understood a word.
Oh, but that’s right, you came to hear the story about the time we didn’t pay the bill in the fancy restaurant! OK, let me tell you that one. You’re gonna love it...
There were four of us out for drinks, one Australian (yours truly) a New Zealander, and two French (it sounds like the opening line of a joke, I know, but I assure you it really happened). We each ordered a fancy cocktail and some fancy aperitifs.The surroundings were equally fancy, and the bill had definitely already exceeded 100€.
The night was going well, and we were up for another drink. But in the interests of our future children’s inheritance, we decided to continue the night somewhere a little less fancy. We attempted to flag down one of the fancy waiters to ask for our fancy bill. It seemed impossible. Every waiter who passed appeared to be staring fixedly anywhere but at us. This continued for a good ten minutes.
Dear reader, at that stage of our Paris experience my New Zealander friend and I were but newbs. We still harboured hope for the attentiveness of the French waiters, and decided it could make things easier if we transported ourselves to the bar. However, the next ten minutes were sadly spent in fruitless attempts to attract eye contact with the staff.
I want to preface what happened next with an explanation of service culture in the Antipodes. It is possible that I have romanticised it somehow (my Mother tells me I have romanticised everything about Australian culture 🙈) but my memory of waiters in Australia is that they are extremely attentive yet relaxed at the same time. They are efficient; they are taught to look up at all times; they are reasonably relaxed about making changes to the menu; they are friendly (without the obsequiousness of their tip-seeking American counterparts - tipping doesn’t really exist in Australia) and most importantly, they return to your table with the bill very quickly after you ask for it. And, I mean, why wouldn’t they? Isn’t that in everyone’s interests 🙆🏻?
So you can imagine the frustration of my New Zealander friend and I after the 20 minute mark of waiting for the bill. The French guys didn’t seem particularly bothered. Or at least they weren’t until one of us Antipodeans made a suggestion: “Guys, why don’t we just leave?”
I swear I have never seen French people as scandalised as these ones were at the suggestion of not paying for food and drink. They seemed to regard this as some sort of essential societal duty, kinda like us Anglo-saxons regard, I dunno, being friendly to strangers and apologising when you bump into each other on the street. (To each his own, ‘ey?).
“No, I mean, of course we will pay, but maybe if we start to walk out we will actually catch their attention?”
And so we started walking to the lobby. Our French companions were genuinely horrified, and actually appeared frozen on the spot. Should they follow us and risk being shamed as French people who don’t appreciate the subtle art that is paying for food and drink? Or should they risk single-handedly footing the 100€ bill? In the end, they decided to follow us. I guess money always wins out.
Half way through the lobby it became clear that in fact the waiters gave so few shits that they didn’t even notice us shirking the bill (I mean, quelle surprise, really) and with a rush of excitement we realised that we were actually walking out of one of Paris’ fanciest restaurants without paying. As soon as we got out the door, the Antipodeans started gleefully running for several blocks, considering ourselves a pair of modern-day Thelma and Louises.
Meanwhile, the French trailed along in red-faced disbelief, mumbling about calling up the restaurant the next day to pay, and moaning about forever being blacklisted from a Parisian institution. To my knowledge neither of the above came to pass, although I do like to imagine out photos making it onto a fancy blacklist wall.
Let me clarify that I am not suggesting that we all start skipping the bill at Parisian restaurants in order to combat haughty service. Believe me, we were as surprised as anyone that we ended up getting away with it. But let’s just say that the possibility has since become a nice silver living if ever I find myself frustrated with Parisian waiters taking their sweet ass time to bring me the bill ;)
Photo by Jenn Kosar on Unsplash