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Humor ColumnFrench Dining

French Dining
by Dan H. Woods

Dining in Paris is not for the weak. It's an endurance sport, like running a marathon, only a French dinner lasts longer and there is less water served.

When you enter a typical Parisian restaurant you are met at the door by the maitre d' who will escort you to your private and comfortable table. That is, if you're the Pope. The rest of us have to wait at the door and try to figure out if it's "seat yourself" or "wait to be seated".

If you seat yourself when you're not supposed to, you'll anger your server and you might as well slit your wrists right then and there. He'll move you to a table that's so close to the restroom that people will use your tablecloth to dry their hands -- if you're lucky. On the other hand, if you wait for a server to seat you and it's "seat yourself", he'll gesture angrily at the empty tables implying "What, none of these were good enough for you, cretin?!" simultaneously rolling his eyes to show how excited he is to be serving the World's Stupidest Customer.

So you end up lurking in the doorway pretending to read the menu tacked on the door -- not really committing to entering the restaurant -- all the while hoping that someone else will come in so you can watch what they do. The seating process can add a good 30 minutes to your dining experience.

Once seated, your waiter will stop by to drop off some menus. And that's the last you'll see of him for the next hour. There are no tips in a French restaurant since the gratuity is already built into the prices. Your waiter may be an aspiring writer or a painter who is suffering for his art -- and feels that you should, too. So service in France isn't merely slow -- it borders on benign neglect.

Compounding the problem is that according to French law, any two items that weigh more than two ounces must be served as separate courses. And your waiter isn't naive enough to let you order more than one course at a time. This means that you have to catch his attention a minimum of four or five times during the meal while your server exhibits the same amount of esteem for your table as someone would give a slime mold.

When you finally do manage to ask for something, you'll often find yourself waiting an inexplicable 20 to 30 minutes for simple requests, like a pat of butter. You get the feeling that you're order has caught the chef by surprise.

Waiter (sniffing haughtily): Ze customers at table 11 have ordered zom food.

Chef (panicking): Zut alors! Food? Where am I going to find any of zat?

After finally making it to the end of a French meal, you still have one more ordeal to pass: paying the bill. Your server will attempt to hide from you, sometimes leaving the premises completely and hanging out in the tobacconist shop next door leafing through girlie magazines and smoking several packs of Galois cigarettes to while away the time.

If you do manage to get your waiter's attention, he'll bring you the bill and then leave -- even if you're waving your money or credit card at him. Only after he's finished trading amusing anecdotes with the rest of the staff in the kitchen ("And zen zey tried to order ze coffee with zer dessert...") will he come back with a change purse or a portable bank card machine.

At this point, you will have lost all feeling in your lower legs from sitting in a hard café chair for over three hours and frankly, you'll be starting to get hungry again. But you'll know the ordeal is nearly over and so you'll be desperate to leave the restaurant.

This is the exact moment that your server will begin his audition for the World's Funniest Waiter. For example, instead of using the bank card machine to actually process your credit card so you can leave, he may pretend it is a cell phone and make fake phone calls on it for your amusement. ("'ello? Do you have Prince Albert in ze can?")

I once had a waitress pull out a small stuffed animal of her pocket and pretend that "MooLoo" was going to ring up our total. She spoke in a squeaky voice and tried to push the tiny buttons on the machine with the "MooLoo's" over-sized paws (and entered the wrong amount three times in a row just to prolong our agony even more).

So if you're traveling to France -- home of some of the most exquisite food in the world -- my advice to you is to brown bag it.

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