Service with a Smile

Our last night in Paris, we found ourselves at Brasserie Balzar for dinner. This place is something of a landmark (even with its recent aquisition by a large corporation) in the center of the St. Germain area. The place is pretty popular, so it was with a certain lack of wisdom that we arrived sans reservations, much to the annoyance of the manager. We explained in our broken Junior High French that yes, we should have made reservations, but that we would be happy to take any table, perhaps the small one there on the terrace? Yes, that would be fine. Having made friends with the manager, we sat down to dinner and entertainment. The terrace was being served by a single waiter. He was such a French Waiter that he could have been a stock character in a movie set in Paris where the main story goes through a cafe. He looked terminally frazzled and successively oppressed by his management and his clients.

There were two particular clients who were the main source of his pain tonight. They looked like an American couple of mixed race (Indian? Chinese?) who appeared to be in Paris for the first time. We heard the conversation in pieces, and it appeared to center around the existence, or not, of a “vegetable plate”. The couple scanned the menu, asked the waiter about some dishes in fast English. The waiter attempted to explain to the best of his abilities, but the couple did not seem happy with this, and asked more questions. The waiter then fell back on just recommending one of a series of dishes on the menu that were salad-like. But the couple was still not satisfied. They did not want a vegetable plate, they wanted “vegetable dishes.” Of course, such things were relatively rare. Through multiple iterations of this, the couple kept pressing until the waiter finally became patronizing and belligerent. But I was on his side. You need to understand two things about France to see why.

First, you have to understand that Balzar, like most traditional brasseries, serves primarily classic French dishes, heavy on meat, with a few seafood items in addition to coffee, dessert and drinks. The emphasis is on reasonably good food reasonably fast (by French standards). This means steak frites, various roast things, cassoulet, and so on. If you go to France, you should keep this in mind. A brasserie is not the place to find something off the beaten track. You go there because you know what you will be getting and you know they will do it well.

You do not go there for salad. Salad is a side dish that you might get along with your veal liver and fries, or your braised saddle of lamb or your steak tartare. What this couple did not seem to understand is that they had come to completely the wrong place for the meal they wanted. There exist any number of other places that will happily serve you a large salad (though generally not a vegetarian one) for dinner. But Brasserie Balzar is not that place. These people should have known this, or, having realized their mistake, should have rolled with it rather than being such a pain in the ass.

The second thing that you have to understand about France, and Paris in particular, is that if you are giving the service people a hard time, they will be rude to you. If you are self-effacing and especially if you admit to speaking bad French after a valiant attempt, they will treat you with some amount of sympathy. But if you blather at them from a position of ignorance, they will treat you badly.

This, in fact, is what happened to our happy couple. After one more iteration, the exasperated waiter started yelling and pointing at the menu. I had no sympathy. In my opinion, they were getting the service they deserved, expecting special treatment at a place they had chosen badly and giving the staff no reason whatsoever to give it to them.

At this point, the two gave in and ordered what he had recommended. He then turned his attention to us. Karen ordered a nice piece of lamb, and I ordered the steak tartare. He looked at me with astonishment.

“You know what this is?”, he asked.


“It’s not cooked.”

“Yes, I know. A lot of people do not know this?”

“Yes. They order the steak tartare, or the andouillette (a type of sausage), and then they say, ‘Oh, this is not what I wanted’ and send it back. This happens all the time.”

We knodded with sympathy, and assured him that we knew what we were getting. Although, I did misread the menu and I didn’t get the salad I expected. This being my mistake, I snitched green beans off Karen’s plate instead.

C’est La Vie.