Check, please

March 1, 2007 at 1:21 pm | Posted in food, vie quotidienne | 11 Comments

It was nearly 11:00 last night, and a pleasant dinner out with friends was coming to a close. Or was it? Dessert dishes had been cleared away, coffee was being consumed, the evening’s witty banter was slowing gently under the influence of excellent food, wine and aperitifs. Any minute now, our waiter would discreetly drop off the check.

Wait, scratch that last. Because this, of course, is Europe, where checks never arrive unrequested, except at the shabbiest of cafes and restos. So, we begin the dance. The neck-craning, head-bobbing, seat-shifting, anything-to-get-the-waiter’s attention dance. And this, to me, is the weird thing: why do European waiters make you work so hard just to pay them?

Last night, our French friend weighed in on the subject. In America, he observed, the waiters are so quick to bring the check that he feels rushed, as if they are shooing you out the door in hopes of seating another customer. I understand this completely — I can see why dropping the bill on the table in the middle of dessert might strike some people as rude.

But that doesn’t explain why in France, a waiter who has been friendly, attentive, and solicitous throughout the meal suddenly becomes evasive and aloof when all I want to do is hand him money.

The French are certainly not the worst offenders when it comes to this coy avoidance technique. Once Brumaire and I were having lunch at a nice restaurant in Amsterdam: all through the meal, the waitress was at our side with helpful suggestions and explanations, and the service was impeccably prompt. But all that changed the minute we finished our digestif — we looked up to signal for the check, but the waitress had suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. Seriously, she’d vanished into the kitchen after clearing our last plate and we didn’t see her for half an hour. Finally, mindful of an appointment with friends that we were in danger of missing, I got up and tapped on the kitchen door to get her attention.

I understand, no one wants to rush your meal or draw attention to the monetary exchange involved. But doesn’t this act get a little ridiculous at some point?

As usual, I have a feeling I’m missing some cultural key that would solve this little mystery. Is there a special code-word or signal that brings the check promptly? Is one supposed to request it while ordering coffee, before the waiter can escape? Or do I just need to get used to dawdling?

check, please



  1. I can definitely relate to this, Amy; I, too, find it baffling… It’s from one extreme to another — rushing you out the door in the U.S., here’s-your-hat-what’s-your-hurry, and desperate measures to attract a waiter’s attention in order to pay the bill here. Been there. I agree that probably the best approach is to request the check when coffee is served, but then again, if you really DO want to linger, that might not be a good idea either… Depends on whether you have to catch a métro home or not, which I usually do!

    And to be honest, who would think they would AVOID you just when it gets (monetarily) interesting?! For them anyway… Another expat dilemma, left unsolved.

  2. Alice — glad to see it’s not just me! I like a relaxed, unhurried meal as much as the next Frenchman, but it’s true that some of us have places to be.

  3. I think the worst case of this I have ever seen was in Barcelona. The service had actually been dodgy all evening and when we had finished eating, we requested the check… Three times.

    After waiting a half an hour, we started putting our coats on. Again we sat down to wait.

    Fifteen minutes later, we slowly walked out. Nobody stopped us.

  4. Jennifer — Although I’ve never quite gotten to that point myself, I know a bunch of people who have. After an hour of frustration, they figure “Hey, if we try to walk out, surely someone will stop us and make us pay!” And so they get up, they put on their coats, they slowly and obviously make their way to the door… and nothing!
    It’s like a dine and ditcher’s paradise, here.

  5. They actually walked out?! Wow. I don’t know if I’d have the guts! lol

    Never had too much of this kind of problem when in France myself. But looking back I was always with etiher relatives, (French) friends, or more experienced connaisseurs de la culture, however, so perhaps I was just enjoying being an observer and not really watching the complex dance before me. Sorry I don’t have an answer for you!

    I have noticed recently that many of my fav restaurants here are not chasing people out…perhaps we’re finding a happy medium after all? 😉

  6. Ha ha! I never realized it was so weird to other people! il est souvent de coutume en France lors d’un repas au restaurant entre amis, qu’un des convives se lève et aille payer au bar avant la fin du repas pour éviter les discussions “financières”. J’ignore si c’est parce que les français n’aiment pas parler d’argent… Mais il est vrai que souvent il faut réclamer avec force sa note pour la payer! C’est juste une question d’habitude et c’est ce qui permet à la fin du repas de prendre également du temps pour discuter avant de partir! 🙂 J’avoue que certains exagèrent tout de même!!!

  7. Ah, Celine! Je comprends maintenant. That does make a certain amount of sense. At least now I know I can always pay at the bar…

  8. We call it “How fast can a French waiter run? Walk out and you’ll see”–but apparently not! I don’t think it’s all custom. One night a friend and I kept asking and asking for the check, and the waiter was saying “J’arrive, j’arrive!” yet he never did. After half an hour (during which time we were convinced there was a hidden camera) we got up and paid at the bar–it was the only way we could get out of there.

  9. LOL! I love it. Merci, Céline! Qu’est-ce qu’on ferait sans vous?

  10. N always pays at the bar, but not because there’s any fear that I’ll challenge him for the bill– just because he gets antsy at the end of the meal and wants to leave asap. since I started dating him, long waits for the bill are a thing of the past!

  11. I’m totally going to start paying at the bar now. I didn’t even realize it was an option.

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