In North America, nobody walks around empty-handed. People often carry a sandwich, a bagel, a donut, a giant cup of coffee or a can of soft drink. Eating or drinking in stores isn’t uncommon either. In fact, a few big-box stores seem to encourage customers to do so, partnering with coffee shops (for instance, Starbucks in Chapters) or fast food franchises (McDonalds’ inside WalMart) and cup holders are built into cars, theatre seats, shopping carts and even strollers.
French may hold a cigarette or an umbrella when strolling the streets but they seat down to eat or drink. “On s’assoit pour manger!” (“Sit down to eat!”) is a classic parenting phrase many of us still live by, much like “on ne grignote pas entre les repas!” (“Don’t snack between meals!”) and “prend le temps, la table n’est pas louée” (“Eat slowly, the table isn’t rented”). This is probably why many French dislike the fact that in North America, the waiter brings the bill as soon as the last plate is about to be cleaned up (because indeed, your seat is kind of rented and turning tables does matter to the restaurants’ bottom line) and why even the most basic meal is a lengthy affair.
At lunchtime, when the weather is nice, you’ll see people eating their sandwich sitting in parks, on church steps, around fountains or on the grass. There is no street food culture in France—most French make their own sandwich or buy a “lunch combo” from one of the many independently owned or franchised bakeries. A typical “combo” includes a drink, a cold sandwich or a panini and a fancy dessert (individual fruit or custard pie, éclair, etc.). McDonald’s, Subway, Quick or other fast food franchises are more expensive than in North America but the food is arguably tastier and is somewhat customized to the market—the Croque McDo, for instance, is the fast food version of the croque-monsieur, the French grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich. Finally, kebab restaurants, usually individually owned, are popular—a typically sandwich is a baguette filled with sliced meat, onions, tomatoes, lettuces and fries topped with mayonnaise or harissa (hot chili pepper paste).
Whenever I walk around Nantes between noon and 2 p.m. and after 8 p.m., I’m always surprised to see so many people having lunch or dinner in “formal” eateries, i.e. sit-down restaurants with a set menu or une carte. Chinese, Indian or Japanese restaurants (with menus customized to French taste), pizzerias or crêperies, regional French food or themed restaurants are all packed. Yet, food isn’t cheap. I know French value their meals, but I can’t help wondering how most households can afford eating out…
I also noticed online food delivery through company such as Deliveroo or Foodora was the new trend, especially in the evening. From 7 p.m., bike couriers with their square, insulated backpacks are everywhere, either waiting in front of popular restaurants or rushing to deliver an order. I’m also wondering who relies on them considering there are already restaurants just about everywhere in Nantes!