If you have been invited for an “apéritif” (a pre-dinner drink) then technically you don’t have to take a gift. However, if you don’t like to turn up empty handed, take a bottle of wine. It should always be French (no exceptions). If it’s a dinner party, take a bottle and ideally some flowers or chocolates. If it is an “apéro dinatoire” then everyone usually brings a bottle (French) and something to eat. If you are taking food, the golden rule is to agree with the host beforehand about what you should bring. Homemade food is big and you’ll feel embarrassed turning up with something shop bought when everyone else has home-made chocolate fondants or hand-made apple tarts. If you can’t cook very well, suggest something that can’t possibly be made at home, like cheeses, cured meats, or chocolates from a well-known “épicerie” (deli).
The host has probably spent a long time preparing for the dinner so the least you should do is dress up in smart evening clothes. It’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed.
If it’s a more formal party at someone’s home, check if there are plates to use for the nibbles. If so, always place a handful of nibbles on your plate and eat from there. Don’t keep picking up the nibbles directly and popping them into your mouth. If using a dip, take some onto your own plate (unless you see the host dipping directly) and dip from there. Always take a napkin.
You shouldn’t start drinking until the host has filled everyone’s glass and you’ve raised a toast. Always look people in the eye when you toast. When you sit down to dinner, always wait to be seated, wait to be served and never begin eating until the host has sat down and given the go-ahead, usually a “bon appetit.” Always go to the toilet before you begin eating as it’s bad form to leave the table during a meal.
If offered bread, break a piece off and keep it on the left-hand side of your plate. Never bite into your piece directly; instead, break small pieces off and pop them into your mouth. It’s perfectly acceptable to mop up your food with bread, which might horrify the host in other countries, but in France, is a hearty acceptance of the food and sometimes about clearing the plate for the next course.
In other countries, it might be polite to keep your hands in your lap, but in France, at dinner, hands should always be in view above the table.
Many countries eat using just a fork, but in France, you’ll need to use both—with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. When finished, always place them together. Everything in France is eaten with cutlery, with the exception of bread, asparagus spears, and sandwiches. If you’re eating chips, follow the host’s lead on whether to use your fork.
Everyone at the table will expect you to eat everything on your plate. Seconds might not be offered unless its a much more informal gathering. Asking for more is a no-no. Water and wine will always be topped up.
The starter is more than likely to be a salad with vinaigrette dressing. It might be fish served with white wine (or rosé). The main course will be meat, most likely with red wine. Vegetarians have a hard time in France and aren’t really understood (although that is slowly changing). The cheese course comes before dessert and before coffee. The French don’t often remove the rind from cheeses like brie and camembert; it’s considered the good part.
These rules are basic etiquette in France and will help you survive a French dinner at someone’s home or in a restaurant; if you follow them, you’ll never go wrong. You might find that some people aren’t as strict or formal, but always follow the host’s lead. If they do something a little less formal, then you can too. If you are in a restaurant, you should leave a tip of 10-15%. If you were invited formally (with the words, “je vous invite”), then the person who invited you pays.