French restaurants can be intimidating for Americans who are less formal in their approach to eating. Most restaurants in France put an array of glasses, plates and utensils on the table that can baffle the most sophisticated visitors. There is usually an elegant plate with an artistically folded linen napkin in the center. Above the plat are four wine glasses of various shapes and sizes. There are three forks and sometimes a large spoon on the left side, two knives on the right and a spoon and maybe a small fork at the top of the plate. Bread is usually placed on the table but sometimes there is a small plate for it. The largest glass is usually for water and the white wine glass is larger that the red wine glass. If you order a wine from the Burgundy region of France a large bowl shaped glass will be provided. Forks are on the left and knives are on the right. Use the ones on the outside and work your way toward the middle. If fish is being served, there will be a special knife and fork for this course. They are a little shorter and wider than the other utensils. If soup is on the menu, a soupspoon will be on the left. The French use the fork in the left hand and cut with the knife in the right hand. I have never been quite sure what you do with the knife and fork between bites. They have to be placed on the plate, but this is some times awkward and I have seen the French do this in so many different ways that I am not sure what is correct. The waiter will come by between courses and scrape up the bread crumbs so dont worry about the tablecloth.
In the homes and small restaurants in the county side of France, etiquette is much simpler. A fork, a knife, a plate and one glass usually suffices at the family dinner table. The custom is to clean the plate and utensils after each course with bread but a clean plate and fork is usually provided for dessert. Even though the etiquette is simple, the meals are served in courses as in the restaurants and you are expected to finish everything on your plate. In the restaurants as well as the homes, bread should be broken off in small bite size pieces with your hands. It is more common to use the bread to sop up the sauces left on the plate at home rather than in the restaurants but I see the French do it all the time and they are expert a hiding this maneuver. It is probably best not to do it in the very fine restaurants.
It all seems very complicated and the rules change with different menus. There are special instruments for snails and something like bouillabaisse requires a course in physics. I still have trouble discerning the difference between the white wine glass and the water glass but I am learning that the important thing is not to be intimidated by a waiter. If you want to snort a line of coulis with a straw, the waiter should accept it. I learned this while traveling with a group of elderly retired people from a neighboring village.
When the waiter arrived with the first course everyone started eating with the wrong fork. The first course was a seafood pastry which should be eaten with the fish fork and fish knife. Everyone was using the larger meat fork and knife. When the waiter returned he was thoroughly disgusted and looking in the air in exasperation. Some of the people discerned their mistake and tried to put the clean fish fork on the plate. This made matter worse because the menu had two fish courses and we were supposed the keep the fish utensils for the second course. By the time the second fish course arrived, knives and forks of every description were everywhere. To make matters worse everyone was balling up their napkins and putting them on the table where the plate was just taken away. The waiter was pushing napkins out of the way, straightening the array of forks and scolding everybodys grandmother for their table manners. We were not in Paris but this waiter was taking on the airs of the big city. He was doomed to frustration because absolutely on one paid any attention to him.
You can ignore the waiter but not the ceremony. It is quasi-religious in France: Aperitif, amuse bouche, entrée, plat principal, fromage, dessert, café and digestif. You can omit as many stages as you like but never mess with the order of consumption. For the last three years, we have been requesting that coffee be served with the dessert. Our requests have never been honored. I dread the day that it finally happens. I like things the way they are.