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Restaurants 101: Ordering Food and Drink

Welcome to the third installment in our “Restaurant 101” series. I know this may seem like pretty straight-forward information, but there are a few differences and some tips and tricks which can make your dining experience in Geneva easier and better. I thought I’d share everything I’ve learned about dining out in Switzerland to help you out.

Our first two posts in this series are all about restaurant hours and reservations. This post is all about ordering food and drinks at the restaurant.

Non-Alcoholic Drinks

Unlike the United States, restaurants don’t automatically bring you water. If you want bottled water, ask for “l’eau plat” for flat water or “l’eau gasseus” for sparkling water. If you want tap water, ask for “un carafe d’eau” which means they will bring you a pitcher with tap water. The tap water in Switzerland is very, very good quality! I have noticed a huge difference between Switzerland’s water quality and even the US; Switzerland’s water is far better.

Don’t ask for a “Coke” if you want a Coca-Cola, they won’t know what you mean, instead ask for a “Coca” or a “Coca-Cola.”

Don’t expect ice with any of your drinks! The only exception is if you are dining outside during the summer, and even then, not all restaurants will give you ice. Typically though, bottled water and soft drinks will be refrigerated before they bring them to you so it will be cold, just not ice cold.

Wine and Beer

Most restaurants in Switzerland will offer a selection of regional wines and beers. If you’re not sure what kind to get, you can ask your waiter for a recommendation by saying “Avez-vous une recommandation?”

Wine is served either by the bottle or by the deciliter. For those not familiar with the metric system, one glass of wine is about 1 or 2 deciliters, but you could ask for a glass in English and they will know what you mean.

Coffee & Tea

Drinking coffee after dinner is common. Expect to get an espresso in a teeny tiny cup if you just order a “café.” If you want a latte, it is “renversé” in Switzerland, not “café au lait.” If you want a larger American coffee, order an “Americano.” If you want decaf, order “decafé.”

You can order tea by asking for “thé.” Some restaurants may serve tea hot or cold and you can ask for hot tea specifically, which is “thé chaud.” Often, if you ask for tea, the waiter will bring a selection of tea bag for you to choose from.

The Menu

Many restaurants in the touristy areas of Geneva have English menus and English-speaking waitstaff. If you get a menu in French and would like one in English, you can ask “Avez vous une carte en anglais?” which means “Do you have a menu in English?” If that’s not the case, be prepared with a pocket phrase book or a translation app on your smartphone, and watch out for horse on the menu! There are a few places in the Lake Geneva area which serve horse (cheval). Go for it if you’re adventurous, but many people I know would prefer not to eat horse.

One big thing to know about French menus is that “entree” means appetizer and not main course! The main course is the “plat principal.” Typically, appetizers are not shared amongst people at the table. It is more common for people to share a dessert. If you want to share something, you can indicate this when ordering by saying “pour partager” meaning “for sharing.”

Dealing with Food Allergies

I have found from personal experience that dealing with food allergies when dining out is both easier and more difficult for me. Its easier because the things I’m allergic to are far less common in Europe than in the US, but harder because menus don’t list all the ingredients.

The safest thing to do is to look up everything you are allergic to in French and learn those words! Bring a list if you have to, especially if you have trouble remembering or your pronunciation is poor.  At the restaurant you have a couple of options. You can simply tell your waiter you are allergic to a specific thing by saying “Je suis allergique au lait” for “I am allergic to milk.” Or you can ask “Est-ce que contient le lait” for “Does this contain milk.”

Some common allergies are:

“arachide” or “cacahuète” for peanut

“noix” for nuts

“lait” for milk

“crustacés” for shell fish

“blé” for wheat and “gluten” for gluten

End of the Meal

One thing you will likely notice while you’re eating out is that the service in Switzerland is different compared to other countries like the US, UK, and Australia. Waitstaff tend to leave you alone because its considered rude to intrude on your meal and conversation. You can always flag down your waiter with your had if you need something.

At the end of the meal, your waiter may ask “Avez-vous fini?” which means have you finished. They may ask a different variation of this, but you will most likely hear the word “fini” in there somewhere. If you are finished, they will clear the table and most likely ask if you’d like dessert or coffee.


You’ll likely recognize many of the dessert options on the menu. However, one recent addition to many dessert menus in the area is something called “le cafe gourmand.” This is a sort of dessert sampler with espresso coffee. The type of desserts offered will vary from restaurant to restaurant and even day to day. Generally though, all the desserts are smaller or almost bite-sized so this is a great option if you’re having trouble deciding what to order!

Want to know more? We’ve already shared info about when restaurants are open and how to make reservations. Coming up, we’ll share how to pay the bill and tip.

We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland.  If you would like to join the AIWC, please visit our website at http://www.aiwcgeneva.org/