A Simple Joy - A Five Hour Dinner a la Francaise

As many of you know, the French are well known for their two hour lunches. What you might not know is they are also known for their five hour dinners.  In contrast, my personnel research in California has shown me that most dinner parties with friends last an average of three hours (7-10pm).  So what’s the difference I ask?


The difference is the intimacy that occurs in those additional 2 hours. The depth of conversation that takes place. The laughter that occurs. The satiation of eating a long slow dinner.  


As Julia Child said, “It’s fun to get together and have something good to eat at least once a day. That’s what human life is all about-enjoying things.”


Three tips to making a dinner with friends memorable:


  • ·        Focus on simple and beautiful. Add a sprig of rosemary or mint on each plate for decoration or a dabble of goat cheese and dried cranberries on your salad. It doesn’t take much to make it taste good and serve as a conversation piece.

  • ·        Spread the word that it will be a long relaxing evening
    In the states there is a feeling that we must be in bed before it is late or the next day will be wasted. The day is scheduled and there is much to do (even if it is Sunday). Let your guests know that you want this to be a special evening when no one rushes and they can kick up their feet. Plan places for kids to fall asleep or watch a stack of DVDs.

  • ·        Plan some conversation starters.  The key to a great evening (besides the food and wine) is the conversation, sharing, and bantering. The joy is in the debate, the philosophizing, and learning from each other. It is not a conversation just about what you are doing, but about what you are feeling, thinking, and wondering about.

    Idea: If you are concerned about what you are going to talk about all evening. Have everyone send in or write a question that is on their mind. Throughout the evening choose questions out of the hat and share what everyone thinks.


Take a night and tell everyone to plan on staying until midnight. To know it is a night of conversation, of pleasure, of laughter, of good food. And then create the environment and see what happens!  You will be surprised!


A few examples on how easy it is to have dinner a la Francaise


In our recent trip back to France we were reminded of this wonderful leisurely way of dining with friends. In honor of our return, our friends Mimi and Anton invited us to their house for dinner with another family.. The understanding was the night would be long and full of laughter, talk, and gossip. Hor d’ourves of bruschetti with sliced tomatoes and basil set the stage as Mimi, finished cooking the main course of chicken with a white wine sauce.  Six adults gathered near the kitchen sampling a new variety of wine as  7 kids flitted in and out of the salon grabbing slices of fresh baguette and olives.


By 9pm we were well into our first course, waving compliments at our friend for the rockette salad with avocado and goat cheese. The kids at one end of the table and the adults at another it felt like one big happy family. The wine kept flowing and the dinner kept coming until it was at last time for desert and a small decaf espresso. The kids who had left the table to go watch a DVD fled back for their chocolate mousse with whipped cream.


As the clock tower struck midnight we all realized we hadn’t moved from our chairs except to squeeze closer in as we told funny stories about living in France or asked for answers to questions about life, work, and kids that we were all grappling with.


Gathering our coats and kids we kissed goodbye, three times on one cheek, another, and then back again and spouted continuous thank you’s to our hosts. Leaving the house, Jean and I just smiled at what a terrific long relaxing and stimulating evening we had.



The next night we sat down over a huge tourine of lentil soup and fresh baguette and continued to banter with our American friends, Mike and Mary who had moved to France 4 years ago and their two kids. The time flew by and no one got up to leave the table. When a dip in conversation came, the topic turned to something else we could wrap our minds around from the French tax system to the differences between how teenage girls in France and the US to the latest books we read. It was a cross cultural conversation that kept going until after Cinderella’s midnight bell rang.

In reflecting on these dinners and a similar one we had with a French family in California, we realized that this small simple pleasure could bring a lot of joy too many busy Americans. All they have to do is be willing to sleep a little later the next morning.