French restaurants are expensive. Food in France is subsidized so that farmers are guaranteed a living wage no matter what kind of crop they make. This means cheese and fruit and vegetables and everything else used for making meals is expensive. Likewise, waiters are not heavily dependent on tips for income. So included in most meal prices is your service cost. I personally still add more, especially in Paris where service can be...well sketchy...to an American perspective. See the French love a good meal and they love to savor it. They do not want to be bothered by a waiter asking if they need anything else and shoving a check at them. So for an American who has to ask for drink refills and the check, service can seem horrid. In fact, for the French it is perfect and respectful. Cultures clash.
This is not to say you can't find an inexpensive meal at all. I mean sandwich shop fronts are open all over the city and the standby of Jambon et Fromage is ALWAYS available. And you don't look crazy walking down the street and munching on a sandwich. Everyone does it.
A sandwich and drink is usually about $5 and it's an easy way to budget lunch (of course don't forget about dessert but I'll cover that later!) And if you do sit down to eat at lunch you can usually find Prix Fixe meals that contain three courses (sometimes a drink) and aren't going to break your bank.
Dinner can be costly. The good news is that like New York restaurants are required to post menus and prices outside so you know what is available and for how much BEFORE you enter. It helps if you know French food names (or have a trusty dictionary), because they tend to START descriptions in English then add a French word every now and then. For example, I hate eating fungus. It's my one never ever food. So I am sure to know the French word for mushrooms (champignons) to avoid anything with this at all. And the French love their fungus!
Like every other country out there but America (it seems) the French also like to eat really, really late. Like 9-10 is just getting it started. Somehow these people munch on bread all day to keep themselves from gnawing their own arms at 7pm like we were about to and still stay thin. My Germanic genes however won't allow that to happen and just smelling the bread meant I had trouble zipping my pants. So I avoided the bread outside meals and we ate at 7. With all the other Americans! It's actually kind of funny when travelling to Europe. If you feel homesick eat at 7pm. Or earlier. You are SURE to find other Americans at restaurants this way!
So we happened upon Bistro Richelieu on a wet cold evening and we sat off to the side. I ordered wine and French Onion soup and something else that escapes me for my meal (I was tired at this point) and some of the best creme brulee I've ever eaten. But what made my meal the best was this:
Two of the best waiters I have ever had. The woman spoke NO ENGLISH but smiled and giggled at my atrocious French. The man spoke far better English than my French and we had a wonderful time sitting and resting and visiting with them as much as we could. Unfortunately as we were winding down the restaurant started filling up and they weren't able to talk to us much. But they were sweet and kind and these are the kind of people I think of when I hear people talk about how they were mistreated in Paris. French people don't hate Americans. They are intolerant of tourons (tourist morons) but I am guilty of that as well here in San Antonio (a tourist mecca). So please have no worries about the mean French waiter. Try out your French, show them you tried and give them a giggle over your atrocious accent. It makes the experience that much more fun!