By Peyton Mays, Senior Editor, MSN Shopping
The lights are low and your expectations high. You've been looking forward to trying this swank new French restaurant for weeks. The waiter hands you your menus and you flip yours open and begin to scan the various delights therein. But wait. Sacre bleu! The whole thing's in French and while you vaguely remember taking a couple of years of Spanish in high school, you also realize that, thanks to a few Pepé Le Pew cartoons, "sacre bleu" are the only French words you can pronounce.
Thankfully, the descriptions of the various dishes are in English, but when the waiter returns to take your orders, your confidence level has dropped somewhere below the trade deficit. The five-course prix fixe meal is tempting, but somehow rhyming it with "quick fix" seems, well, indelicate to say the least.
You could opt for the Marcel Marceau technique, stabbing your finger at various places on the menu with arched brow. Or, order the steak even though you'd rather have the scallops in a creamy wine sauce. You could ask the waiter for his recommendation and go with that in humble surrender. Or, risk the waiter's condescending correction and pronounce your choice the best you can, hoping that you haven't ordered braised squirrel.
An Italian friend once told me this joke:
Q: What does it mean if you're multilingual?
A: You speak several languages.
Q: What does it mean if you're bilingual?
A: You speak two languages.
Q: And what does it mean if you're monolingual?
A: You're an American.
With that in mind, here's a brief guide to the correct pronunciation of some of the more popular choices you'll find on most French and Italian menus and a refresher course in the language of wine. The phonetics here aren't designed to make you trill and gargle like an NPR announcer, but they'll make you sound cultivated enough that you won't embarrass yourself in front of your date.
"In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language."
-Mark Twain. The Innocents Abroad
Given the fact that the French look down their Gallic noses at the way French Canadians pronounce the language, the odds of impressing a French waiter are slim to none. A French menu is a minefield of silent letters and multiple sounds for a single letter. And for every rule, there are at least a dozen exceptions. Here's a list of some of the things you'll see, followed by an approximate pronunciation.
Au jus: oh-zhoo
Boeuf Bourguignon: buhf Boor-geen-yahn
Buerre blanc: burr-blahnk
Coq au vin: kok-oh-vah
Coquilles St. Jacques: ko-kee san zhak
En brochette: ahn-bro-shett
En croute: ahn-kroot
Foie gras: fwah-grah
Haricots verts: ar-ee-co-vair
Hors d'oeuvre: or-derv
Pommes de terre: pom-dih-tair
Pommes frites: pum-freet
Prix fixe: pree-feex
Salade Nicoise: sa-lahd nee-swahz
Tartare de boeuf:tar-tar dih buhf
When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool, that's amore. But when "Gnocchi di patate con coniglio" leaves you tongue-tied, that's something else altogether. Two useful things to remember are:
"C"s and "g"s are soft (like an "s" or a "j" when followed by an "i" or "e." Both letters are given their hard pronunciation when followed by the letter "h."
Stress usually falls on the second to last syllable.
While you can probably fake it at Olive Garden, when you're upping the antipasto, here's a list that might come in handy.
A word on wine
Given the popularity of the grape, you probably already know your way around a wine list as far as most varietals go, and we're not going to suggest that you pronounce Champagne as "shahm-pahn-yeh" because people will think you're affected. And they'd be right. Still, there are a few that are sometimes mispronounced. Here's a list for the record.
Cabernet Sauvignon: cah-burr-nay sow-vee-nyohn
Châteauneuf-du-Pape: shah-toe-nuff due pahp
Pinot Grigio: pee-noh gree-gee-oh
Pouilly-Fumé: pooh-yee few-may
Sauvignon blanc: so-vee-nyohnblahn (swallow the "c")
Sé millon: say-me-yohn
Shiraz: Australians call it shih-razz, Americans say shih-rahz. Now who's putting on airs?
With a little practice, no waiter will shame you and no menu will daunt you. Although, when it comes to ordering Thai food, you're on your own.