The word entrée (pronounced "ON-tray") in the culinary arts can be confusing because it's one of those words that means the precise opposite in some parts of the world to what it means in other parts. In the United States, the word entrée is often used to signify the part of a meal that you would think of as the main course. In other places, particularly Europe, however, it is not uncommon to hear the word entrée used to indicate an appetizer, first course, or starter.
For the most part, this confusion isn't too serious, unless you happen to be ordering in a restaurant in a country where the word entrée means the opposite of what you think it means. In which case, you might end up getting your starter as your main course or vice versa.
Take the following sentence, for example:
"For my entrée, I'll have the snails."
In the United States, saying that sentence will get you the snails as your main course. In France or Monaco, however, you'll get the snails as your appetizer.
If you're not sure, you could always specify "main course" or "appetizer," instead of entrée, just to be clear. Or "first course" and "second course."
To add even more confusion to ordering food, the word entrée, can also refer specifically to the protein (or otherwise central) component of a dish, as opposed to its accompaniments.
Certain steakhouses, for example, allow a patron to select from various cuts of steak, such as a rib-eye, New York strip or porterhouse, and whatever steak the diner chooses is the entrée. Customers then select their accompaniments or side dishes, such as a baked potato or choice of vegetable, separately. Thus the steak on its own is the entrée, and the potato and vegetable are the sides. In cases like this, the menu has usually been arranged to signify that the meat is to be considered the entrée.
Further Confusion on Definitions
The word entrée in French means beginning. How then did the usage of a word come to include what it actually means as well as the opposite of its meaning? The explanation stems from the way traditional French dinners were served. The first course would usually be a soup, followed by an intermediate course, usually some sort of fish or shellfish.
After the fish course would come the entrée, which might feature poultry, or lobster, or possibly even a cold item such as aspic, chaud-froid, or pâté. A meat course, such as roast beef or lamb, would follow the entrée, and the meat dish was always hot. Vegetables, side dishes, and sweet items would follow.
Thus the word entrée referred to the third course of a classic menu, setting up a classic case of confusion. Take heart, though. The staff at many European restaurants, especially those that cater to visitors, will help you if you seem confused. Just ask.