The word entrée (pronounced "ON-tray") can be a confusing one, especially for world travelers. It's a culinary term that signifies a course during meal service, but which course depends on where you live. In the United States and parts of Canada, the word entrée is often used to signify the main dish part of a meal, such as a roast chicken with vegetables. However, in other countries, particularly Europe, it is not uncommon to hear the word entrée used to indicate a first course, appetizer, or starter.
If you spend most of your time in the United States, entrée simply means the main course of a meal. When in Europe, it's helpful to remember the meaning is different. Otherwise, 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, using this sentence will get you 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 "first course" or "appetizer" when ordering a starter, and "second course" or "main course" instead of using the term entrée at all.
To add even more confusion to the entrée saga, the word 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.
History of Entrées
The word entrée means entrance or beginning in French. How 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. In the 16th century, entrées were served at the beginning of the meal. In the centuries that followed, however, the stages of a meal changed quite a bit, and the entrée was moved to the second or third of many courses.
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 hot meat course, such as roast beef or lamb, would follow the entrée. Vegetables, side dishes, and sweet items would follow. Now the entrée is served before the main course or plat. Since most modern meals are at most a few courses, the entreé is the first course in some places and the main course in others.
Thus the word entrée has gone from referring to the first course to a later course and back again, setting up a classic case of confusion. Luckily the staff at many European restaurants, especially those that cater to visitors, will help you if you seem confused. Just ask.