Raclette means "scraper" or "squeegee" — from the French verb racler meaning "to scrape," including "to scrape off" or "scrape out." Said that way, it doesn't sound like a very appetizing idea for lunch, does it?
Above is an appareil à raclette. Un appareil is an apparatus or appliance. This one is basically an electric heating element with little non-stick pans that slide under it and a griddle over the top. What do you scrape? Well, you put a slice of cheese in each little pan, set it under the hot element, and wait for it to melt. Then you scrape the melted cheese out onto your plate.
In fact, a raclette is a lunch or dinner of melted cheese served with meats and vegetables, especially steamed potatoes. It's a do-it-yourself kind of meal. It's self-service. Each diner or convive (dinner guest) melts her or his own cheese and serves his or her own meats and potatoes. Thus, in France it's seen as a repas convivial — a convivial meal, fun, friendly, and informal. No real ceremony is involved. The cheese is also called raclette, and it melts into a soft creamy mass.
Fromage à raclette is pretty good, with the right charcuterie (cold cuts) and warm cooked potatoes. For our recent raclette meals, with ours we've had the Alpine jambon cru called speck, saucisson à l'ail (cooked garlic sausage), the salami called rosette, and of course cornichons (pickles), both the classic little French vinegary ones known as gherkins, as well as the new-comers to France, cornichons aigres-doux (sort of like dill pickles). And good bread, of course.
When people used to cook in fireplaces rather than on modern appliances, they would put a big wheel of cheese on a special stand close to the fire and wait for the cheese to start melting. Then they would scrape the melted cheese off the cut side of the cheese wheel onto plates and take them to the table, where meats, potatoes, and pickles were waiting (along with hungry convives). That's the legend, anyway. Images here.