In France, life happens in cafés. You are sure to see lovers having coffee at a café terrace watching the world go by, or a group of friends drinking beers at the bar while discussing politics. However, even if you know the language, mastering café culture in France is a hands-on experience. Here, a few tips for an enjoyable café outing.
It is often the case in bistros that if you arrive between meals you are not brought a menu. It is assumed that you know what you want given that a) there are the same staples available at most cafes in France and b) there is probably a menu written on a board somewhere that you are supposed to have already read.
In general, the French go to cafes between meals to have a drink. The default choice is coffee: un café (espresso), un noisette (espresso with a drop of milk), un café crème (similar to a latte), un cappuccino or un déca (decaf). A coffee is usually around 2 euro and a crème around 3.5 euro in Paris.
There are also of course fruit juices (i.e. jus d’orange) and soft drinks such as Coca, Coca-light, and Fanta. The French add syrup to water for another option like menthe á l’eau (mint flavored water) or unsweetened lemonade, un citron pressé. Sparkling water like Perrier is also very popular. Non alcoholic drinks tend to be a bit more expensive than in the US, 3 to 4 euro in Paris, but remember that this includes the tip and that you can sit at your table for as long as you want.
For beer, just ask “Vous avez quoi comme pression?” (What do you have on tap?) The national beer, equivalent to Budweiser in the US, is Kronenbourg (“Kro”) or 1664. The latter, often called Seize, is of higher quality. Common beers available are Grimbergen, Leffe and Heineken, which all taste different from when ordered in the US because they do not contain the preservatives added when they are exported to the states. Un demi (25 cl) is the standard size of beer in France, while une pinte is a pint. Un demi is usually between 3-5 euro, a pint costs 5-8 euro in Paris.
Ask for la carte (the menu) if you want to order wine or food. The house wine is often available by the carafe which is a less expensive option and usually pleasant. Kir, white wine with cassis or other flavored syrup, is a popular before dinner drink. For a real treat, try a kir royal, which substitutes the white wine for champagne.
A good happy hour price is around 5 euro for a pint or a cocktail. Happy hour, sometimes written as “Happy Hours,” is roughly between 5 and 9 pm. During this time, also called l’apéro or l’apéritif in France, drinks are often served with peanuts or olives.
If hunger strikes, most cafés offer planches de charcuterie ou fromages, a platter of meats and/or cheeses, ranging from 7-12 euro.
A note about water: it is not handed out as readily as it is in the US. If you are having dinner in a restaurant, it is normal to receive a carafe of water for the table. If you are just having a drink, however, you must normally ask for it. Some waiters are picky and want you to buy a bottle of water if you are just having a drink, but most of the time they should bring it free of charge as long as you have ordered something.
© 2011 Pasa’s Paris