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This episode features our frequent and very popular guest Elyse Rivin. If you enjoy her episodes, please consider supporting her on Patreon.
On today’s episode, Elyse and Annie take a deep dive into Café Culture in France. Of course, we teach you the French words you can use to order exactly the coffee you want in France. But we also explain why coffee culture is so different in France than what you're used to if you are from North America or Australia. Give it a listen, learn the secrets of French cafés, and navigate France like a local!
Café Culture in France
An important note: if you're going to be visiting Paris, you really don't need to learn how to order in French. 99% of café workers in Paris understand English. They may not be able to speak great English, but most of them understand what you're saying in English. Do NOT count on that in rural France!
But if you're used to order your coffee like this: "Triple, Venti, Soy, No Foam Latte" or "Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato" your words will be met with blank stares and a certain "c'est pas possible !" Unless, of course, you're placing an order at one of our many Starbucks in Paris. They may know what you're saying there, no guarantees.
But let's assume you're venturing out into the wild world of French cafés. There your order will need to be a lot simpler. Here's what you need to know.
Coffee Terminology in French
- Un café s’il vous plait: you will get an espresso, about 1/4 cup of liquid. Will come with some sugar on the side, generally no sweetner is offered.
- Un déca s'il vous plait: this is also an espresso shot, but decaffeinated.
- Un café allongé or un Américain or un café léger: this is an espresso shot with a little bit of hot water added to it. Probably 1/3 to 1/2 cup of liquid.
- Un café au lait s'il vous plaît: a shot of espresso with milk. The milk might be on the side or already mixed in. Sometimes the milk is frothed, sometimes it's not. 1/2 cup of liquid usually, some places a little more.
- Un noisette: this is an espresso shot with a teaspoon's worth of milk. Very little milk.
- Un café crême: you could order a petit café crême or a grand café crême. It's usually not cream but 2% milk. In France you cannot specify what milk you want with your coffee.
- Un cappuccino: that's a shot of espresso with frothed milk. They sometimes add whipped cream to it and may sprinkle some chocolate powder on top.
- In Paris and large cities you can ask for a Latte which is one shot of espresso and 1 cup of milk. Most places in France have not added this to their menu yet, but it's coming.
- Flat white and Macchiato may not be understood, unless you're at Starbucks.
- Café-Liégois: this is not coffee at all but rather a scoop of coffee ice cream with sweet coffee syrup on top and usually some whipped cream. This is a dessert.
- Café gourmand: this is a shot of espresso (or allongé) served with a few bite-sized desserts. We love those in France!
- Thé: more and more places serve tea in France, but some places you won't get much of a choice whereas in others the sky is the limit. The word "thé" implies black or green tea. Thé à la menthe is green tea with mint added to it.
- Infusion or tisane: those are herbal teas. Again, some places you get to choose between verveine and camomille, but not everywhere.
- Un café serré: this is a shot of espresso with even less water than normal, so less than a 1/4 cup.
- If you're in a hurry, you can order at the bar instead of sitting down. In Paris you'll get a discount, other places you won't.
- You can always ask for water with your coffee order: un verre d'eau s'il vous plaît.
- Many French people only drink café au lait at breakfast, but some (like Annie) only drink coffee with milk. You get what you like!
- Common phrases at the café "Qu'est ce que je vous sers ?" (What will you have?) or "On s'occupe de vous ?" (did someone take your order?)
- L'addition s'il vous plaît: cafés in France do not want to rush you, they may not bring the bill unless you ask. If you're in a hurry, go up to pay at the counter.
- If you bring a laptop and plan to stay a while, do not ask for a plug and order a new drink every hour or so.
What You Must Understand About Cafe Culture in France
The vast majority of French cafés are locally owned and family-operated. Each owner does what they want and the industry is not highly standardized the way it is in America. A café au lait in one place will not be exactly the same as a café au lait somewhere else. There are some general guidelines, but French café owners each do their own thing.
The Best Café in Paris
Annie's rant: it's silly to ask for "the best café in Paris". Especially if you also want it to be filled with locals. In Paris there are tourists almost everywhere because it's such a beautiful place everyone wants to visit. But understand this: if you're going out of your way to visit famous cafés, you will be surrounded by visitors every-single-time.
Locals Don't Patronize Famous Cafés
Do you want to patronize the same cafés as locals? Go away from famous places and try café nobody writes up, cafés that have never been recommended in any guide book, TV show, or by any Instagram celebrity. Patronize your average Café de la gare or Café du commerce or whatever it happens to be called.
Get Out of Paris Sometimes!
Another great way to rub shoulders with locals is to get out of Paris and go visit the rest of France, as we advocate passionately on this podcast. The ratio of visitors to locals is much lower as soon as you leave Paris, so if you want to see the real France you need to leave Paris sometimes!
Notebooks, Not Laptops
And if you really want to work at a café and you'd like to not stand out too much, maybe bring a notebook rather than a laptop. We're not at the point where everyone goes to a café to work on their laptop et in France. You will see some, especially in Paris, but it's not common yet.
Discussed in this Episode
- Un café s’il vous plaît
- Un déca s'il vous plaît
- Un café allongé s'il vous plaît
- Un Américain s'il vous plaît
- Un café léger s'il vous plaît
- Un noisette s'il vous plaît
- Un café crême s'il vous plaît
- Un petit café crême s'il vous plaît
- Un grand café crême s'il vous plaît
- Le café du commerce à Figeac
- Le café de la gare à Figeac
- Un café-liégeois s'il vous plaît
- Un chocolat-liégois s'il vous plaît
- Un café gourmand s'il vous plaît
- Un thé gourmand s'il vous plaît
- Un thé noir s'il vous plaît
- Un thé vert s'il vous plaît
- Une infusion s'il vous plaît
- Une tisane s'il vous plaît
- Un café serré s'il vous plaît
- Une carafe d'eau s'il vous plaît
- Un verre d'eau s'il vous plaît
- Qu’est-ce que je vous sers ?
- On s’occupe de vous ?
- Oui on a déjà pris ma commande
- L’addition s’il vous plait
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Whatever café you decide to patronize, enjoy café culture in France! If is one of the joys of French life to sit and watch the world go by. And if you stay long enough you'll discover your own favorite place. And then, shush! Keep it to yourself as you own little secret 🙂