Sip Code–A Short Guide to the French Café Experience Monday, Jul 20 2015 

French cafés are not just a place, they’re a way of life in France. You can drink, eat, converse, read, watch the world go by, even make it your home away from home. For the price of a cup of coffee or glass of wine, your café table and the accompanying cultural panorama belong to you for as long as you like. What a way to “own” some French real estate!

But like so many aspects of French culture, it really helps to know some insider tips and info to enjoy your French café time to the fullest. Here are my top 10 recommendations for cracking the French café code. Read on, and make plans to head straight for a café next time you are in France.

1) Which café? Wherever you are in France—in a small country village or in bustling Paris—be sure to choose a café with the most French people (i.e. avoid anybody wearing fanny packs, cameras, and tennis shoes). You want to feel like you’re in France, not at a Starbucks back home.

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2) Where to sit? Hands down, if it’s a nice day, sit outside on the terrace. It’s great for people watching, and the weather in France is generally nice. There’s often some street entertainment going on such as the Paris accordionist below. These days, even in winter, café going can be a pleasure as many cafés have electric heaters overhead to keep things warm and toasty. If it’s a super hot day in summer, some cafés have water misters to try and cool things down. (Click here for a previous post on how to keep cool when it’s baking hot in Paris.) On the other hand, if you’re on a budget, sitting inside is always a good option since some menu items cost more on the terrace than inside the café. On that note, if you’re going in for a drink, standing at the bar costs less than sitting at a table. Ditto in Italy.

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3) Engaging with the waitstaff: To ensure good relations with the  French waitstaff, always greet your (usually male) waiter with a nice “Bonjour, Monsieur!” and attempt your best French accent. He’ll be more attentive to you if you try. And whatever you do, don’t call him over with a loud “Garçon!” It’s very 1950’s…and also rude.

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4) Ordering coffee: Coffee is a French café staple. You can order un express (an expresso), un crème (how the French order coffee with hot milk these days), un café américain (black coffee but not as strong as expresso—more like drip coffee) or perhaps un thé (tea). My morning beverage in France is un grand crème, or an extra large coffee with hot milk. Note that the French do not typically take milk in their coffee later in the day or at night—it’s strictly expresso for them following lunch or dinner.


5) What about other drinks? There are a variety of beverages on offer at French cafés besides le café (coffee). Of the non-alcoholic variety, you can order un citron pressé (fresh-squeezed lemonade where you add sugar and water to taste), les jus de fruits (fruit juices), un Orangina (sparkling orange soda made in France), un coca / coca light (Coke and Diet Coke) and les eaux minérales such as Vittel or Evian (flat mineral waters) and Badoit or San Pellegrino (sparkling mineral waters). It is helpful to remember that Coke can cost more than the house wine in France. Also, hip French people these days forego all the wonderful French mineral waters in favor of San Pellegrino. Go figure?!

If it’s apéritif time – a ritual  in France - you can opt for one of the many interesting libations on offer. Draft bière (beer) is available as une pression or un demi (half pint). And then of course, there’s wine—un vin rouge, un vin blanc (a glass of red or white wine) or un rosé (glass of rosé wine). In summer in France, I often drink chilled rosé from Provence as it is the perfect warm weather drink. If you are celebrating something, or even if you’re not, a nice coupe de champagne (glass of champagne) is always a great beverage option in France. Then too, there are some good special wine-based possibilities such as Lillet or Pineau de Charentes. Finally, you can order hard liquor, brandy (France has amazing ones, bien sûr), or something like pastis, the licorice flavored liqueur typical of southern France.

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6) What about café food? Food is almost always good in France, even in low-key cafés. The menu du jour (day’s set menu) allows you to have a nice meal—often a starter, main dish and dessert—for a reasonable price. Another option is to ask the waiter what he prefers on la carte (the paper menu). He’ll be flattered you asked his advice, and often times will go above and beyond to make sure the plate he brings to the table is well prepared.

Or you can order quintessential French dishes such as quiche lorraine, un croque monsieur (open faced hot ham and cheese sandwich) or steak tartare served with a green salad. While most cafés won’t win gourmet food awards, you’ll get a good, honest meal and experience a slice of French daily life at the same time.

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7) How to get the check? In French cafés and restaurants, you must always ask for your check, or l’addition. Make eye contact with your waiter and call him over with “Monsieur.” Then you can say, “L’addition, s’il vous plaît.”

8) What about tipping? Tipping in France is often confusing for Americans. French tipping is included in the price of food and drink; menus will say  service compris somewhereto indicate this. So leaving another 15 to 20% can come off as an insult—the waiter might think you see him as a charity case. However, I have seen waitstaff in Europe who take advantage of the fact that foreigners are not aware tips are already included and relish or even encourage the additional tip windfall. In French cafés, the right protocol is to pay your check with cash or a credit card and then leave a bit extra in cash–typically 5% or less–as a gesture of good will.


You can also leave a cute note for your waiter. I once took some college girls on a February trip to Paris, and they thought our young waiter at Les Deux Magots was handsome enough to merit a quick thank-you note in English with a nice “Happy Valentine’s Day” in French. We left the café before he came back by our table—I wished I could have seen the look on his face when he read it!


9) Toilettes: You can use the facilities in a café if you are a paying customer. Note that café restrooms are often in the cellar or basement so look for a small stairway going downstairs. If it’s not obvious, you can ask one of the staff in polite French, “Monsieur, s’il vous plaît – où sont les toilettes?”

10) Good Paris cafés: Next time you are in Paris, drop by the Left Bank café icons Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore. They’re pricier than some but the people-watching is divine. While there will be tourists, enough French people fill the tables to make these cafés endlessly interesting. A little more off the Left Bank beaten path and one of my favorite cafés in Paris is La Palette on the Rue de Seine. It’s very French and what most cafés used to feel like.

If you have a great café anecdote to share, let other French Affaires readers in on your experience by posting it here. We love to hear about any and all French cultural adventures!

NB: A version of this article was previously published on the French Affaires website in July, 2011.

French Take-Out™ ~ La France à emporter

For a great French apéritif experience in the U.S., think about joining us for the special French Cuisine & Culture workshop this weekend. From 3:30 to 5:30pm on Saturday in Dallas, we’re hosting “French Happy Hour: The Art of the Apéritif in France.

 In this unique offering, we’ll explore the cultural aspects of ‘happy hour’ in France, how the French use the apéritif moment to encourage the appetite, which types of apéritif drinks are often served, how to order apéritifs and which types of appetizers complement the apéritifs. Our class also includes a tasting of several French apéritif beverages and the hands-on French appetizer making class. Following our cultural lessons, tastings and appetizer-making class, we’ll sit down and enjoy our French appetizers with apéritifs and talk about great apéritif venues in Paris!

The cost is $75 per person and includes the hands-on French appetizer making class, wine & liqueur tastings, cultural lessons, an array of French appetizers with apéritifs, recipes and a guide to great apéritif venues in Paris. Advance registration is required. Class size is limited. Please click here for more information and to register. Or email us at


Date: Choose one – Friday, July 24 ~ FULL, OR Saturday, July 25 ~ OPEN
Time: 3:30 to  5:30pm
Cost: $75 per person. Advance sign-up required – please click here to register.
Location: Central Dallas location

What to do when it’s 104 degrees in Paris Tuesday, Jul 7 2015 

You may have heard about the heat wave engulfing much of Europe for the past several days. Last Wednesday, Paris hit a near-record high of 39.7 degrees Celsius. That was a sizzling almost 104 degrees Fahrenheit – whew. It was the hottest July 1 recorded there since 1947 when the thermometer reached 40.4 degrees, or nearly 105 degrees F. I found that while we all were melting and uncomfortable, it did lead to a good amount of camaraderie and commiserating about la canicule (heat wave of three days or more where temps surpass 30 degrees C. during the day and don’t go below 20 degrees C. at night).


Intrepid tourists on the go in hot Paris last week wearing hats, shorts & good walking shoes

Most Parisians I talked to were doing their best to combat la grosse chaleur (the sweltering heat). Public service announcements were reminding the French to drink lots of water, avoid heavy physical activity outdoors and call the heat wave hotline in case of questions or needing help. Since the terrible période caniculaire of 2003 when thousands of people perished across Europe, governments and municipalities now organize alerts and huge efforts to check on the elderly and frail quand il fait trop chaud (when it gets too hot).


One Parisienne sharing her water mister with another on the hot Paris bus last Wednesday

Since air conditioning is not a given in the French capitale, there are some common-sense practices Parisians follow when it’s burning up outside. First, they do as little as possible. Second, they open apartment windows in the morning to let in the cool air and then shut them for the rest of the day to keep the hot air out. However, if they do have to go out, they avoid standing in the hot sun and look for any sliver of shade. In addition, they sometimes skip the stuffy buses and metro cars and spring for air-conditioned taxis. And last but not least, they wear light cotton clothes and use hats. Most Parisians I saw were dressed in summer attire, but I did notice a few wearing strangely heavy clothes including an older gentleman in a wool herringbone tweed jacket. I figured he must have put it on out of habit!

This all might be good for residents, but what to do if you are visiting Paris and want to enjoy the incredible sights despite the heat? Here are a few recommendations to keep handy the next time Paris warms up un peu trop (a little too much) when you’re there:

1) Make sure your Paris hotel room or apartment is air-conditioned: Be sure to ask up front if your lodgings are climatisés. You never know when une vague de chaleur (heat wave) might hit the city.

2) Visit a Museum: Most Paris museums are air conditioned, if not for patrons then for sure to keep the artworks in good condition. I took advantage of the cool temps inside the Petit Palais museum on the Right Bank. The lovely permanent collections as well as the gorgeous 1900 building offer visitors a terrific cultural experience, heat or no heat outside.





3) Go Shopping: The big Paris department stores such as Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and Le Bon Marché are all air conditioned, making it a great excuse to go shopping when the heat is too much. Many smaller boutiques are as well but it’s more hit or miss. I opted to check out the big Hermès sale that started July 1 at Paris’s Palais des Congrès (convention center) near the Porte Maillot. (Note that it’s never held at the luxury retailer’s flagship.) Though you had to stand in line to get in, it was blissfully cool there and the incredible markdowns on scarves, clothes and shoes made it worth the wait!


4) Head for the Movies: If you don’t speak French, then choose an American or British film being shown in V.O., or version originale, and enjoy the cool, dark cinema.

5) Sit in a Café and Drink Cool Beverages: Paris cafés were doing a brisk business last week despite the heat, or maybe because of it. Awnings and misters on terraces provided welcome relief from the hot sun. I chose to sit inside at this Left Bank café where it was even cooler. First on my order were sparkling Perrier and Orangina with lots of glaçons (ice cubes). Then I decided on the cool plat du jour for lunch – melon, cured ham, tomatoes and mozzarella, and salad. It was the perfect hot day meal, and I bet the chef was sure happy not to fire up his kitchen for this dish.



6) Cool Off With French Ice Cream: Even though the Italians are famous for their gelato, the French do some great glaces as well. There are good ice cream shops around the city but my favorite is Berthillon on the Ile St. Louis.


7) Take a Boat Ride on the Seine: Take advantage of cool breezes with a boat ride on the Seine river. You can choose the Bateaux Mouches or the Vedettes du Pont Neuf for your cruising pleasure, amazing views of Paris included.


8) Enjoy Paris from the Top of a Double-Decker Bus: It’s also breezy up top on the double-decker buses that offer great tours of the city. History buffs will love that Paris had both double-decker buses and horse-drawn omnibuses way back at the turn of the century too.



The other alternative would be to get out of the city and go park yourself on a beach somewhere as France has so many great ones. Seriously, Paris can still be fun on hot days. Just take it easy, find the cool spots, drink lots of water and know that A.C. is waiting for you at your hotel or apartment at the end of the day!