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Cafe Basics - How to use the Cafes in France

Pauline Kenny and Kevin Widrow

Do not miss the cafe/bar experience in France! Most small villages and neighborhoods in larger towns and cities have a cafe. This is where people come for coffee or a drink, to relax, to meet with friends, or to just take a break from working. Cafes are wonderful places to watch local life and they are usually situated centrally so you can watch the village activity. Most cafes (also called bars) are locally owned and run by the owner.

Bar des Amis, St. Saturnin les Apt, Provence

Bar des Amis in St. Saturnin les Apt, Provence

The cafe can be used several times a day. Have breakfast there (coffee and croissant or bread, butter and jam). Drop in for a pick-me-up coffee during the day. Most offer something sandwiches for a snack or a light lunch. Have a pre-dinner aperitif or glass of wine. In some you can also buy lottery tickets, newspapers and magazines or even play pool.

Hours

Cafes are open early in the morning and may close around 7pm in a village, later in a larger town. They are open all day long (do not close mid-day). They are usually closed one day a week and Sundays (some are open Sunday morning, but close at lunch time for the rest of the day).

Ordering

If you plan to have your coffee or drink seated at a table, sit down and someone will come out and take your order. If they do not see you, go into the cafe and let them know you are outside. Your order will be brought to the table.

If you plan to have your coffee or drink standing at the bar, go to the bar and order there.

In some cafes items cost more when you are seated (drinking standing at the bar is less expensive). In larger cities, this price difference may be large. In villages, there may be no difference in price.

Every cafe displays an official price list showing prices both at the bar and seated. Look for this to be displayed near the entrance to the cafe. See our Cafe Menu page for an example menu.

Coffee, croissant and the International Herald Tribune at the Cafe de la Poste in Goult, Provence

Paying

The method of paying varies depending on the cafe or how busy it is.

  • You may be asked to pay when your order is delivered to you.
  • A cash register receipt may be left on your table when your order is delivered. When you pay, the waiter tears the receipt so they know you have paid.
  • In some places you are expected to ask for your bill when you are ready to leave.

To get the attention of the waiter/waitress, say "S'il vous plait"; calling out "garcon" or something similar is considered rude.

Sugar

Most French people put sugar in their coffee and your coffee is given to you with sugar cubes or a package of sugar. We never put sugar in our coffee and this is thought to be a bit odd (as in, "ugh, how can you drink it like that?").

Croissants and Breakfast

A traditional French breakfast is Cafe Creme with a croissant, or with a baguette (bread), butter and jam. Cafe Creme is also called a Cafe au Lait - strong coffee with hot milk. Petit djeuner translates to "little lunch" and refers to whatever you are eating for breakfast.

Most cafes sell croissants in the morning. If the cafe does not serve croissants, you can go to the nearest bakery to get croissants to eat with your coffee. If you want a fancier pastry not available in the cafe, it is fine to bring it with you to eat with your coffee (although it is polite to ask if this is okay to do).

What Can I Order at a Cafe?

Cafes serve coffee drinks, tea, pop, fresh juice, beer, wine, and other alcohol drinks. See our Cafe Menu page for a complete list of what is available to order in a cafe in France.

Sitting at a Table

No one minds how long you sit at a table (inside or outside), even if you have ordered just one coffee. You must order something when sitting at a table, but you do not need to keep ordering. This makes it inexpensive to fulfill that dream of sitting at a cafe all morning and writing your great novel, like Simone de Beauvoiur and Jean Paul Sartre used to do in the cafes in Paris.

Cafes at Lunch Time

Some cafes turn into restaurants at lunch time. If they start putting tablecloths on the outside tables, they are getting ready to serve lunch, so you should not sit down then just to order drinks.

Toilets

The toilets in cafes are not public; they are for customers only. It is considered rude to go into a cafe only to use the toilet. As one owner explained to me, "it is like they are coming into my house just to use the toilet". If you need to use the toilet, go to the bar and order something and then tell them you will be using the toilet while they are making your order. Or go to the bar and ask if it possible for you to use their toilets. Do not just walk in and rush to the toilet.

Most towns have public toilets. Look for them near the parking lots or the tourist information offices.

Resources

Slow Travel Photos: Photos of cafes in Provence

Slow Travel France - Language Lessons - Cafe Talk: Vocabulary for ordering in cafes.


Kevin Widrow and his wife Elizabeth run the B&B Mas Perreal in the Luberon, near the village of St. Saturnin les Apt. www.masperreal.com

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