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French Language Lessons: Café Talk

David Ronis

One of the great pleasures of being in France is going to cafés. In the morning, people stop by a café for a quick espresso or a café au lait and a croissant. After a strenuous day tracking the movements of the hero of "The Da Vinci Code" you might relax in a café near the Louvre with a dish of ice cream. Later on, a café might be just the place for a nice aperitif before dinner.

People often go to cafés to socialize or to take a break from work. Newspapers are usually available for patrons as well as restrooms. Cafés open early and frequently stay open late, or at least through the early evening. You can listen to the lesson.

For more information about French cafés and a sample menu, read Slow Travel France - Cafés.

Notes on Pronunciation

French words tend to be accented lightly on the last syllable or the last syllable of a group of words. In rare instances for emphasis or where this is not the case, an accented syllable will be indicated by ALL CAPS. Liaisons are indicated by red, italicized initial consonants (e.g. "Puis-je vous aider?" pronounced as "pwee-zhuh voo zeh-day"). See Guide to Transliteration for more information.

Where to Sit/Stand and How to Order

Most cafés in France have both counter and table service. In larger cities, prices tend to increase as you move from the bar to a table inside the café to an outdoor table. In smaller towns, the charge might be the same regardless of whether you sit or stand. For table service, simply sit down at an available table and a waiter should appear shortly.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
at the counter au comptoir oh koh-twahr
in the dining room dans la salle dah lah sahl
outside (on the terrace) dehors

(sur) la terrasse

duh-OHR

(sewr) lah teh-rahs

What would you like? Qu'est-ce que vous voudrez*? kehs-kuh voo voo-dray*
I would like... Je voudrais...* zhuh voo-dreh*
to drink à boire ah bwahr
to eat à manger ah mah-zhay
for you pour vous poor voo
for me pour moi poor mwah
I would like to order now Je voudrais commander maintenant zhuh voo-dreh koh-mah-day ma-tuh-nah
nothing rien ree-A**
I'd like to pay Je voudrais payer zhuh voo-dreh peh-yay

* Notice the subtle difference in pronunciation between voudrez (voo-dray) in the question and voudrais (voo-dreh) in the answer.

** Second syllable capitalized for accentuation. Also remember that the vowel sound for this syllable rhymes with "cat".

Beverages

In the morning, it's likely that you'll want to order a cup of coffee. You might try a few different coffee variations, from basic espresso to café au lait.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
espresso café express

un express

café noir

kah-fay ex-prehs

uh nex-prehs

kah-fay nwahr

coffee with steamed milk café crème kah-fay krehm
coffee with warmed milk café au lait kah-fay oh leh
large coffee with steamed milk café crème grand kah-fay krehm grah
small coffee with steamed milk café crème petit kah-fay krehm puh-TEE
espresso served with extra hot water café allongé (literally: lengthened) kah-fay ah-loh-zhay
espresso with drop of foamy milk (like caffè macchiato) noisette nwah-zeht
closest to American coffee café filtré kah-fay feel-tray
coffee with a shot of calvados* or eau de vie* café arrosé kah-fay ah-roh-zay
decaffeinated coffee café décaféiné

café HAG (brand name)

un déca (slang)

kah-fay day-kah-fay-nay

kah-fay ahg

uh day-kah

milk (cold) lait (froid) leh frwah**
tea thé tay
herbal tea une infusion

une tisane

ewn a-few-zyoh

ewn tee-zahn

with lemon au citron oh see-troh
hot chocolate chocolat shoh-koh-lah
with whipped cream avec chantilly ah-vehk shah-tee-yee

* See After-Dinner Drinks, later in this lesson.

** If pronouncing all of the consonants in "frwah" is too difficult, you could try leaving out the "r" which will give you an approximation of the word. However, note that "fwah" also indicates two entirely different words meaning "time" or "liver"!

More Beverages

Later on in the day, you might prefer a cold drink, fruit juice, a glass of wine or a beer.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
coca cola un coca cola

un coca (slang)

uh koh-kah koh-lah

un koh-kah

orange juice jus d'orange zhew doh-rahzh
lemonade (freshly squeezed) citron pressé see-troh preh-say
peppermint soda diabolo menthe dee-ah-boh-loh maht
beer bière byehr
lager bière blonde byehr blohd
dark beer bière brune byehr brewn
on tap à la pression ah lah preh-syoh
a glass of white (red) wine un verre de vin blanc (rouge) uh vehr duh va blah (roozh)
(hard) cider cidre seedr(uh)
syrup sirop see-roh

Apéritifs

Aperitifs, or before-dinner drinks (to stimulate the appetite!), are very popular. Here are a few of the most commonly found ones.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
pre-dinner drink apéritif ah-pay-ree-teef
white wine and cassis (black currant liqueur)* kir keer
champagne and cassis kir royale keer rwah-yahl
cognac and grape juice pineau pee-noh
anise liquor pastis

Pernod

pahs-tees

pehr-noh

* Sometimes made with black currant syrup.

After-dinner Drinks

Also, many people like to stop at a café for a nightcap.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
cognac (brandy made from grapes) cognac koh-nyahk
armagnac (similar to cognac) armagnac ahr-mah-nyahk
distilled fruit brandy eau-de-vie (literally "water of life"!) oh-duh-vee
apple brandy calvados kahl-vah-dohs
fiery brandy made from grape stems, pits, etc. (like Italian grappa) marc mahrk
green herb brandy traditionally made by monks chartreuse shahr-truhz
orange brandy grand marnier grah mahr-nee-ay

Café food

Food served in cafés ranges from simple plates of bread and jam, eaten with morning coffee, to full meals. People tend to eat smaller things in cafés – a croissant with their coffee, a sandwich for lunch, etc. Here are a few commonly found food items one might eat at a café.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
croissant croissant krwah-sah*
bread pain pa**
butter beurre buhr
jam confiture koh-fee-tewr
long loaf of bread baguette bah-geht
roll made with butter and egg brioche bree-ohsh
croissant-like pastry with chocolate filling pain au chocolat pa noh shoh-koh-lah
grilled ham and cheese croque monsieur krohk muh-syuh
grilled ham and cheese with fried egg on top croque madame krohk mah-dahm
ham sandwich sandwich jambon sah-weech jah-boh

* Easier, but less accurate, pronunciation: kwah-sah.

** Reminder: rhymes with "cat".

Paying the Bill

There a few different ways that you might pay at a café. Sometimes, the waiter will ask you to pay when your order arrives. Other times, he/she will bring a receipt and make a small tear in it after you've paid. Otherwise, you'll pay your bill when you leave. A service charge is routinely added to the check. Additional tips can be left at your discretion, but customarily, they are small – 5 to 10%.

ENGLISH FRENCH SAY IT LIKE THIS
the bill, the check l'addition lah-dee-syoh
check, please l'addition, s'il vous plaît lah-dee-syoh seel voo pleh
service charge (tip) included service compris sehr-vees kohm-pree
cash register, cashier caisse kehs

Sample Dialog in a Café

You can hear this dialog being spoken.

Download MP3 soundtrack: fr_cafetalk.mp3 (1.7mb)
Click on the link to play the sound file (it takes a few minutes to download). Right click to download the file to save on your computer.

Dialog

Early one morning, you and a friend (both male) enter a café and sidle up to the bar. The bartender comes over....

  • You: Bonjour.
  • Bartender: Bonjour, messieurs. Qu'est-ce que vouz voudrez?
  • You: Je voudrais un café crème grand et un croissant.
  • Your Friend: Moi, je voudrais un café noir.
  • Bartender: (to your friend): Rien à manger, Monsieur?
  • Your Friend: Non, merci.
  • Bartender: Bon.
She goes and makes the drinks and brings them back with the croissant.
  • Bartender: Voilà.
  • You: Merci bien.
  • Bartender: De rien, messieurs.

You help yourself to sugar for your coffee and eat and drink as other customers come and go. When you're done and would like to pay, your friend gets the bartender's attention.

  • Your Friend: Je voudrais payer.
  • Bartender: Alors ... un café crème grand, un express, un croissant. 4.10 euro, monsieur.

Your friend pays the bill (it's only right – you paid for dinner last night!), leaving a small tip for the bartender, and you're on your way to the Tour Eiffel!


David Ronis is a classical singer, actor and translator living in New York City. www.davidronis.com

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