There is nothing I love more than sitting in a coffee shop while enjoying the smell of fresh ground espresso and the nutty flavor of an iced latte. Coffeehouses are so comforting to me, and for that reason, cafe culture inspires me and intrigues me to learn how coffee is enjoyed all over the world. Turns out, cafe culture in France is very different from what we know in the United States.
Unfortunately, coffee in Paris is not known for it’s quality (some may use the terms weak, bitter, and burnt). However, on the other hand, France has a well-known and noteworthy cafe culture that is worth understanding before traveling there. The main drinks served at French cafés include un café (espresso), café crème (espresso and steamed milk topped with foam), café au lait (half coffee and half steamed milk, topped with foam), café noisette (espresso with a hazelnut-sized dash of hot milk that turns the coffee into a hazelnut-like color), and café allongé (watered down espresso).
Although the French typically drink café au lait at home, from what I understand, it’s not a popular order when out in the French cafés. When at a café, most people will order un café, café crème, or café noisette instead. Milky drinks aren’t typically served after lunch (or rather, after 10 am). After that time, it’s un café all the way baby.
Americans who prefer their coffee sweet typically go for a flavored latte, and those who prefer a strong coffee flavor opt for espresso, drip/filtered coffee, Americanos, iced coffee, or cold brew. These aren’t common options in France, especially iced coffee drinks. I think it’s probably more of an American thing to drink coffee cold (similar to our iced tea, which I’ve heard sparks rage across the pond). If you’re traveling and want something similar to drip coffee, order a café allongé, which is watered down espresso comparable to an Americano in the States.
Your coffee can be enjoyed with a side of une tartine, a thinly sliced baguette with jam and butter, or un croissant. You’ll either throw back your espresso at the counter, or stay to eat at a table inside or on the terrace (both of which are more expensive options). While sitting on the terrace, you can engage in the popular past-time of people-watching. If you don’t plan to eat, choose a table that isn’t set with silverware. Keep in mind, the waiter may not be friendly, and there will likely be a plume of cigarette smoke hanging over your head.
Some historic cafés include Cafe de Flore, Café de la Paix, and Les Deux Magots. If you have a chance to visit, please do!
Coffee Terminology in France
Un café / Espresso — A shot of espresso
Petit café / Café simple / Café noir / Petit noir / Café express / Express — Other terms for a shot of espresso
Double — Double shot of espresso
Café serré — Strong espresso
Café crème — Espresso and steamed milk and topped with foam
Café noisette — Espresso with a dash of hot milk. Most similar to a Macchiato in Italy or a Cortado in Spain.
Cappuccino / Café latté — Espresso with steamed milk
Café allongé — Espresso diluted with hot water, similar to an Americano.
Café léger — Espresso with double the amount of water
Café au lait — Half coffee and half steamed milk, topped with foam
Café filtré / Filtré / Café américain — Filtered coffee
Café glacé — Iced coffee
Extraction à froid — Cold brew
Café décaféiné / Un déca — Decaffeinated espresso
Chocolat chaud — Hot chocolate
Du lait — Milk
Sucre — Sugar
Édulcorant — Sweetener
Sur place — For here
À emporter — To go