Café Ordering 101

Although the Starbucks Effect is slowly taking hold, coffee choices in a typical French café are quite limited… if you ask for something like a “double skinny vanilla macchiato” you will just get a blank stare, and don’t even think of asking for soy milk!

Here’s ‘French Coffee Ordering 101’ so that you can place your coffee order like a local:

  • EspressoIf you just order a coffee ‘un café’ you will get a strong little espresso; better to order a ‘café américain’ (an espresso diluted with water) to get something closer to an American-style coffee.  It comes with sugar on the side but no milk.   In coffee bars you can also order American-style drip coffee “café filtrée.”
  • In the South of France, a lot of people order anoisette: an espresso cut with just a drop of milk about the size of a hazelnut, hence its name.   
  • Locals ask for a glass of tap water on the side: “une verre d’eau” …if you don’t say the ‘verre’ part they will bring you pricey bottled water.
  • There is no such thing as a free refill in France.
  • Locals only order coffee with milk in the morning, after that it is just espressos and noisettes.coffee served in a bowl
  • If you want milk in your coffee, order a ‘Café crème’ or a Cappuccino.
  • A Café au lait’ contains a high ratio of milk to coffee, and if you order it in the morning it will come in a bowl (for dunking your croissant!)
  • If you specifically ask for cream on the side, it will actually be milk and will come heated.  They will not have skim milk or half-and-half, so don’t even ask.
  • Add ‘deca’ for decaf.
  • Tea is ‘Thé’ (pronounced ‘Tay’), and herbal teas are un infusion’.
  • If you’re craving a Diet Coke ask for ‘Coca Lite‘ …but bad news, most places now only carry Coke Classic and Coke Zero, which is close, but not the same.  
  • If you order Iced Tea it will confuse your waiter and you will end up with a can of peach ice tea soda pop (thé a la peche).  They have never even heard of what Americans consider Iced Tea (you’ll have better luck in the Starbucks-type new-style coffee shops)
  • Jus d’orange’ or ‘limonade’ will get you a French Tropicana; better to spend the money for un orange pressé’ or ‘une citron pressé’ and enjoy fresh-squeezed.  You can also order an Orangina which is kind of between the two.
  • Being so close to Italy, many cafés in Nice offer Italian-style hot chocolate chocolate chaud à l’italian, which is not to be missed.  It’s thick, almost pudding like, with a chocolate that infuses your soul.  Nothing at all like the chocolate-powder-water that most places try to pass off as hot chocolate.   

Visitors from coffee-centric cities like Seattle or New York might be disappointed in the quality of the coffee in France.   Some even say that the best coffee in France is Italian… Here is an article that explains it all: Why is Coffee in France so Bad?

As the afternoon progresses…

  • In the South of France, a glass of cold rosé is de rigueur in the summer, and one of the most affordable things you could order.  If you are a wine lover, here is a page on the best local wine bars.  
  • To order a draft beer, ask for une demi’ or ‘une pression’.
  • 2 glasses of PastisIt’s a bit of an acquired taste, but you must try the famous Pastis at least once.  It comes with a carafe of water that pour into to the pastis, turning it a milky yellow.  You sip, add more water, sip some more, add more water… before you know it you’re passing the afternoon like a vrai Provençal.
  • Cocktails are super expensive in France, as you pay twice! Once for the alcohol and again for the mixer…
  • Tipping:  just a few coins based on how long you’ve camped out at the table…

See Related Page: The Quirkiest Cafés in Nice

Photo Credits: Espresso by cyclonebillCafe au lait by Jazzbobrown, Pastis by Peng, all licensed under Creative Commons.

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