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Speaking of French: Cafe Basics

by Rosetta Stone
French Cafe Basics

If you’re addicted to your customized coffee order of a double skinny caramel macchiato, ordering coffee in France is going to be an adjustment, but it’s a sacrifice worth making. Cafes are a vital part of French culture and an essential experience when visiting France. These sidewalk establishments don’t just serve as a place to grab a cup of un café but as an integral part of the community and a way to experience the city like a local

As with most things in France, there is an art to ordering a cup of coffee. The secret is both knowing how to speak French and learning French cafe etiquette that will help you blend in while you sip and watch the world stroll by. Before diving into the specifics of how to order like a local, here are a few French cafe basics you should know.

Rosetta Stone believes that thriving in real-world conversations in French is about more than learning the words. It’s about learning the language and what it can teach you about French culture. And there’s no better way to start than by deciphering how to enjoy a cup of coffee as the French do.

Types of coffee you can order in France

While there are only a few ways locals order coffee in France, if you learn the words, you can deviate from the menu without looking like a tourist. First, let’s keep it simple:

un café

This tiny cup of strong black coffee most closely resembles an espresso and it’s the way most locals drink their coffee. It can also be referred to as un petit café or un petit noir.

un café allongé

If espresso is a bit much for you, opt for a un café allongé which is the closest you’ll get to a long black. It’s similar to the traditional filter coffee that you might enjoy at home.

un déca

Tack this onto your coffee order is you prefer decaffeinated coffee. As you can probably guess, it’s short for decaf. For example, un café déca, s’il vous plaît. (Decaf coffee, please)

Now let’s cover the more complicated cups that you might be craving. Keep in mind that if you want something fancy, like a un cappuccino, you’ll be taking your chances being profiled as a tourist.

un café au lait

Sometimes referred to as un café crème or un crème this is espresso served with a generous portion of hot milk, usually on the side.

un café noisette

Une noisette is typically an espresso with a dash of milk or a dab of foam. Enough to cut the bitterness of espresso but not enough milk to offend French sensibilities.

un café américain 

This is also called un café filtre and yes— ordering one will immediately brand you as a tourist if you care about such things. More to the point, it’s also a fairly diluted cup of coffee that can be difficult to stomach. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

French Cafe Etiquette 101

Now that you know how to order your coffee in French, let’s make sure you have a handle on cafe etiquette. Here are a few tips to know before you pull up a chair.

Sugar is on the table or on the side in France

If you ask for coffee with sugar, or sucre, your French waiter is going to be pretty confused. That’s because the sugar is either already on the table or served alongside your cup, usually in the form of a square sugar cube.

Coffee with milk is for breakfast only

The French don’t drown their coffee in milk, at least not at cafes. While you can order un café au lait, the locals usually reserve this kind of coffee for breakfast at home. And you definitely can’t order coffee with milk after noon unless you’d like to earn the scorn of French cafe goers.

You can’t get coffee to go

Cafés are for lingering, so ordering your to-go cup and dashing out the door just isn’t done in France. Part of French culture is to stop, sip, and savor, so plan to grab a table and stay awhile.

That croissant or pastry is for dunking

If you’re having a breakfast pastry, especially a croissant, it’s quintessential French to dunk it in your coffee. It’s like American donuts but with less sugar and, hopefully, better scenery.

If you order coffee at lunch or dinner, it’ll arrive after dessert

While the French may not order coffee with milk after breakfast, they are certainly consumers of caffeine throughout the day. But if you do pull up a table and order coffee with your meal, chances are it will arrive as an apéritif of sorts alongside your dessert or directly after your main courses dishes are cleared.

Now you’re ready to tuck into your coffee with a good book or simply people watch as the locals do and get a taste of real French culture. Take the free trial now.

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