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How to Navigate a Parisian Café

How to Navigate a Parisian Café

Part of what makes Paris so special to me is the café culture. The city is known for its quality coffee offerings, en plein air terraces, and trademark brasserie chairs. I’ve done a coffee break post (read it here) on the city, where I highlighted a handful of cafés I would visit on a whim’s notice, and plan to do a few more, as I continue to explore the Parisian coffee landscape during my time living in France.

However, it occurred to me that having a cup of coffee in Paris is a different experience than in New York. It can be downright confusing for those who have never visited France, and especially for those who don’t speak French. So I’ve written a guide to help anyone properly navigate a café in the coffee-obsessed city.

How To Order at a Parisian Coffee Shop

While there are a number of Starbucks in Paris (marketed as a niche American coffee shop, and therefore way overpriced), it is not the typical café experience you will find in the city. Most cafés have indoor as well as outdoor seating, so you can do one of two things:

  1. Sit at an open table. Eventually a server will come take your order. However, note that this is not America, and servers do not depend on tips. Most are not stressed, and may take their time to arrive to your table. If you are not pressed for time, this is an option.

  2. Go straight to the counter. You can go right up to the baristas and ask for a cup of coffee. You will get it faster, but will most likely have to bring the cup to your table yourself.

At most classic French cafés, you pay after you are done with your coffee. You can sip on the same espresso for an hour and no one will bother you. Once you are done, you then ask to pay. It’s pretty much an honor system.

To-Go cups are not common. Whatever your order, you will receive it in a proper porcelain espresso cup or mug. Of course, with globalization and the Americanization of many things in France, it is easier to find coffee à emporter (to-go), but this is really the New Yorker way. I’d suggest avoiding it while in Paris, and really experiencing authentic French coffee culture. If you’re in a rush, you can order an espresso and drink it standing at the bar (the Italian way). But the true French way is to use a coffee break as a sacred time to relax.

What to Order

You can’t really order a “cup of joe” at most Parisian coffee shops, as most don’t make brewed coffee. Instead, you have to select an espresso-based drink. If you ask for un café (one coffee), you will receive an espresso. Here are the typical options at a French coffee shop:

Espresso/Café- Classic order, tiny cup of strong and bitter black coffee

Café allongé- An espresso with a longer pull, meaning brewed with a little more water

Americano- Espresso with a lot of hot water added, closest thing to a tall cup of brewed coffee

Noisette- Espresso with a small amount of milk added, equivalent to a macchiato (the Italian one)

Café crème- Espresso topped with foamy milk, equivalent to a cappuccino

Café au lait- Espresso with a lot of milk added, equivalent to a latte. Typically only for breakfast

Your order will be most likely be served with 1-2 wrapped sugar cubes, sometimes with a small biscuit or speculoos cookie.

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What Not To Do at a Parisian Coffee Shop

Don’t bring your laptop. A coffee shop is not seen as a place to get work done, it is a place to escape it. If you bring a macbook or science textbooks, you’ll probably get weird looks. You’re better off going to a public library (which are free and many have gorgeous architecture). Reading a book or newspaper is acceptable, however.

Don’t complain about the smokers. There’s no point. If you are sitting outside at a coffee shop, chances are you will encounter smokers. Either sit inside, or accept the inevitability of the situation.

Don’t complicate your order. Asking for a low-fat, extra hot latte with soy milk will probably get you a dirty look. And they probably only have whole milk. This isn’t Los Angeles. If you’re looking for a complicated order you will have to specifically seek out a more modern, trendy, or Americanized coffee shop in the city. Otherwise, stick to simple orders.

A café is not a bakery. Some cafés double as restaurants, but unlike America, coffee and pastries are not sold alongside each other. You would have to go to a boulangerie to buy a croissant, eclair, baguette, etc. And the only time they are consumed together is breakfast. Otherwise coffee is for after and/or between meals.


Closing Notes

Café hopping is a cheap, fun, and effective way to get to know the neighborhoods of Paris (and get your caffeine fix). It’s also very Parisian to have a favorite café in each arrondissement. Some of my favorite cafés are the smaller establishments outside of the tourist areas. I especially love the ones that integrate the city’s architecture. Sometimes gritty, coffee shops off the main roads are filled with mostly locals and the coffee is always great.

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