How to Order Coffee in France like a Local


"Bonjour, un café, s'il vous plaît, " I ordered with a big smile.  To my surprise, I was served with a small cup of espresso. I sat there staring at my tiny cup of very strong coffee wondering what just happened.  This took place in a train station in Paris during my first time traveling alone in France.

Never in my wildest dreams have I thought ordering coffee can get so tricky anywhere.  I have traveled and effortlessly ordered coffee  throughout many cities in Europe, Asia, Middle East and America and never ever even once faced a problem.  

The next episode I found myself in was when I went to Mc Café  on my own. Yes, Mc Café  in the middle of a small town in France. Based on experience, the further you get away from major cities like Paris and Nantes, the more English ceases to exist. Or should I say, English becomes non-existent. French language is pretty much spoken everywhere, like it or not. Feeling confident, at that moment I knew, nothing could ever go wrong. I will finally have my black coffee in a big cup. 

Well, not until I saw the menu board. 

So there I was, tempted to shamelessly ask the server for a "Café Americano" and then I stopped myself. Café Americain was not on the menu board. There was a long queue forming behind me and so I asked for the person behind me to go ahead while I solve the puzzle.  

With the help of internal reasoning, I ruled out any coffee with milk on the menu and I sort of guessed that the closest coffee to what I wanted was "un café allongé" To make sure I do get it right I asked the lady at the counter  for "un cafe noir dans une grande tasse." (A black coffee in a big cup)

"Ah, un café allongé!" She smiled.
Yay! I mentally did a victory dance.
She then served it in a larger white cup.
Oh sh*t, I wanted it for take-away. 

I think what makes it seem complicated is the fact that France has  different words for everything. Compared to the rest of the world, they have their own standards, their own coffee culture and they want to keep it that way.  

  • Café  / Café Express - espresso that comes in a teeny tiny cup
  • Café Allongé (kuh-fay ah-lahn-jay) is drip style coffee, espresso diluted with hot water. If you want your black coffee served with milk, you can request, "Un café allongé avec du lait à côté, s'il vous plaît."  
  • Café Crème/ Grand Crème (a bigger version of cafe creme)/ Café  Latte - milky espresso based coffee with foam. Forget café au lait.  It's hardly ordered here by locals at all.  
  • Cappuccino - similar to Café Crème thus having cocoa powder or cinnamon on top of the foam and slightly more expensive.
  • Noisette (nwah-zett)- Noisette means hazel nut referring to the color of the coffee. It is actually a hot espresso with a dash of cream.
  • Un Déca / Café Décaféiné - decaffeinated coffee
  • À Emporter - To go. Take Away. 
  • Sur Place -  For on-site consumption.

Coffee Culture in France

The morning coffee at home is served in bowls where they're happy to dip their baguette or sometimes brioche or any type of viennoiserie in. In brasseries, restaurants or cafes, coffee is served in cups.  They only drink milky coffees for breakfast. Anytime past that, everyone switches to dark coffee even after their meals. 

Coffee is a social thing. It is consumed for catch up chats and lingering conversations. This is why only in certain places you can order coffee to go. Coffee in a paper cup is not really the norm. They're meant to be appreciated,  one sip at a time.  It is customary for locals to have coffee at the terrace  in brasseries / bistros or inside a restaurant after a meal, or even at a bar counter for a quick espresso. 

One can hardly spot a Starbucks-style coffee shop and they hardly exist, except most probably in major cities. If they do, they're not as popular at all and understandably, it's hard to beat an authentic french café  across the street.  On the contrary, McDonald's Mc Café, blended in really well. Can you imagine they sell macarons in Mc Donald's? They have Café Gourmand, a coffee served with a dessert plate of tiny pastries.  They even have  a separate café counter with a large display glass case filled with yummy french pastries. 

Check out photos of Mc Café in France .

Around where I live, we often have coffee in brasseries, but most of the time, coffee, for me is better enjoyed at home or at a family or friend's terrace where conversations last till dinner. 


"What I love  is that coffee is very much ingrained in their everyday life, " says the coffee addict. 

How was your coffee experience in France?
Do you like coffee? How do you like your coffee?
What is the coffee culture in your country?
Love & light,
Arni

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5 comments

  1. Oh gosh, I had trouble ordering just about everything in France too! This would've come in handy when I went to one (and only) cafe in Paris but didn't know what to get.

    http://blog.jessicapei.com/

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  2. The coffee culture in Europe is one to be appreciated and it does seem to be catching on in the States. More and more people linger around and there are many more independent coffee shops than there were 10 years ago

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  3. My coffee experience in Paris was hilarious. I don't drink coffee, so whenever a waiter asked what kind of coffee I wanted, I said, "water." They looked at me like I had three eyeballs!

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  4. This is actually super helpful! I'm not a huge coffee drinker, but I'll keep your advice in mind if I feel inclined to order a cup one day :)

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  5. Your McCafe post sent me here and god I love this post! Because of two things, 1) Coffee 2) French. I swear I tried to translate it in my mind first because I checked your English translation, just to test if I still remember my little French hahaha...

    Now that you shared this, and though I'm not sure when will I be able to go to France, I will sure keep this post of yours in mind, for when I finally try to order me a cup of joe in France.

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