• France's news in English
Elbows in: A guide to the terrace culture of French cafés
Photos: AFP

Elbows in: A guide to the terrace culture of French cafés

Oliver Gee · 23 Jun 2016, 12:33

Published: 23 Jun 2016 12:33 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit
With summer here (at least according to the calendar) the French and the tourists are set to flock to terraces across the country. 
And why wouldn't they? There's nothing lovelier than sipping a glass of Rosé or a café crème and watching the world pass by.
But - and we stress this - you have to follow these unspoken rules, in a step-by-step chronological order, apart from the one about smoking. 
Don't be a chair vulture
If the terrace is full, your best bet is to find a waiter and to tell them the size of your group. They'll usually keep the next available table for you, even if other vultures are hanging out ready to snatch it. Play by the rules. 
If there are free seats at a terrace, then go ahead and plonk yourself down.
Avoid the cutlery
As our reader Tracie Olsson English pointed out: "don't sit at a table set for a meal if you only want a drink." You see French cafes have certain tables for drinking and certain others for eating. The cutlery gives it away.
Don't even think of moving the chairs around to suit you
Or the tables for that matter. If there's a big group of you, don't just pile in and start moving the furniture around to suit your needs. 
The waiter will burst the buttons on his waist coat as he boils over in anger. Well not quite, but he or she won't like it.. Your best bet is to stand nice and quietly and tell the waiter or waitress of your needs. "We're six and there's only four seats," kind of thing and they will generally do what they can to sort you out.
Grab an outward-facing seat
You're crazy to sit anywhere but an outward-facing seat - because this is what sitting on a terrace is all about. If you're being seated by a waiter, make sure you let them know that you'd prefer to face outwards. Although you might feel a little cramped (see above).
If it's busy they often won't let two of you face outwards, because that often means using up two tables, such is the way they are cramped together in France. So only one of you will get the lucky seat.
And if it's impossible for you both to be all facing outwards, then do the same as the woman below and nab the place with the view before your partner even realizes what's happened.  
Keep your elbows in and your legs bent at the knees
There's often more room on a Ryanair plane that a terrace outside a Paris café. The chairs are lined up like seats in a stadium so don't expect too much room to stretch your legs. In fact don't stretch your legs, because you'll probably trip the waiter up or another customer.
(Photo: Zoetnet/Flickr)
The lack of leg and elbow room can often cause problems for foreign visitors, who are often, shall we say bigger, that the streamline Parisians. But you'll just have to cope if you want to enjoy the terrace atmosphere. And maybe get your partner to pour the beer down your mouth if you can't lift your arms.
(Photo: Daniel Lobo/Flickr)
Be patient - wait to be served
French waiters are generally some of the best in the world, and they don't need you to seek them out when you're hungry or thirsty. 
They'll find you when they're free, so don't rush to head in to the bar if you think you've been forgotten. 
Smoking is allowed (not that we are encouraging it)
It's legal to smoke cigarettes on terraces in France, even if everyone around is tucking into their dinner at the same time. It's not unheard of for French people to ask neighbours if they're ok with a burning cigarette, so if you are lighting up perhaps do the same.
It's considered polite to hold the cigarette away from the tables, however, between puffs. 
Story continues below…
Keep quiet
Even if you're in a bustling bar, the French won't be impressed if you're speaking or laughing too loudly with your friends (which is often the case for over-excited Anglos). In fact, don't be surprised if your French neighbours ask you to be quiet, complain to a waiter, or even move to another seat. 
It's just not the French way to be noisy, so be sure to respect the moderation too.
Don't swing or even lean back on your chair
The straw chairs at French cafes may look wonderful, but they can be flimsy at best. Play it safe with this one, or you might end up with your head in the lap of the Frenchman behind you.
Don't feel the pressure to leave
And lastly, French terraces are made to be enjoyed - don't feel like you have to leave the second you've finished your drink. In fact, many people will have a long and leisurely people-watching session when they're out en terrasse, so you shouldn't feel bad about doing the same. 
If the waiter comes out to ask if you'd like another drink, feel free to shrug them off - especially if the terrace isn't full. But it's perhaps time to call it a day if the waiter comes out asking again. Or, of course, you could order another drink and enjoy the terrace some more. 
Photo: marcovdz/Flickr
Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
What's on in France: Top things to do in November
Don't miss the chocolate fashion show in Lyon. Photo: Salon du chocolat

The autumn is in full swing in France, and there's plenty to do.

What Paris 'squalor pit' Gare du Nord will look like in future
All photos: Wilmotte et Assoicés

IN PICTURES: The universally accepted 'squalor pit of Europe' is finally getting a facelift.

Halloween: The ten spookiest spots in Paris
Is there really a ghost on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower? Photo: AFP

Read at your own peril.

Halloween holiday in France: Traffic nightmares and sun!
Photo: AFP

But it's great news for the country's beleaguered tourism industry.

French MPs vote to make Airbnb 'professionals' pay tax
Photo: AFP

Do you make a lot of money through Airbnb in France? You'll have to pay a share to the taxman in future.

France and Britain accused of abandoning Calais minors
Photo: AFP

Scores of young migrants are forced to sleep rough for a second night.

France given wake up call as it bids for Brexit business
The business district 'La Defense' in Paris. Photo: AFP

France clearly has some work to do if it really wants to pinch business from the UK post-Brexit.

Mouth fun? French words you just can't translate literally
Do you know the French word for throat-support? Photo: AFP

Word of warning: Don't translate French literally.

How France plans to help its stressed-out police force
Yellow smoke rises around French police officers in Paris holding a banner reading "Solidarity with our colleagues, police angry". All photos: AFP

Could these measures stop the cops from protesting?

'3,000 migrants dispersed' after 'Jungle' clearance
Photo: AFP

While thousands of migrants have been bussed out around France, new ones are arriving all the time and thousands of others have simply been dispersed aid agencies say.

The annoying questions only a half French, half Brit can answer
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Forget Brangelina's chateau - here are nine others you've got to see
The must-see French films of the millennium - Part One
How life for expats in France has changed over the years
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
jobs available