Elbows in: An essential guide to French café terrace etiquette

Eating or drinking on the terrace of a French restaurant, bar, or cafe comes with a long list of unspoken rules. Here's a guide.

Elbows in: An essential guide to French café terrace etiquette
Photos: AFP
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 than 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, than the streamlined 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. 
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

Member comments

  1. I fully agree.
    I have lived in France for several years and I find most of what is said to be rubbish. I strongly suspect that this writer has hardly stepped outside Paris.

  2. After all this endless list of restrictive-sounding stuff I can only say frankly it’s all obvious good manners that apply in London or anywhere else.

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OPINION: The French are not unfriendly, you just made a social faux pas

Writer and French resident Janet Hulstrand explains how the casual clothes and greeting styles of Brits and Americans can be perceived as an insult in France. But it's up to foreigners to learn the French rules.

OPINION: The French are not unfriendly, you just made a social faux pas
Photo: Zdenko Zivkovic/ Flickr

Elegant, soigné, sophisticated – these are some of the stereotypes we have about the French. And while it may not be true for all of them (ahem, Gerard Depardieu) certainly appearance and generally seeming like you have made an effort is valued here.

For some of us, it may be a bit hard to understand the need to “look nice” just to run into the bakery first thing in the morning, before you’ve even had your coffee, until you understand (and appreciate) the importance of everything “looking nice” in France. (After all, that’s why it’s so beautiful here, right?)


Gerard Depardieu, not the best example of the elegant Frenchman theory. Photo: AFP

So when we go shlumping around in our sweats, hair awry, we are in a way jarring the visual perfection of the composition surrounding us.

This can be off-putting to the French, who take great care to make things look nice, and pride in doing so.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that when people from other places, not knowing any better, break these rules, they sometimes meet with a somewhat frosty reception, or even the occasional disdainful look or sharp remark.

In thinking about this lately, and about the way many of my well-meaning (but sometimes rather clueless) fellow Americans go about their daily interactions when visiting France, it occurred to me that while Americans hear all the time about how rude the French are, I think very few of them have even the faintest notion that perhaps they are the ones being rude—according to French rules of behavior.

And surely those are the rules that should be adhered to when in France, aren’t they?

The thing is, most Americans (and many other foreigners in France) probably have no idea that they are breaking important rules of polite behavior when they don’t comb their hair or get properly dressed before going to the boulangerie or dropping the kids off at school.

Not starting out every verbal interaction (any one at all!) by first saying a friendly bonjour to the merchant (or friend, or policeman, or bus driver, or whomever) is accorded to be just as rude in France, ditto starting to pick up and squeeze the fruit on a stand, before first saying bonjour, and then asking the merchant if it’s okay to touch it.


At the market always ask before you squeeze. Photo: AFP

These are just three examples of rules of behavior that are extremely important to follow in France, but that do not necessarily apply in other places.

Unfortunately, it is lack of this kind of cultural knowledge that often causes foreigners in France to break these and other rules, leading to rather unpleasant experiences with the locals that tend to reinforce the false stereotype of the rude, cold, arrogant Frenchman or woman.

But it’s not fair to interpret this as proof that those offended by these social blunders or affronts to their sense of propriety are rude or unfriendly.

It’s kind of as if a bull crashing his way through a china shop kept looking around, seeing the expressions of shock and dismay on the shopkeepers’ faces as he breaks every piece of china in the store (or in this case, every rule in the book), all the while muttering “What’s wrong with these people?!”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. By learning just a little bit about what is considered proper social behavior in France, and trying to remember to follow the basic rules of polite interaction, the experience of travelers in France can be vastly improved.

And it will give them the chance to see that most French men and women are not only not rude and unfriendly, they can be – and very often are – downright sweet and charming.

Janet Hulstrand is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them and Make Them Love You. A professional writer, editor, writing coach and teacher, she is the creator of Paris: A Literary Adventure, a study abroad program of the City University of New York, and of her own Writing from the Heart workshops. She divides her time between Essoyes in the Champagne region, and various parts of the United States. You can find out more and buy her book here.