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Terraces to tipping: The etiquette for visiting a French café

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Terraces to tipping: The etiquette for visiting a French café
Welcome to the classic French café. Photo: AFP
10:43 CEST+02:00
The café is a ubiquitous part of French life, whether it's the bustling terraces of Paris or the sleepy village establishment with its clientele of old men nursing a pastis. But how should you behave in one?

As with every other aspect of French life, there are a few dos and don'ts to spending time in a café to ensure that you don't annoy fellow customers or (much worse) the waiter.

So here's how to successfully navigate a French café to make sure you get the most out of a truly cultural experience (and it is - the café terrace is currently applying to be given UNESCO world heritage status as a cultural asset).

READ ALSO Are these the 13 best café terraces in France?


French waiters are not the speediest, but they are generally efficient. Photo: AFP

1. Sit at the table

The great majority of cafés in France are table service, so it's best to take a seat and wait for the waiter or waitress to come to you. It is possible to go to the counter and order, and in some places it's actually cheaper to get your coffee direct from the bar, but if that's what you want to do you are expected to drink it fairly quickly and then leave.

So if you want a quick espresso as a pick-me-up then head to the bar, but if you're planning a more leisurely drink then take a seat and wait.

2. Pick your table

In French cafés there are tables for eating and tables for people who just want a drink. It's pretty simple - if there is cutlery on the table it's for people having a meal. Your waiter will often seat you anyway, and will always ask first whether you're planning on eating or only having a drink. It's not a trick question and he's not trying to pressure you into ordering more than you want, it's just so he knows where to put you.

If you are in a large group don't start rearranging the furniture, tell the waiter how many you are and he will seat you.

3. Wait for it

The service is not always the fastest, particularly in busy cafés. Your waiter will have seen you so there's no need to break your neck trying to catch his eye, he will get to you so just relax and watch the view. 

4. Go plat du jour

If you're eating you will of course get a menu, but most places also have a chalkboard with a dish of the day (plat du jour) or a lunch-time set menu (formule déjeuner). These are well worth checking out because it is usually a seasonal specialty or local dish, especially if you are in the countryside, and lunchtime set menus can offer great value for money. In places other than Paris it's common to find a three-course menu for under €20.


Outside has the best view, but is also the smoking section. Photo: AFP

5. Lunch is at lunch time

This may sound obvious but many cafés, especially in smaller towns, only really serve lunch between 12 noon and 2pm, then dinner starts from about 7pm. Between those times you can only order drinks. If your café is displaying the sign service non-stop that means it serves food all day.

6. Smoking

If your café has an outdoor terrace (and most do) be aware that outside is the smoking section so if you are asked à l'intérieur ou sur terrace? (inside or on the terrace?) bear this in mind. If you choose outside you cannot then get annoyed about the smell of cigarette smoke or ask people to stop smoking. You might think it's unfair that smokers get what is generally the best spot in the café, but that's the way it is. 

7. Keep you elbows in

Particularly in cities, the cafés are often pretty small which means squeezing to and from your table and not taking up too much room while you are there. Basic common courtesy really, but don't stick your elbows out or indulge in expansive gestures that are going to send someone else's drink flying.

8. Turn the volume down

If you are English or American you are likely to be louder than the French, so keep your voice down if you don't want to annoy those around you. What might seem like a perfectly normal volume to you - especially after a couple of drinks - can have your French neighbours moving tables or complaining to the waiter about you. Keep it down or - if you really feel the urge to drink beer and shout - head to a football or rugby match, as the French really abandon their volume control in the stands. 

9. Take your time

The flip side of the leisurely pace of service is that no-one will be hurrying you out. Want to enjoy a lazy hour with a good book and a beer, or indulge in some lengthy people-watching and contemplating the meaning of life while you drink your coffee? No problem. And if the waiter comes out to ask if you want another drink that is exactly what it sounds - it's not a disguised way of telling you to move along.


You can enjoy Jean-Paul Satre and Ernest Hemmingway's favourite spot without trying to write a novel there. Photo: AFP

10. Write a great novel

Not compulsory, fortunately, but you will see people writing - on both laptops and in notebooks - in French cafés. The laptops are a relatively recent addition and are certainly less common than in coffee shops in the UK and USA. In general the French prefer to keep work and socialising or eating separate so it's not a very common part of French culture, but is usually accepted as long as you order something and don't stay all day.

In Paris particularly you will also sometimes see a person writing into a vintage notebook while gazing into space a lot and clearly pretending they are Ernest Hemmingway. These are almost certainly not locals.

11. Place a bet

In some cafés, especially in smaller places, you will see a sign outside saying PMU. This means that you can place bets there. They work in pretty much the same way as bookmakers' shops, you can bet on horse races, sports matches, anything bookies are offering odds on, and you fill in the form to place your bet at the counter. Some tabacs also have a PMU.

12. Pay up

When the time does come to go, you will of course need to pay. Cafés vary, some bring you a new bill every time you order a fresh drink, some bring you out a bill at the end while in others you pay inside. Just ask the waiter and they will direct you.

13. Tip?

You can leave a tip if you want to, especially if the service was particularly good, but there's no compulsion to. If you're paying in cash you can round the total up or leave a few extra coins as a un pourboire (a tip) but France doesn't really have a tipping culture in the same way that the USA does.

READ ALSO French dining etiquette: How much should you tip your waiter or waitress?

 

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