The only time and place where you’ll find Parisians gulping down a large, milky brew is at breakfast in their (cramped) kitchens. This morning treat is also commonly self-served in a bowl rather than a mug and used for dunking last night’s slightly stodgy baguette in. Sounds…less than fantastic but is in actual fact rather a yummy treat to get the day started. Be warned though: after 10am and out in the fully dressed world, un café, or an espresso, is the drink of choice for 60% of French people.
If you are up and out early (or don’t have a kitchen of your own in which to enjoy the above), stop off at a café for a classic Parisian breakfast. This usually entails a café au lait, a glass of fresh orange juice, a tartine (a thin, toasted baguette sliced sideways and served with jam and butter), and some croissants. This sugar and caffeine feast will set you up perfectly for a day of power walking through the city and maintaining an air of chic aloofness.
Depending on the establishment you choose, and the time of day, a menu might not be forthcoming. However, not to worry, it’s never going to be a thousand-option, multi-hyphenate effort like at Starbucks. In addition to the café au lait and the café, the three other choices are the (grand) café crème, a combination of espresso and steamed milk topped with foam, the café allongé, a watered down espresso (and the closest thing to American coffee you’ll find in Paris), and the café noisette, which is an espresso with a touch of hot milk.
There are usually three places in a café where you can take your coffee: on the terrace, at a table inside, or at the counter. Traditionally, if you choose to sit and sip your cup, big or small, it will cost you twice as much as if you stand and shoot. That being said, we’re basically talking about doubling nothing so it’s really more a matter of taste. A coffee at a table should be around 2.50€ and can be as little as 1.20€ at the bar.
As we’ve said, the local coffee isn’t the best you’ll taste in your life and certainly shouldn’t cost you more than a few euros. Some of the modern cafés in town have started to hike their prices in line with international trends but, unless you need to be surrounded by industrial interior design in order to feel like you’re living, these should be avoided. Admittedly, one classic coffee shop owner in Toulon recently put his price for an espresso up to 10€ a cup in order to deter people from hogging tables on his terrace. This is absolutely NOT in the spirit of French café culture and should NOT be tolerated for a second!
The reason why the grumpy Toulonnais café owner ruffled so many feathers is that he essentially spat in the face of a French national pastime: people-watching. There is nothing better than parking it for a few hours in a café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and watching the world go by. Watching and judging it, of course. Who’s wearing what? Who’s dating whom? And what dogs do we wish we could scoop up for a kiss and a cuddle?
The only exception to the above custom is during mealtimes. If you arrive around lunch (between noon and 2pm) and see that some of the tables are set with napkins, silverware, and glasses, be sure to pick one that’s bare if you don’t intend on eating. The same goes in the evening if you are only in the market for an apéritif. If you’re not sure where to sit, ask one of the waiters. Even if the exchange isn’t the easiest linguistically, it’ll be less nerve-shredding than being ousted in front of the trendy, observing crowd.
In addition to some ropey coffee, France isn’t exactly renowned for its table service. The waitstaff have a salary like any office worker in the city and thus don’t have to depend on tips. This means (as, admittedly, is only human nature) that a stony face is much more likely to greet you at the table than a smiling one. However, times are changing and you might find a few more cheerful people working in the city’s cafés. A word of advice: treasure them. Otherwise, don’t take it personally. It’s not you. It’s not even the fact that you’re a tourist. It’s just a part of the game. Keep calm, remain frosty yourself, and carry on.
As well as tartines and croissants, there’s nothing Parisians like more with their morning (or afternoon and evening) coffees than a cigarette. Of course, if you choose to stand at the bar or sit inside this won’t be an issue. But if you venture onto the terrace, and even the screened, heated halfway spaces plenty of cafés now have, expect there to be a Victorian-era smoke plume hanging over the place. There’s no point in turning up your nose and causing a fuss – this is their territory, and they’ve already ceded the comfy chairs inside to your camp.
The nine tips above are really meant for the café culture you’ll find in the more traditional Parisian establishments. But the city is changing, and generally becoming more generically international, and there are numerous coffee shops which wouldn’t be amiss in any city in Europe or the United States. However, a few smart enterprises have retained the best features of the past while improving on the weaker points of taste and service. Pay Coutume in the 7th, Café Lomi and Le Bal Café in the 18th, and the KBCafeshop in the 9th a visit to see what we mean.