The newly-landed Anglophone expat might also find the following tips of help when it comes to understanding the differences between the various French eating and drinking places:
1. Unlike an English pub, you don’t even need to ask yourself whether that most common of French eating and drinking places will be open. French cafés stay open all day long. Opening hours can, however, vary according to the region in which they’re located and can also depend on the time of year. In Paris and large towns it can be as early as six o’clock in the morning to the early hours of the next (and sometimes all night). In smaller provincial towns they tend to open a bit later and close a little earlier (say 11 o’clock), and are sometimes closed one day a week.
2. In France you don’t go up to the bar, order your drink, pay for it and then take it with you and sit down. There’s always someone to serve you. So you’re not required to do anything more complicated than choose a table, either inside or out, and sit yourself down. Normally someone will quickly come and take your order – though in a busy café you might have to wait. If you choose a table on an empty terrace you might have to pop inside and let them know you’re there – even though they usually check from time to time.
3. If you’re alone and want to see the barman in action (French barmen often have a certain je ne sais quoi) or even have a chat, you can, of course, sit yourself down on a stool at the bar. And sometimes there’s an added bonus – it’s a bit cheaper!
4. All French eating and drinking places are legally obliged to display their official price-list where it can easily be seen. So if you think they’re trying to fleece you, you can always check.
5. If you order a beer it can be either a 25cl or 33cl bottle, or ‘une demi-pression’, or simply ‘un demi’ (literally a half of draught). Strangely, ‘un demi’ doesn’t really mean a half, but a quarter of a litre (25cl). In addition, there’s a line on the glass it’s served in to guide you. So don’t go away with the impression you’ve been under-measured.
6. The French have only the vaguest of notions on how to make a nice ‘cuppa’ so, if you’re British, you’ll probably be sorely disappointed if you order one in a café. Be prepared for just a tea bag dangled in a cup of tepid water.
7. If you order your tea à l’anglaise (i.e. in a teapot with milk) your milk could come pre-heated in a small jug. So if you want something a little nearer the real McCoy you’ll have to specify ‘avec du lait froid, s’il vous plaît!’ when you order. If you want my advice I wouldn’t bother. It’s much simpler to order a beer if you’re a man. And the wife can always have a ‘une tisane’ (a herb tea) if she wants something warm.
8. If the service is included you’ll find the words ‘service compris’ indicated on your receipt. If it’s ‘service non compris’, or there’s no receipt forthcoming, and you found the service pleasant and efficient, you might consider leaving a tip. Don’t give more than 10% of the total amount.
9. In French eating and drinking places you’re not usually required to pay immediately after being served. In the larger type especially, a receipt may be placed on your table when your drinks are served. You can pay just before leaving. However, it might be more practical and less confusing to pay when he serves you – especially if two or three of you each buy a round. If not you’ll have to catch his eye and call him over. He’ll make a tear in the receipt to show you’ve paid.
10. Though you may come across examples proving the opposite, as a general rule the French tend to value person to person politeness (though this can go by the (dash)board when they get a steering wheel in their hands). So give a cheery ‘bonjour’ when he or she comes to serve you. And don’t be afraid of saying ‘au revoir’ when you leave.
11. Some waiters (especially the Parisian version) can be extremely touchy, even ill-mannered. So you won’t get off to a good start if you shout ‘garçon’ when you want to attract his attention. It could be considered demeaning and cause him to go into a huff. It’s better to use ‘monsieur’ or ‘madame’, or simply ‘s’il vous plaît’.
12. You must order something when you sit at a table. When you’ve drunk up (even if it’s just a cup of coffee) you’re under no obligation to re-order. And nobody minds (within reason) how long you stay.
13. If it’s around midday and they’re putting table clothes on some of the tables, don’t plonk yourself down there if all you want is a drink. They’re getting ready for lunch. So try to find another.
14. In most cafés you can order a croissant or pain au chocolat to munch with your breakfast café au lait. In the very rare cases they don’t have any (it could happen in a small village café) you could nip off and buy some at the nearest baker’s shop (or they might even offer to do so). Usually, they won”t mind if you consume them with your coffee – though it’s probably better to ask if it’ll be all right.
15. Be aware that under normal circumstances the toilets in French eating and drinking places are not intended for public use – so you’ll be pushing your luck if you treat them in this way. If you want to use them you’ll be expected to buy something to drink. If you’re really bursting you could go to the bar, order something and then inform them you’ll be back, but right now you’re off to’ les toilettes’.
16. If you’re suddenly hit by a bout of acute homesickness you might be tempted to have a drink in one of the many English (or Irish) pubs scattered throughout regions of high-tourist frequentation. Personally I’ve found that, though great pains may have been take to reproduce the real thing (even down to the landlord and bar staff), by some strange phenomenon (it’s the same with tea) I’ve never really been able to fathom, it’s just not quite that. As one Irishman once pointed out to me, ‘Guinness never tastes like Guinness outside Dublin!’
17. Even though a woman could venture alone into a Parisian or large town-centre café (especially if she sits on the terrace), without anybody batting an eyelid, I wouldn’t advise her to do so in a small town or village establishment. These tend to be male oriented and her lone presence might give rise to misinterpretation, if you see what I mean. Mind you, it’s pretty much the same with an English pub. Even though this may have my feminist readers up in arms, I’m afraid it’s harsh reality.
18. Please note that a ‘salon de thé’ (sometimes the English term ‘Tea Room’ is used) is a small café (similar to the English unlicensed one), specializing in cakes, pastries, ice-cream, and serving only hot and cold non-alcoholic drinks to a mainly feminine clientèle. You’ll often find a salon de thé in some of the larger cake shops whose opening hours they more or less follow. So if you want to rest those aching feet and enjoy a refreshment during that Saturday shopping spree they’re really just the thing.