One of the most famous aspects of Paris is the cafe culture. Keep in mind, this is not the same as a coffee culture (to be discussed in the future). There are some unwritten rules that you learn over the years. Here are a few I’ve compiled to help you the next time you find yourself at one of these treasures.
1) Be polite
In the States, as well as Anglo-culture in general, there is a traditional belief that the French are generally stuck up and rude. The reality is exactly the opposite. The French are very polite, provided that you are polite to them to start with. When entering a cafe, do not get agitated if you are not served right away. Eating is a totally different culture here. It’s not meant to be a time to stuff your face and run on to the next activity. It’s meant to be a passage. An enjoyment, a respite, culminating in good, peaceful digestion. Appreciate this difference and be patient, be sure to be polite to the waiter (who is not your slave, rather he has condescended to assist you… for a price), beginning with “Bonjour.” This will auspicious start will help provide good service.
2) Know what you want
Many French cafes do not have menus, since they more or less serve the same thing. Coffee, naturally, bread and cheese, sandwiches, pastries and small savory offerings. The local cafe is not a full service restaurant. You should already know what you want before you go to order, because it is very inconsiderate of you to make your server stand there while you mutter, “Ummmm…. nah. Hmmm… maybe… nah.”
3) Drink what you want
A cafe in Paris does not only serve coffee. Here in Paris, as in most of Europe, a cafe serves coffee, mineral water, beer or wine. The waiter will most likely take your drink order first. Be prepared for what you want (see above).
4) Blend in
Whether you stand or sit, there is a certain level of decorum with which the French conduct themselves in cafes which it would be good to observe. It is cheaper, pricewise, to stand at the bar to eat or drink than to sit down at a table, but if you do sit, you should not sip your coffee loudly, nor chug your beer like you were back in college. Enjoy your food and concentrate on enjoying it. Chew softly, maybe while reading a book. This is leisure time!
5) Take your time
If you sit down, plan on taking your time. You aren’t just buying food, you are buying an experience, an atmosphere. Plan on hanging around for a while, the staff expects you to take your time. They are not trying to frantically turn tables to get as much money out of the clientele as possible. You are invited and encouraged to take time, read a book, do nothing, people-watch, write out some postcards to family back home, etc.
6) Perpetuate the gentle hum of conversation
It’s best to keep the quiet atmosphere of the cafe: set the ringer on your phone off, laugh more quietly at jokes. When you are ready to go, the normal signal that the French use here is to place their fork and knife on their plate, or, one can use the symbol which works just about everywhere in Europe, to pretend to write on your palm when/if you can catch the eye of your waiter. You’ll want to ask for the bill 10-15 minutes before you really want it. 😉
7) Be graceful
Gratuity is already factored in, therefore leaving another 15% tip immediately identifies you as a tourist. A little extra for outstanding service would not be out of place, however.
If you do not speak French very well, the French are appreciative of those who try to use basic polite phrases without asking if they speak English. Once the initial effort is made, more often than not, they will kindly offer to speak to you in English if you begin in French.
The Paris cafe experience has been memorialized in books, films, poetry, and art. Take the chance to insert yourself into those narratives in a harmonious way.