The café culture in France goes back centuries, cafes have always been a gathering place for intellectuals to meet and debate philosophical issues; for the Avant Guarde set to display their works; for artists to compare and exchange ideas and for writers to drown their sorrows over their artistic anguish or melancholy. Even the freedom fighters of the French Revolution and later the French Resistance would meet in cafes to plot their course. In Paris you can find cafes like Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots with name plates indicating where famous cultural figures have sat like Hemingway, Sartre and Picasso. The Café Society, as it was called, developed in the 19th century as a group of “beautiful people”.
Today you can still find cafes in Paris on every street they come in many forms but the locals and tourists alike flock to them to soak up the unique atmosphere and sip on a small cup of coffee. In Paris you can find the highest concentration of chic and trendy cafes, both big and small in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank and in Saint Germaine.
The quintessential French cafe has seating indoors and out with small (usually round tables) and plenty of wooden paneling and red and black decor. However today’s modern Parisian cafés come in all shapes and sizes some decorated in chrome and stainless steel but most of them still stick to the traditional intimate interior and outdoor sidewalk seating.
You can usually find a few cakes or sandwiches on any French café menu and many now offer a full restaurant service. The drinks however are more important than the food in the French café culture. 60% of French café goers have a preference for “café” or espresso served in a small cup. Among the most popular drinks are café au lait (coffee made with steamed milk) which is the drink of choice in the morning, petite or grande café crème or Café Noisette( a single or double espresso with a little cream), Café Leger is weak espresso as it has double the water and Café Americain is what we call filter coffee. The café culture includes wine and liquor but they are always drunk with moderation and style not guzzled down as in a bar.
The classic French waiter, the “garcon” that Jean Paul Sartre modeled his character on in his book Existentialism is an intricate part of the Paris café culture although café etiquette requires that you call him Monsieur. Paris waiters are aloof and superior and few admit to knowing English. You should also remember that in the French café culture the customer is not always right! I’m speaking very generally of course but you will find that the Paris café waiters have a distinct character which is all part of the café culture experience. Perhaps the source of the French café waiter’s attitude is that they are not dependant on tips for their salary and so there is not that incentive to pander to the customer’s needs. You’ll find that many of the café patrons also exude a certain aloof formal air.
The other aspects of the French café culture experience are the cigarettes, up until not so long ago smoking was allowed indoors and a thin cloud of smoke would be consistent with most café vibes. Now that smoking in public places is illegal the Parisian smokers have moved outdoors and can be seen sucking on thin cigarettes and cigars on the café patios or sidewalks. Another idiosyncrasy of the French café culture is that there are normally no menus offered automatically as the choices are quite standard, you will also get your bill with your coffee but you can wait until you are ready to go before you pay.
The French café culture is for people who like to be seen and to people watching, there is room in any French café for quite book readers, romantic couples, business meetings and animated groups of friends sharing a bottle of wine.