I’ve had a home in Paris for 10 years, which means I’ve had the chance to frequent a lot of cafés, and here’s something I’ve noticed: Tourists peruse drink menus; locals do not.
Like so many things in France, there seems to exist an unwritten code of café drinks that varies by season, temperature, and time of day. Most cafés don’t even list these beverages on a menu. Instead, much like ordering beer at a pub, or a cup of coffee at a diner, they’re a cultural expectation.
Obviously, coffee and wine are café staples, and I’ve sipped my fair share of both. But over the years I’ve noticed a parade of other drinks—hot, cold, alcoholic, or not—ordered by all ages with brevity and insouciance. Curious, I sat down with my friend Alain Miquel, a Parisian café-owner, to learn more.
For over 30 years, Alain and his brother, Didier, have worked the bar at their café, Le Mistral, which their parents started in 1958. From the morning’s first coffee to the evening’s last Calvados, and everything in between, Alain has served it all. Today he describes the most popular café drinks and how to order them.
If you’re a café regular, you don’t even have to speak: You need only appear and your ideal coffee will be set before you. “You know your customers’ preferences like an haute couture seamstress,” says Alain. For the rest of us, here is what to ask for.
Café/Café Express/Café Normal: A shot of coffee, akin to an espresso. It’s also called “un petit café,” but, as Alain says, to sound like a true Parisian, lightly suppress the first syllable, so that it becomes “p’tit café.”
Café Noisette: A shot of coffee with a dash of foamed milk, similar to a macchiato.
Café Serré: The strongest shot of coffee, made with very little water.
Café Trois-Quart: A lighter coffee, the cup is filled to the three-quarter mark.
Café Allongé: The weakest coffee, water is run through the grounds twice. Also called café américain.
Petit Crème, Grand Crème: A shot of coffee with lots of steamed milk, usually served in an oversized cup or bowl. Tourists sometimes call it “café au lait.” Whether you order a small (petit) or large (grand) depends on your level of jet lag. Note: This is drunk for breakfast, and French people rarely order it after noon. “Sure, it happens,” says Alain. “But in the morning we’re making fifty of them. In the afternoon, we make one.”
Décaféiné: Add this word to the end of any of the above coffee drinks to make it decaf. You can also abbreviate to “déca.”
Drinks for Sunny Days
There exists an array of candy-colored drinks that appear with hot, sunny days. Sipped most often on an outdoor terrasse by patrons of any age or gender, their bright colors rely on an array of sugary syrups that are beloved in France. Note: Cold drinks are usually served chilled without ice—or, if you insist, you’ll receive only one or two cubes. “Don’t drink things that are very cold,” warns Alain. “You’ll get a stomach ache.”
Monaco: Served in a pilsner glass, this hot pink drink combines light beer, lemon soda (like Sprite), and a shot of grenadine syrup.
Tango: Light beer with grenadine syrup.
Panaché: Half beer, half lemon soda.
Valse: Light beer with mint syrup.
Diabolo: A nonalcoholic drink of lemon soda and the syrup of your choice. To order, combine the word “diabolo” with your preferred flavor; for example, “diabolo menthe” would be lemon soda and mint syrup. Standard syrups include blackcurrant (cassis), lemon (citron), strawberry (fraise), mint (menthe), and grenadine.
Vittel Menthe: Mineral water with mint syrup. Although the name references the brand, Vittel, any type of bottled still water may be served. As with the diabolo, you can change the syrup based on your preference, although for some reason, mint remains the most popular for this drink.
L’Indienne: Orange soda (usually Orangina) and grenadine syrup.
Lait Fraise: Cold milk and strawberry syrup. There is also lait menthe: cold milk and mint syrup.
Citron pressé: A half-filled glass of freshly squeezed lemon juice accompanied by a carafe of tap water and handful of sugar packets, so that you may stir in the desired amounts yourself. There’s also orange pressé, which is, as the name implies, orange juice. Most people drink the orange juice and then enjoy a second glass of orange-flavored tap water with the remnants.
Drinks for cold afternoons
Paris winters are rainy and grey. These hot drinks help ward off the chill.
Citron Pressé Chaud: Like a regular citron pressé (see above), but with hot water replacing the cold. Sometimes a spoonful of honey is added. “It’s the best for sore throats,” says Alain. “Bistro medicine!”
Chocolat Chaud: Also called chocolat au lait, this is one of the few beverages enjoyed in the morning and afternoon.
Tisane: The word means herbal tea and popular varieties include verbena (verveine), mint (menthe), and tilleul (made from the flowers of the lime or linden tree).
Many cafés have wine lists featuring a range of bottles. But if you just want to order a casual glass to enjoy with a friend, or sip before dinner, here’s what to ask for.
Kir: Pink in color, this combines white wine and crème de cassis, a sweet, dark red, sticky liqueur made from blackcurrants.
Kir Bourguignon: Red wine mixed with crème de cassis. As the name indicates, Burgundy wine was traditionally used, but these days it’s more likely Côtes du Rhône.
Ballon de Rouge, Ballon de Blanc: A very French way to order a glass of red or white, this will get you a regular glass of wine. It’s akin to ordering the house wine—except you’re in France, so the house wine actually tastes good. Alain notes that the quantity of “un ballon is 14 centiliters,” or a little more than 4.5 ounces (a standard glass of wine is 5 ounces).
What’s your favorite drink to order at a Paris café? Let us know in the comments!