How to Order Coffee in a French Café

The Language of Café au Lait, Espresso, Café Américain, Café Deca, and More

Two women in a Paris cafe
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French cafés are known to serve some of the world's best coffee. Whether you are in a Parisian café or by the beach in the French Riviera, sipping on a coffee may not only energize you but bring comfort and satisfaction to your trip. 

But each of us has our own preferences, and you don't want a language barrier to prevent you from ordering the right beverage on the menu. If you can't have caffeine, being able to ask for the correct drink could be even more crucial for a smooth and restful vacation. Knowing the basic styles, from espresso to café au lait, and using common coffee terms will help you order the perfect beverage in France.

French Coffee Drinks

There are many drinks to choose from in France, and knowing the name of the beverage you are seeking will make ordering easier—plus you may enjoy feeling like a local. Some frequently-used terms:

  • Un café (kaf-ay) is a small cup of black coffee with nothing added—but it's strong because it is brewed like an espresso. You might also hear people ordering this using the French terms un petit caféun café simpleun café noirun petit noirun café express, or un express. Or the waitstaff might say one of those expressions if they want to clarify your order.
  • Un café serré (kaf-ay se-ray) is a stronger espresso.
  • Un café au lait (kaf-ay oh-lay) is a French coffee style that has been popularized in the United States, as it's served at Café du Monde in New Orleans. In France, this is simply a large cup of café express, with steamed milk, and it's almost always taken at breakfast. You will sometimes get the coffee served in the cup, with a pitcher of steamed milk to pour in as you please.
  • If you want more coffee or have mistakenly ordered just a petit café, you should ask for du lait, s’il vous plaît (due-lay, see voo play).
  • An espresso with a very thin cream is called café crème (ka-fay kremm) or just un crème.
  • Un café allongé (kaf-ay a-lon-jay) is an express diluted with water.
  • Un café décafféiné (kaf-ay day-kaf-ay-nay) is decaffeinated coffee. You will still need to tell them you want milk (lait) or cream (crème) with your coffee. It’s sometimes shortened to un Déca.
  • Un café noisette (kaf-ay nwah-zett) is espresso with a dash of cream in it. It is called "noisette," French for hazelnut, because of the rich, dark color of the beverage. You can also just ask for un noisette.
  • Un café Américain (kaf-ay ah-may-ree-kan) is filtered coffee, similar to traditional American coffee. It is also known as café filtré (kaf-ay feel-tray).
  • Un café Léger (kaf-ay lay-jay) is espresso with double the amount of water.
  • Un café glacé (kay-ay glas-ay) is iced coffee but this is unusual to find in traditional French cafés.

Some Sweet Words

If you are not a fan of unsweetened coffee, ask for sucre (soo-kreh), which is sugar. The word for sweetener is édulcorant (ay-doohl-co-ronn). Cafés will either have sugar on the table or bring two cubed wrapped sugars on the drink saucer. Since many French coffee drinks are strong, you may want to request more, so ask for plus de sucre, s'il vous plaît, (ploo duh soo-khruh, see voo play). The French often take the cubed sugar and dip it into the cup, wait for it to fill with coffee, and then eat it.

 

Non-Coffee Beverages

If you are seeking something to drink other than coffee, you have some great choices in France: 

  • Chocolat chaud (shoh-ko-lah show): hot chocolate
  • Un thé (tay): black tea
  • Un thé vert (tay verr): green tea
  • Une tisane (tee-zan), une infusion (an-phew-zee-on): herbal tea

When and Where to Drink Your Coffee

There are certain conventions in France that visitors should follow. If you’re in a hurry or want a cheaper drink, then have a petit café at the bar with the locals who prefer this. Also be aware that the price for a coffee at an outside table might be more, as you’re likely to sit there for a long time.

Many French people will take a café au lait at breakfast, and dip a plain croissant in it, but not after lunch or dinner when it is customary to drink un caféUnless you ask specifically, the café will come after dessert. And a word of caution: un café liégeois is not a drink, but rather a coffee ice cream sundae. 

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