If you think ordering coffee in a French café or bar is the same as back home, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise. Ask for un café and you'll be presented with a tiny cup of espresso, and if you then request milk, you're likely to get a dirty look or sigh of exasperation. What's the problem?
Le Café Français
In France, un café, which may also be called un petit café, un café simple, un café noir, un petit noir, un café express, or un express, is an espresso: a tiny cup of strong black coffee. That's what the French drink, so that's what the simple word café refers to.
Many visitors to France, however, prefer a large cup of filtered, relatively weak coffee, which in France is known as un café américain or un café filtre.
If you like the taste but not the strength of espresso, order un café allongé and you'll get an espresso in a large cup which you can dilute with hot water.
On the other hand, if you'd like something even stronger than espresso, ask for un café serré.
In the unlikely event that you find a place serving iced coffee, it will be called café glacé.
For decaffeinated coffee, add the word déca to your order: un café déca, un café américain déca, etc.
Du Lait, S'il Vous Plaît
If you want milk, you have to order it with the coffee:
- un café au lait, un café crème, un crème - espresso with hot milk (large cup)
- un cappuccino - espresso with foamed milk (large cup)
- un café noisette, une noisette - espresso with a dash of milk or a spoonful of foam (small cup)
Et Du Sucre?
You don't need to ask for sugar - if it's not already on the bar or table, it will arrive with your coffee, in little envelopes or cubes. (If it's the latter, you can do like the French and faire un canard: dip a sugar cube in your coffee, wait a moment for it to turn brown, and then eat it.)
At breakfast, the French like to dip croissants and day-old baguettes into café crème - indeed, that's why it comes in such a large cup or even a bowl. But breakfast is the only meal at which coffee is consumed (1) with milk and (2) with food. The French drink un express after lunch and dinner, which means after-not with-dessert.
French coffee is not meant to be consumed on the street, so there's no takeaway. But if you're in a hurry, drink your petit café standing up at the bar, rather than sitting at a table. You'll be rubbing elbows with locals, and you'll save money to boot. (Some cafés have three different prices: bar, indoor table, and outdoor table.)
Un café liégeois is not a drink, but rather a dessert: a coffee ice cream sundae. (You're also likely to encounter un chocolat liégeois.)
Other Hot Drinks
- un chocolat - hot chocolate
- un thé - black tea
- un thé vert - green tea
- une tisane, une infusion - herbal tea
In the mood for something different? This article has an extensive list of other drinks and their French pronunciations.