Dining in Paris is practically a religion. And café culture in particular is sacred to the French. They have a variety of customs and unspoken ways that they follow when it comes to etiquette and knowing this etiquette can greatly improve your time spent in the City of Live.
Having spent a lot of time in Paris, living there and for my work as the founder of En Route to Rêverie I have watched (and cringed) witnessing many an American not knowing how to engage with French waitstaff when dining at a café. But don’t worry – this post will serve as your guide so you can enjoy the wonderful cafés and terraces in Paris and soak up the City of Lights.
Paris Café Etiquette
Parisian cafés serve as a center of social and culinary life in Paris. They are intrinsically linked to daily life for Parisians and they’ve been in existence since the 17th century. You’ll be hard pressed to go many feet without coming across a café when in Paris. These cafés serve as meeting places, neighborhood gathering spots, places for a quick petit déjeuner, a place to relax and refuel or even have a date.
It is very customary – and expected – for you to acknowledge your arrival at a café with a “Bonjour” to the staff. Additionally, an “au revoir” is customary as you depart.
In general, for Paris cafés you can seat yourself. At times, especially busy times, a waiter may ask for you to wait to be seated. A few cafés around Paris do take reservations during peak hours in which case they’ll need to try and find you a seat.
Typically you will be asked immediately by your wait staff if you’ll be dining “pour manger” or just having a coffee “Pour Boire” or “Pour juste un café”. If a table has silverware or a place setting it is typically there to indicate the table is being reserved for someone intending to dine vs. just have a beverage.
Lastly, some spots do have a hostess stand in which case you should wait to be seated or you may see a sign that says Attendez which indicates they’d like you to wait to be seated at a table.
Know how to order water
Unless you would like bottled still or sparkling water, it’s customary to order “un carafe d’eau s’il vous plait” for your water. Tap water is great in Paris and this pitcher will be handy for your table vs. a pricey bottle of water. Bringing water to the table is not assumed as it is in United States restaurants.
Look around at Paris cafés and you’ll notice most people rest their arms on their wrist or at the elbow vs. resting their elbows on the table. They avoid putting their hands below or under the table as it is considered poor manners.
Understand coffee practices
If you just want to grab a quick coffee in a café, take it at the bar – it’s more expensive if you sit down if you can believe it! Related: How to Order Coffee in Paris.
Requesting the bill
The French don’t ‘eat out’, they dine – and the timing and pace usually reflects that. Sit back, relax and enjoy the people watching! Empty plates will typically not be removed until everyone is finished dining. Additionally, the bill will not come unless you request it usually. You can do so by requesting “L’addition” to your waiter.
Substitutions or changes that are not allergy based are typically not welcome at Parisian cafes if ordering food. It is recommended you enjoy a meal as the chef intended it.
Bread is not typically served with butter at all cafés and certainly not if you are only enjoying a coffee. If bread doesn’t arrive you can request it.
In France by law, service compris is always included in the price when you are dining or drinking out. That being said, in recent years, it has become more common to leave something after a meal or drink that you enjoyed the service. It’s never expected and should only be given for good or attentive service as a thank you to your French waiter or waitress.
If you do want to leave a tip for the server you can feel free but know nothing more than 5-10% is necessary. Know that it is customary to not add it your credit card but rather leave a few bills or coins on the tray that your check has been presented at a café. It is becoming more common to add it to your credit card if paying by card and you can ask that they add it onto the total when they run your card with the credit card machine tableside.
As mentioned, French people don’t rush their time savoring a cup or a meal at a café. And the staff are busy! So know that they see you and will get to you – no need to wave them down. Often just some good ol’ eye contact will work to acknowledge that you’re ready to order.
Laptops are typically a no no
By now you know that enjoying time spent at a café is both sacred and a luxury. So you won’t see Parisians working on their laptops at a café. While the spots may have wifi (you can request the password by politely inquiring about “le mot de passe pour le wifi”) it is there for use for one’s cell phone. Rather, it is highly encouraged to enjoy a book or a conversation with a friend when enjoying café life in Paris.
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So, the more you know about French restaurant etiquette, the more you can enjoy the delight that is sitting at a Paris café and soaking up the beautiful city as the world goes by. Truly, there’s nothing I enjoy more than sipping on a coffee, reading a good book and enjoying some people watching at various cafés in my favorite city.
Are you looking to know more about the French way of life and get insider tips for an upcoming trip to Paris? I would love to work with you! Book an En Route to Rêverie plan with me today.
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- The Best Free Places to Visit in Paris.
- 12 Tips for Traveling to Paris Alone.
- The Best Breakfast Spots in Paris.