On Parisian Sunday mornings my friends and I would often sit on the terrace of a café near the Marché d’Aligre watching pedestrians and cyclists collapse.
There is a certain spot smack in the middle of the street that would get slippery when wet, and Paris is so often bathed in drizzle.
On these mornings, we would sip espressos and nosh on croissants. If the night’s adventures had been particularly strenuous, or if the breakfast slipped into lunchtime, we might order an omelette or a croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese sandwich).
While gossiping about the adventures of the night before, our conversations would be punctuated by the cries of fallen market-goers. We would squeeze together at the tiny tables with all of the other café-goers, facing out towards the street à la parisienne, an audience to the regathering of sacks of oranges, the repairing of bicycles, and the corralling of children through the bustle.
As the day began to come into focus, we would peel off to buy fish and vegetables for lunches at the market, or make plans for concerts or gallery visits.
How, you’re wondering, can I also enjoy such lovely Sunday mornings in France?
First, find yourself some excellent French friends. Then, learn how to order breakfast in French. This post will help you with the latter.
How to Order Coffee in France for a Delightful French Petit Déjeuner
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Sitting or standing in French cafés
The first choice you have when entering a typical French bar or café is whether you want to stand at the bar for your espresso and croissant, take a seat inside, or sit outside on the terrace. (If it’s chilly out, many Parisian cafés have heat lamps.)
This is not Starbucks, dear Americans; do not order at the bar and then think you can take your coffee and go sit somewhere. The prices are quite different depending on your selection; the cheapest option is standing at the bar, and the most expensive (usually your drinks cost about 50% more) is to sit on the terrace. Here’s what the options are called:
- au comptoir/au bar — at the counter/at the bar
- (assis) à l’intérieur — (seated) inside
- (assis) à l’extérieur/en terrasse — (seated) outside/on the terrace
There is (now, thankfully) no smoking inside restaurants and bars in France.
How to order coffee and drinks in French
Your next task is to order your drinks. Your breakfast options in France typically include:
- un café — a coffee; in France this means an espresso
- un expresso — also an espresso; if you look foreign, waiters (especially in touristy areas) may use this word to clarify that that’s what you should expect
- un café au lait — a coffee with milk
- un café latte — a coffee with a little steamed milk
- un macchiato — steamed milk with a little coffee
- un café allongé — a longer espresso
- un café court/café serré — a short espresso; French espresso usually isn’t any good, but if you’re in a place that takes coffee seriously, this is what you’ll want to order for an intense, Italian-like experience
- un café filtre/café américain — brewed coffee, but you can’t actually order this in most places in France; you will instead usually be served diluted espresso (un café allongé)
- un cappuccino — coffee with hot milk and steamed milk
- un thé — a tea
- une infusion — an infusion (i.e., caffeine-free)
- un jus de fruits — a fruit juice
- un jus d’orange — an orange juice
- un jus de pamplemousse — a grapefruit juice
- un jus d’apricôt — an apricot juice
- un jus de pomme — an apple juice
- un jus de poire — a pear juice
- un café-rhum — a coffee with rum
Simply stating the name of the thing you want is the most common way to order. If you want to be extra-polite, you can tack on a s’il vous plaît (please) at the end. A few other phrases to know are:
- Je prends ~. — I’ll take ~.
- merci — thank you
- sans sucre — without sugar
How to order your pastries in France
Le petit déjeuner (breakfast) in France is usually coffee and a croissant if you’re in a bar, although at home many French people have been converted to American cereals, which saves a morning trip down to the bakery.
Even the simplest dive bars will have a basket of croissants out on the bar in the morning, and possibly chocolate croissants.
- un croissant — a croissant
- un pain au chocolat/chocolatine — a chocolate croissant; chocolatine is the word used in the South
If you go to a bakery in the morning, you’ll have more options:
- une baguette — a long loaf of bread
- un pain complet — a loaf of whole grain bread
- un canelé — a tiny cake with a custard center
- une part de flan — a slice of flan
- une tartelette aux framboises — a small raspberry tart
- un éclair au chocolat — a chocolate éclair
- un pain aux raisins — a sweet raisin roll
- une brioche — a very light, sweet bread made with eggs and butter
- un chausson aux pommes — an apple pastry/tart
- un croissant aux amandes — a very sweet almond croissant
Some cafés, like the one I described at the beginning of this post, offer a few additional options for hungrier patrons:
- une omelette — an omelette
- un croque-monsieur — a grilled ham and cheese sandwich
- un croque-madame — a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg an top
So you want un breakfast américain
Really? Why are you even in France?
But sure, it’s true, sometimes one misses home. Cafés in touristy areas in France have learned to cater to Anglos, so you may be able to order the following in some places. There are also a few American style diners cropping up, such as the famous Breakfast in America.
If you want to attempt to order an American breakfast, you can ask for the following:
- deux œufs — two eggs
- avec bacon — with bacon
- avec saucisse — with sausage
- un bagel — a bagel
- pommes de terre sautées — fried potatoes
- pancakes (crêpes américaines) — French crèpes are much lighter and thinner—and oh so much better, especially in Brittany
Le brunch in France
It’s difficult to stretch the typical French breakfast into a 20-25 euro affair, but some brave French cafés have attempted to take up the New York tradition. This usually means some sort of set menu with the bread and pastry options, coffee, french orange juice, plus:
- des confitures — jams
- du jambon — some ham
- du fromage — some cheese
- un œuf à la coque — a soft-boiled egg
- une salade de fruits — a fruit salad
French morning traditions
There are a couple more morning traditions to know about in France.
One is the soupe à l’oignon (onion soup); you may have thought of this as fancy food, but it’s really quite a simple dish. If a house party is still rocking, making onion soup in the wee hours of the morning is the traditional French way to keep things going just a little longer.
Also, if a gentleman has had a nice time with a new lady friend, it’s customary for him to say this the next morning:
- Je cherche les croissants. — I’ll fetch the croissants.
The lady can thus stay comfortably in bed, or else scour the apartment for evidence of the gentleman’s ex, as per her wishes.
This information and vocabulary should get your day off to an excellent start in France, whatever your needs for caffeine and sustenance.
I’m not going to tell you where the best breakfast spot is in Paris, because you know, we can’t have just anyone… but I will say that if you bike around the Marché d’Aligre until you wipe out, that café in front of you may well serve an excellent croque-monsieur.
Mose Hayward blogs about French drinking, partying, and morning-after traditions like French onion soup at TipsyPilgrim.com.