Frankly, it took me quite a few trips to figure out exactly how to order coffee in France. Let me save you some time. Here is how to get what you want in France (or at least, drink coffee like the French…and I say, “when in France…”).
Part I: Coffees You Order Just About Any Time of Day
1. Café Express is espresso. Certainly a French waiter will understand you if you order an “espresso,” but the French call it cafe express (pronounced as it looks). This is enjoyed any time of day, but quite commonly after lunch or dinner.
2. Une Noisette (pronounced: nwahzette). This is pretty much a macchiato in Italy or a cortado in Spain. It’s espresso with a dab of milk. Generally, you can order this whenever you want, though again, after dinner, the French usually drink their coffee black.
Though the milk in une noisette should be hot, foamed milk, annoyingly, some barmen just pour a touch of cold milk in the espresso for you (resulting in a tepid, boring drink). This happens to me especially in the Southwest of France. So generally, when traveling there, I just order espresso.
Part II: Coffees Mostly Enjoyed at Breakfast (with an exception)
Now things get confusing—but stay with me here, and you’ll get exactly the coffee you want to order:
1. Café au Lait: If you’re staying in a hotel that serves breakfast, you can order café-au-lait. This is strong, dark-roasted brewed coffee (not espresso) served with milk. Generally, the milk and coffee are served in two separate pitchers, and you mix them to your taste. And though I rarely drink sugar in coffee, I always do so in France. It just tastes better that way.
You can, of course, order café noir (black coffee, without the milk). But I really don’t think French breakfast coffee tastes great that way. And my theory is that the only way the classic French breakfast (croissant and bread-butter-jam combo known as tartine) can sustain you through the morning is if you get the protein that the milk provides.
2. Un Crème: This drink, mostly served in cafés, consists of espresso with steamed milk. It is not the same as café au lait, which is made with brewed filtered coffee (not espresso).
You see, most French hotels won’t have an espresso machine, so they’ll serve you café-au-lait; conversely, many French cafés don’t monkey around with brewed filtered coffee, so if you want a milky coffee, they’ll serve you un crème.
If you want a double, order un grand crème. Otherwise, the standard size is simply un crème. Whenever I order un grand crème, however, I always specify “avec le lait à part” (with the milk on the side, pronounced: ah-vehck luh lay ah par); otherwise, they can fill that big cup up with too much milk. Ugh.
Another point: Though the French do not drink “un crème” after lunch, it is not a faux-pas to order it other times than breakfast; say, in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon at a café.
A few more things to keep in mind:
1. Coffee with Dessert?: Don’t go there. If you have coffee at lunchtime or dinnertime, it will come after dessert, not with it. Try it: You will find that having your café express after dessert works as a digestif—it helps you digest your food, and wards off that sluggish feeling a fine meal can bring.
2. Cappuccino? Some cafés will serve this, but it’s not France’s specialty. The closest thing to order is un crème. Yes that’s more like a latte, but generally, not as milky as lattes we get over here. And please don’t order it after lunch or dinner. It’s just not done.
3. American black coffee? The closest thing in a restaurant or café is un café allongé—espresso elongated with water.
4. French-press coffee?: Some restaurants might have it, but I’ve rarely seen it outside a private home.