What does the way you order a coffee in French say about you?

It's probably one of the first things you learned - how to order coffee in a French café. But as French expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis explains, how you order makes an impression.

What does the way you order a coffee in French say about you?
How you order a coffee in France will tell the waiter about who you are. Photo: AFP

Amid the myriad other challenges of French – wrestling with tenses, remembering to make your adjectives agree and keeping a wary eye out for ‘false friends’ – how you order your coffee is probably not something that most people pay a lot of attention to.

As long as your waiter brings you what you wanted and doesn’t spit in it, then there’s no problem, right?

Well in a sense no, but certain ways of asking can make you appear older than you are, excessively formal or just like a tourist.

So we asked language expert and Paris native Camille, founder of French Today, to give us her run-down of some of the most common phrases.

Just to emphasise – none of these are wrong, all will get you a coffee and none will make the waiter hate you, so there’s no need to worry too much about your phrasing.

READ ALSO How much should you tip your waiter or waitress in France?

Coffee on a terrace watching the world go by is one of the great pleasures of life in France. Photo: AFP

Bonjour, un café s’il vous plaît

This is the basic request for coffee that’s probably the most commonly heard. Quick note – un café in France specifically means a short, black coffee. If you want yours with milk or cream in you can order un café au lait, un café crème (or just un crème) or un double crème if you want it really milky.

Camille says: “This is the standard request if you’re ordering at the counter or on a busy terrace in a city.

“Some English-speakers think it sounds a little abrupt, but as long as you have the bonjour and s’il vous plaît then you’re being perfectly polite.

“If the terrace is busy, then it’s also OK to wave at the waiter/waitress to attract their attention and just call out bonjour, un café s’il vous plaît but no clicking your fingers – that is just rude.”

Un café

Do you need the pleasantries if you’re in a busy place and the waiter is clearly in a rush?

Camille says: “Yes, saying it without the bonjour and without a s’il vous plaît is rude, but you’ll hear it a lot in busy places… Yet honestly, how hard is it to say hi and please?

“If you want to be more polite you can start with a bonjour monsieur/madame/mademoiselle and obviously say merci when it is delivered.”

Je voudrais un café s’il vous plaît

This is the phrase that many anglophones learn in French class, but in France it’s a lot less common than your teachers would have you believe.

Camille says: “This is very polite, quite formal. I would be more likely to use this if I was having trouble making up my mind or I was discussing my order with the waiter. Ben, je ne suis pas sûr(e), je voudrais . . . un café s’il vous plaît.

Puis-je avoir un café s’il vous plaît

Puis-je is the inverted form of je puis from the verb pouvoir –  I may – and makes it into a question – may I? In this case ‘may I have a coffee?’.

Camille says: “This is very old-fashioned, I don’t think I really hear anyone saying this any more, not even old ladies – I would maybe use it if I was talking to the Queen!

“It’s quite popular with foreigners though, I think because it’s an exact translation of how you might order coffee in the UK or the US but it’s not really heard in France any more.”

More about how to say May I in French.

READ ALSO Terraces to tipping: The etiquette to visiting a French café

Even on a busy terrace there is no reason to dispense with the formalities. Photo: AFP

Je vais prendre un café, s’il vous plaît

Literally ‘I’m going to take a coffee’ this is another common phrase.

Camille says: “I would use this, my mum would use this, I think it’s pretty universal.”

Je prends un café

So can you use an even shorter version of this?

Camille says: “I would only use it like this if I was the second or third person in a group ordering. If your friend has already placed her order, you might add Moi, je prends un café aussi but I wouldn’t use it on its own to place an order.”

Est-ce-que je peux avoir un café s’il vous plaît

In English to sound more polite we often pose our order as a question ‘can I have a coffee’ ‘could I get a coffee’ but we are not genuinely doubting whether it will be possible to get a coffee in a café. 

In French, however, this question might be taken more literally.

Camille says: “I think I would only use this if there was some doubt, for example if the café looked like it might be closing or if they are setting the tables for lunch I might ask Est-ce-que je peux avoir juste un café – can I have just a coffee (as opposed to a meal).

“There’s no need to add these little question phrases on to your order to try and sound polite, in France we care more about how the phrase sounds in your mouth and trips off the tongue.”

Pourrais-je avoir un café, s’il vous plaît 

Again this sounds like a literal translation of how you might frame your order in English – could I have a coffee – but is not often heard in France.

Camille says: “Again, this sounds like more than a simple order. I might use it if my coffee was really slow in arriving, as a gentle reminder to the waiter perhaps, but I wouldn’t order like this.”

Camille also added: “Different people will have different opinions though and really the context is crucial – whether you are ordering a coffee at a busy counter in Paris or whether you are in a lovely café in a little village and the owner is taking your order.”

Do you have a language question for Camille? Email us at [email protected] and we’ll ask for her expert advice.

Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of

Member comments

  1. “If you want to be more polite you can start with a bonjour monsieur/madame/mademoiselle”

    Ouah! I would never go anywhere near madame/mademoiselle. I have no idea of the register/ overtones/ implications of these words when used to a stranger. The possibilities of causing offense, or of sending some message (being old-fashioned, being a tourist, being rude, or even flirting) easily outweighs the ‘benefits’ of the extra verbiage.

    Maybe this could be the subject of a different article?

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Fantastic but scary’: The new Paris exhibition grappling with Picasso’s controversial legacy

When British fashion designer Paul Smith was asked to oversee a rehang of the Picasso Museum in Paris to mark 50 years since the artist's death, he decided to have some fun.

'Fantastic but scary': The new Paris exhibition grappling with Picasso's controversial legacy

The 76-year-old designer’s playful approach does away with the usual art gallery white cube and piles on the colour.

It is simple yet highly effective: Pablo Picasso’s blue period is presented in a room painted and carpeted in rich dark blue, the bullfighting sketches on blood-red walls, the “Luncheon on the Grass” in verdant green.

“I had carte blanche to do whatever I want in the whole museum, which was obviously fantastic but also quite scary,” Smith told AFP.

The museum approached him five years ago with the commission, and Smith spent months trawling through some 200,000 works from its archives.

He has plucked out little-seen items, including silly and lewd doodles that Picasso made over magazine ads — signs of a mind that was always working.

“He never really stopped,” said Smith. “There were drawings on magazines, on napkins, on newspapers. He was constantly thinking about creating shapes.”

It’s a fun way to start off the exhibition, along with Smith’s favourite piece: a bicycle seat and handlebars that Picasso put together to look like a bull’s head.

“The way he thought about things was fascinating and very interesting,” he said.

“I made it very decorative because the idea is that young school children and teenagers will come and see his work in a different light. Many of us have already seen Picasso many times around the world, so we hope to show it in a new way.”

Six living artists are also featured, including a Black Lives Matter-inspired piece by New Yorker Mickalene Thomas that sits alongside Picasso’s wartime work.

And of course, the trademark Paul Smith coloured stripes also crop up.

“To stay in fashion as an independent company… to stay relevant for all these years, means you’re constantly reassessing, rethinking, which is probably one of the reasons why I got asked to do this exhibition,” Smith said.

The museum faces a constant challenge in finding new ways of venerating an artist whose work is so omnipresent, and whose decidedly old-school views on women have led to some severe #MeToo reappraisals.

“This museum’s job is not to serve as a mausoleum to a great man,” its director Cecile Debray told AFP.

“We want to be open to debates and reflection on Picasso so as to reconsider his work and show its continued vitality.”

Smith’s playful rehang is mostly an opportunity to see the masterpieces in a way that shows how fun and contemporary they still look, but doesn’t entirely shy away from the controversies.

Paintings by Congolese artist Cheri Samba and Nigeria’s Obi Okigbo highlight the debt Picasso owed to African traditions.

Some have accused him of appropriation, though Smith saw an artist who was very open about his inspirations.

“He was never afraid to admit that he took it from Cezanne or took influence from the classics or from Manet,” said the designer. “A lot of creators today don’t really ever admit that somebody’s been an influence.”

Born in October 1881 in Malaga, Spain, Picasso spent most of his life in France and died on April 8th, 1973 on the Cote d’Azur, aged 91.

Dozens of exhibitions and conferences are marking the 50th anniversary of his death around the world, with a new research centre to be opened near the Paris museum in the autumn.