French Language Blog

A Cup of Coffee: « Un Café S’Il Vous Plaît ! » Posted by on Jan 14, 2015 in Culture

As a coffee lover one of the first things I wanted to do after arriving in France was to, bien sûr (of course), prendre une tasse de café (grab a cup of coffee). I got off the plane, jetlagged and groggy from the flight, but I still had that tasse in my head.

After making my way through Paris to my room for the night I went out in search of my perfect cup. Naturally I found un petit café juste à côté de la Tour Eiffel (right next to the Eiffel Tower) and sat down as I glanced at the menu:

Café au lait
Latte macchiato
Café crème
Café viennois

There were some things je ne conaissais pas (I didn’t know), but for the most part the names were easy to understand. But I just wanted a simple coffee! When it came time to order, I said in my best French, “Un café, s’il vous plaît” (a coffee, please), and waited for my much desired drink to come out from behind the counter.

The barista came back with my drink and put it down on my table with l’addition (the bill), then quickly went on to serve the next customer. “He got my order wrong” I thought to myself as I looked at la petite tasse de café (the small cup of coffee) sitting next to a small cookie and some sugar. Mon français (my French) wasn’t good enough to argue about it though. I just drank the café and went on with my day.

When the same problem happened again, and again, and again, I began to realize that “un café” is not the same thing as “a coffee”. Ordering a café is ordering what I would have called an espresso! The big coffee drink that I thought of as coffee is rather hard to come by if you’re going to un café français (a French cafe).

Now I happily (and knowingly) say, “un café, s’il vous plaît”.

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About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.


  1. Susan:

    Hi John,

    Nice article! Made me want to sit on a Parisian ‘terrasse’ and enjoy some café myself. So you’re used to the espresso style coffee now?
    Apparently, French waiters have become quite cooperative:) I remember a time (the eighties and nineties) where your order of ‘café’ would leave you with a coffee the size of a soup bowl. And this happened more than once.
    As it turned out, it was the foreign accent that gave the ‘victim’ away and the waiter would think for them (or do what these waiters are/were notorious for: be themselves, French and all) and conclude that the foreign customer would like a larger coffee, probably with milk as well. As a result the ‘addition’ would be different, but that aside.
    Absolutely no hard feelings here, by the way. Now, I teach my students to just ask for ‘un petit café’ if they want the famous and delicious French espresso. By the way, did you notice the size of the spoon that often goes with it? 😉


    • John Bauer:

      @Susan I had never heard of that happening before! Although I have had plenty of odd experiences from French people assuming things once they hear me speak.

      I’ve learned to love espresso style coffee. The only real problem I’ve ever had with it, is figuring out how to make it last longer so I feel like I have something to drink over a longer period of time without ordering 3 “café”s. The spoon certainly is funny, but I generally ignore it since I don’t add sugar to my coffee. 😀