In France un Café is more than a beverage, it is the cornerstone of the café culture. In the USA coffee is something you do while you do something else, in France it is much more deliberate, for a traveler it is a perfect entry into the local culture.
I have never seen a drive-through Starbucks in France; the drive through food and beverage concept is as rare here as it is ubiquitous in the USA – as are insulated travel cups. In France you stop what you are doing to have un café. The Dunkin Donut idea of unlimited refills is just as strange, as would be a “grande” or “venti” size. These are uniquely American concepts where quantity often supersedes quality.
In France this is un café
In its most basic form it is a shot of espresso, always served in a cup and saucer, with a small spoon, sugar – never cream – and a petit biscuit. There are other drinks that are only coffee: un double which is two shots served the same way, un café allongé which is a single with more water forced through, and an americano which is espresso diluted with hot water to cater to the taste of Americans in WWII that found un café to strong – an americano is as close as you will get to a mug of coffee in France. One of my favorites is un café noisette which is an espresso with just a dollop of steamed milk.
One of my frustrations is that often when I order un café, with my best attempt at a French accent, they will either bring me an americano, or clarify that it is espresso I want, as they are so accustomed to folks from UK and USA not wanting a real un café.
In France coffee with milk is rarely consumed after early morning, having a latte in the afternoon clearly signals you are from Starbucks country. Un café is the norm after a meal, but of course without milk.
Un café is also your ticket into the café culture, you can sit for hours at a table, with no one implying that you need to give up your table, participating in the French pastime of people watching, or in my case sketching.
Le café and les cafés are one of the things I like the most about France. Whenever possible I go early and enjoy starting my day watching, sipping, and sketching.