If there’s something the French know how to do well, it’s give themselves a break (or rather, a pause). They see downtime as a preventative measure, a means to avoiding exasperation (as opposed to an emergency response to it). Whereas many of us wear ourselves so thin that we desperately need whatever it is (a break, a drink, a vacation), in France, it’s more about “we deserve this” than “we need this.”
L’heure de l’apéro (the French equivalent of cocktail hour) is the moment when the French consciously create some space between the workday and the dinner hour, demonstrating their talent for slowing down and, somehow, miraculously expanding time. On nice days, the apéro coincides with the moment when the city is suddenly bathed in that rosy, only-in-Paris light, and you suddenly feel like you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be in the world.
Non-traditional apéro settings are also appropriate: river banks, parks, benches… Boklm
Practically speaking, though, the idea of the apéro (a colloquial form of apéritif) is to whet the appetite for the meal to come. (The word comes from the latin aperire, which means to open). When at a café or bar, it’s typical to have glass of wine or champagne, a beer, or a kir (white wine with a splash of Crème de Cassis). Old-school traditionalists go for a pastis (an anise-flavored liqueur mixed with water and ice), and among my friends, Lillet (a sweet wine infused with citrus liqueur) has taken off of late. Take note: l’heure de l’apéro is not a time to pound American-style cocktails, which makes sense, considering a whiskey sour will do little to prep your palette for any kind of serious dégustation. And while cocktail culture is on the rise in France, mixed drinks have not historically been part of the French tradition.
When drinks arrive, there is a strict protocol to be followed. Listen carefully.
You must clink glasses with everyone in your group, usually saying “Santé” (health) which is short for “A votresanté” (to your health), but:
Do not cross arms with others in the group (bad luck). Wait until all arms have cleared before reaching to the person across from you.
Always make eye contact with the person you’re clinking, or risk seven years of bad luck (of the carnal variety).
Apero Café Charlot in the Marais – Erica Berman
If you follow these rules, you’re set. Then just relax and enjoy. Your server will likely bring you quelque chose à grignoter (something to nibble), such as olives or peanuts. If you’re looking for something a bit more substantial, many cafés and wine bars offer a charcuterie selection, which they’ll often serve with crunchy little cornichons. It’s usually at this point that I vow to inhabit the l’heure de l’apéro indefinitely. But, as with all good things, we must moderate.
Luckily for us, this mini-indulgence is as routine as setting your morning alarm—but a lot more delightful. On that note, we don’t have to think of it as an indulgence at all, but as a step towards self-preservation. In Paris, I’ve learned that the best way to sustain life is to savor it. Santé.
Check out these spots for perfect Parisian apéro:
Le Baron Rouge: Pick up groceries at the Marché d’Aligre and then stop by this neighborhood wine bar for a verre and a killer charcuterie plate. 1, rue Théophile-Roussel, 12ème. Tél: 01 43 43 14 32.
Le Sancerre: Head to this Montmartre café to observe the action on bustling Rue des Abbesses. 35, rue des Abbesses, 18ème. Tél: 01 42 58 08 20.
Da Rosa: Settle into this elegant épicerie fine that sells gourmet products from Italy, Spain and Portugal. Sample wines, cheeses and meats from these countries, or request the awesome (not-too-sweet) sangria. 62, rue de Seine, 6ème. Tél: 01 45 21 41 30.
L’Avant Comptoir: Snag at the seat at the counter of this neighborhood wine bar and order up snacks like Iberian ham and spicy chorizo along with interesting wines (some at just 2 euros a glass). Prepare to make friends with those around you—this place is cozy! 9, Carrefour de l’Odéon, 6ème. Arrondissement. Tél: 08 26 10 10 87.