Culture: How to Enjoy French Apéro Culture Like a Local
There are many things that the French arguably do better than us Americans. When it comes to pre-dinner drinks, apéro is certainly one of them. Savored from the busy streets of Paris to sleepy villages in the French countryside, apéro is a post-work, pre-dinner ritual that consists of drinks, snacks and, most importantly, good company.
Although the event is similar in spirit to American happy hour, a handful of nuances set this beloved early-evening tradition apart. For one, although many restaurants and cafes offer splendid apéro, most French drinkers take theirs at home. Looking to do as the locals do? We enlisted the help of six experts to weigh in on how to execute the best apéro when you’re drinking in.
First Things First: Gather Your Drinks
Rebekah Peppler, author of Apéritif and À Table, explains that drinks served at apéro tend to be on the lower-ABV side, and generally include Champagne, wine, beer, fortified wines, liqueurs or very simple cocktails.
“L’apéro is the colloquial form of the word apéritif, which refers to both the bottles themselves, as well as the drinks made with them,” she says, noting that the word apéro is derived from the Latin verb aperire, which means to open—and in this context, said opening is attributed to both appetite and the evening as a whole. (Peppler equally notes that apéro drinks can most certainly be non-alcoholic, too.)
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Prune Jakob, senior marketing manager at importer and distributor Winebow, hails from just outside of Paris. Her apéro drink of choice depends on the time of year. “I like to have a selection that includes a few apéritifs like pastis, Muscat de Rivesaltes or Martini Rosso or Bianco, a wine (usually sparkling, light white or rosé), and a non-alcoholic option—think sparkling water with different flavors or fruit juices,” she says.
Meanwhile, Julie Renault, communications manager at Champagne Lanson, is understandably partial to bubbles. “Champagne, of course!” she exclaims. After all, she continues, the French never wait for a special occasion to pop a bottle of bubbly. “It’s the perfect way to elevate your everyday life and celebrate the joy of being together with your loved ones.”
Don’t Forget the Snacks!
Peppler notes that in France, an apéro is almost always accompanied by a small snack. Opinions abound on what that might be.
“Nothing so large that it fills you up, just enough for you to want more,” Pepper says, suggesting easy-to-pull-together treats like chips, nuts, popcorn, dips and charcuterie.
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Cheese, on the other hand, is on the mind of France-raised Anna Viducic, founder of Aroma Wine Co. She routinely reaches for freshly baked gougères spiked with Gruyère, as well as classic French cheeses for her at-home apéro gatherings. Jakob, however, recommends cubing the cheese rather than serving a full board. “You don’t want anything that will require your guests to need a plate,” she notes. She rounds it out with bite-sized toasts with tapenade and veggies with dip.
For an elevated apéro twist, Souleil Wines co-founder and south of France native Marianne Fabre-Lanvin whips up homemade escargots de Bourgogne and oysters with homemade French fries baked in the oven, along with a variety of bite-sized snacks. “I always try to find foods that you don’t come across often, and that look pretty—it’s part of the fun,” she says, affirming, however, that there is no hard set of rules to follow.
No matter what you choose to serve, Renault recommends sticking with amuse-bouches that don’t require silverware, as well as aiming for products that will open up your guests’ appetite rather than fill them up too quickly.
Choosing a Time and Guest List
Viducic and Jakob find that hosting apéro right after work tends to be a good time, often between 6 and 7pm. Of course, the precise timing for an apéro tends to be fluid and can last from 30 minutes to a few hours. “While not an equivalent, the timing of an apéro generally mirrors the conventional American cocktail hour,” Peppler notes.
The experts we interviewed for this piece all declared that the ideal number of apéro guests is somewhere between four and eight. But size of a crowd can vary based on the size of the hosting space, the ambiance and the purpose of the gathering. Fabre-Lanvin generally prefers smaller groups simply to ensure that everyone can engage in a communal conversation. Others, however, have a more come-one-come-all attitude.
“There is no bad time or a wrong number of people for apéro—but you probably need to be equipped with the proper glassware for the number of people you are inviting,” Renault says.
Apéro vs. Apéro Dînatoire
Christian Holthausen, the Franco-American founder of Westbrook Marketing Partners, cites the very important difference between classic apéro and apéro dînatoire, the latter of which tends to go later, and as the name implies, consist of heartier foods.
“For a simple apéro, 7pm is a good start time, though for an apéro dînatoire, 7:30pm or 8pm is better,” he says. While classic apéro can be held at a wine bar, café or someone’s home, apéro dînatoire is generally always held at someone’s home and features a few drinks per person plus dishes that are easy to share.
“Nobody is going to sit down at a table, but people will leave [later in the evening] feeling satiated,” he explains, stating that an apéro dînatoire is a convenient way to see friends in the middle of the week without the evening lasting until after midnight.
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Striking the Right Mood
Hosting a great apéro goes far beyond serving tasty food and drinks and setting an ideal ambiance is key. Lighting stands out to Fabre-Lanvin as the most crucial element. She always arranges numerous candles on the table and around the room.
“Ideally, the lighting will exude a smooth, warm and comforting ambiance,” she says. Opt for tall taper candles placed in brass candle holders, which Fabre-Lanvin says create an instant sense of coziness and comfort.
Jakob notes that a good soundtrack is equally essential. “I actually have a playlist called ‘ambiance apéro cool’ with a random mix of French and international songs that are low key, yet still with a bit of a beat,” she says.
For more intimate gatherings, Fabre-Lanvin puts on chill-out piano recordings by Earl Rose, though for livelier apéros, Fela (Afrobeat) or Badume’s Band (Ethio-jazz) are her top picks. Finding a just-right volume level is key. “It’s important not to have the music playing too loudly, ensuring that the focus remains on the conversation,” she says.
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As for other elements, small touches can go a long way. When hosting at home, Peppler suggests breaking out the “good glasses” and linen napkins, even if the apéro tends to lean casual. Viducic agrees, adding that pretty dishware and fresh flowers instantly boost the mood. Jakob finds that even something as simple as toothpicks can elevate the gathering. She adds that a proper toast is essential.
“You do have to cheers with everyone, and look them in the eyes when you do—and don’t cross arms with other guests while you do! That’s supposed to be bad luck,” she says.
The most important element of apéro, of course, is remembering to have a good time. “Don’t overthink it,” Jakob concludes. “Apéro shouldn’t be Instagram-perfect. It’s usually an impromptu get-together to celebrate the end of the workday—it could be just beers and some peanuts as long as you have the right attitude!”
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Last Updated: September 7, 2023