French aperitif traditions demystified: A beginners guide

Friends enjoying an aperitif together during l'apero on a terrace

Discover the fine art of l’heure de l’apèro (French Apèro time.) The time of day in France to unwind and socialize before dinner with a light drink (or two), a salty snack, and your favourite people. Sounds simple yet this time-honoured French tradition that every French person understands confuses so many newcomers to France.

A simple apero with some chips
French Apero time, known in France as “l’heure de l’apero!” No doubt you’ve heard about it, but do you really know what it is?

  • Is it an appetizer?
  • Is it the evening meal?
  • Is it alcoholic beverages?
  • Is it similar to happy hour or maybe a cocktail party?
  • Is it an occasion?
  • What time is apéro hour?
  • What kind of French food and drinks do you eat during apero time?

Let’s demystify this wonderful French tradition by exploring all these questions and more.

THE BASICS: What Is An Apéro?

Apero Meaning

 

There’s no English equivalent for the French word Apero. And if you look up the word “Apéro” in a French dictionary, it will tell you that apéro, short for apéritif, is two things at once.

1 ) An apero is the moment before dinner to enjoy a pre diner drink (usually alcoholic) with others or alone while nibbling on a light salty snack.  

2) An apéro is also an apéritif drink, the pre dinner drink which you enjoy during apéro time: (usually alcohol)

Although accurate, the dictionary’s definition doesn’t give the full picture and little nuances.

What’s the purpose of a French aperitif?

The purpose of the French apero time is to unwind and or socialize at the end of the day before dinner and to stimulate the appetite. 

Traditionally, the type of predinner drink served during apero time, called an apéritif drink, is meant to do just that, stimulate the appetite but without ruining the appetite, so they are usually bitter, sweet and light in alcohol. I have an extensive guide and list all about French aperitif drinks here.

The light snack and nibbles are salty to stimulate thirst; such as a bowl of green olives or crisps. The snack shouldn’t ruin the appetite either.

Examples of L’apéro (French aperitif)

  • A quick drink after work with friends at a nearby cafe with olives, chips, peanuts or fruit. 
  • An invitation to enjoy an apéro (drink and nibbly bits) at a friend’s house. 
  • To meet friends and family, for a quick drink possibly followed by dinner elsewhere.
  • A drink you enjoy at a restaurant before you order your meal. Servers will often ask you if you would like to start with an aperitif. 
  • Sometimes it’s a drink at home with your family out on the patio with a bowl of chips. 
  • Sometimes it’s alone at home or at a café after a stroll, shopping, or work. 
  • A French aperitif is also part of the French multi course meal families enjoy to celebrate special occasions
  • And sometimes it’s a full meal, called an apéro dînatoire. Usually, this includes both salty and sweet, but the portions are still small but add up to a full meal. 

THE FINE ART OF THE FRENCH APERO EXPLAINED IN DETAIL!

People in Paris enjoying an aperitif during l'heurre de l'apero

What Time is Apero?

Take a walk through any French town in France at the end of the day or in the early evening between 7 and 9 pm.

Like magic, you’ll see empty terraces and cafes come to life with people chatting away while sipping on French apéritif drinks and nibbling on a small salty snack.

Friends enjoying a picnic apéro

Around the same time terraces are coming to life, some friends and families are also gathering in homes across France to enjoy each other’s company over a nice drink and small plates of nibbly bits. 

This is Apéro time (l’heure de l’apéro).

“There’s nothing better than a friend,
except a friend to enjoy an apero with “
“Il n’y a rien de meilleur qu’un ami,
sauf si c’est un ami avec l’apéro!”

7 to 9 pm might seem late, but dinner is served much later in France and much of Europe. Most restaurants don’t open until 7:30 pm or 8:00 pm, with things picking up pace around 9:00 pm, ending well past 10 pm or 11 pm.  

So while happy hour usually ends between (5 pm to 7 pm), apéro time is just beginning around 6 or 7 pm and can last until 8 pm or 9 pm but sometimes continues to 10 pm and beyond.

What to expect during an apero

L'apero is a time of the day and

Apero time at a restaurant, café terrace, at the beach and beyond

If you’re meeting someone after work for l’heure de l’apero, the server will usually bring you something salty to nibble on; a bowl of green olives, black olives, pistachios, peanuts, or pretzels etc.

These salty snacks are usually free, but some places have small bites you can order for an additional cost, tapenade, focaccia bread, etc.   

Don’t be confused: When you sit down for diner in a restaurant, servers will often ask if you would like an aperitif before the meal. They are simply asking you if you would like a beverage to start. In this case you can order something classic like a Kir or a glass of rosé. Or pick up the menu and flip to the aperitif drink section. 

Apero time at someone’s home, maybe yours?

An informal apero at home with friends over a glass of wine light snacks:

If you’re invited to someone’s house for an apéro, the spread might be a little more elaborate or substantial than the free olives and pistachios served at a cafe terrace. 

There might be three or more choices like cheese, slices saucisson, pâté, a bowl of cherry tomatoes, chips, or something to spread on slices of bread. There will be alcohol too. 

“Whether it’s a problem or a question, apero is always the answer.”

“Quel que soit le problème ou la question, l’apéro est toujours la bonne réponse!”

WHAT APÉRO IS AND IS NOT:

Sometimes to better understand what something is, we have to look at WHAT IT IS NOT. 

Apéro time is not the same as  happy hour or cocktail party

 I’ve seen some articles describe an apéro as being similar to happy hour, cocktail parties and even English “high tea.”

Sure, all three involve food, drink and socializing. 

In reality, the French apéro is much more with a set of traditions and unsaid rules, and that is where people unfamiliar with this tradition get confused. 

Here are some of the main differences. 

APERO IS A WIDESPREAD TRADITION: Happy hour & cocktail parties are not 

Many French alcohol and snack companies have conducted marketing studies to determine the apéro habits of French people.  

One of the most glaring differences between an apero, happy hour and cocktail parties is that Apero time is a tradition that most French people experience regularly. It’s estimated that roughly 70% to 80% of French people in France regularly enjoy an apéro. Those numbers only increase during the holidays and weekends! 

Whereas, you can go your whole life without ever having experienced a cocktail party or happy hour because they ARE NOT traditions. 

More than half of all French people who organize potluck style apéros in France

Here are some studies conducted on the apero hour in France.

  • A survey conducted by Deliveroo France concluded that 6/10 people in France take an apéro at least once a month. 3/10 people enjoy an apéro once a week, and 1/10 people take an apéro every day. 
  • This 2020 study found that 5/10 people surveyed enjoyed an apéro at least once a week. 
  • This study asked 1011 French people about their apéro time habits: foods served, locations and frequency. This is what they found: 
    • 21% of people surveyed enjoyed an apéro one or more times per week.
    • 54% enjoyed an apéro 1 to 3 times per month
    • 19% enjoyed an apéro 1 to 10 times per year.
    • Only 6% of people surveyed enjoyed less than one apéro per year.
  • Studies have even shown that taking an apero with your spouse or significant other is good for your relationship

Apéro is not an appetizer.

Apero is not an appetizer or the starter dish consumed at the beginning of the meal before the first course. It’s separate from the French meal. You can have an apero at one place, then get up and leave to have your meal someplace else. Or you can have an apero on the terrace of a restaurant and then decide you also want to have diner there. 

Apéro is not a full meal, but an Apero dînatoire IS a full meal

Friends enjoying an apéro dinnatoire
The plates served during an apero dinatoire are the equivalent of an entire meal in finger food portions.

Anything goes when it comes to apero food, but the plates are small, salty or savoury, and bite-sized; little to no cutting is required. And you don’t fill up on the small plates because you don’t or shouldn’t ruin your appetite before the actual meal. 

There is an exception, it’s the apéro dînatoire.

Apero dînatoire is exactly the same as an apero except for duration and time, quantity and types of food served.

Time: While an apero happens before dinner and is not meant to be a full meal, Apéro dînatoire is a dinner.

Amount of food: The plates served during an apero dinatoire are the equivalent of an entire meal in finger food portions. And the plates are more elaborate. 

Apero dinatoire is almost exclusively something enjoyed at someone’s house, and not a restaurant. 

LOCATION: APERO TIME CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE: Happy hour and a cocktail party cannot.

Unlike happy hour, which is always at a bar, or a cocktail party that is usually at someone’s home or an event, you can literally enjoy an aperitif anywhere.

On a café terrace, at someone’s house, at the beach, picnic-style along the Seine river, on the steps of an old church, at the office, on a train, at Disneyland

APERO TIME CAN HAPPEN FOR ANY OCCASION: Happy hour cannot.

Unlike happy hour and cocktail parties, an invitation to an apéro can be for any occasion. Here are just a few. 

  • Apéro birthday party
  • Apero Christmas party
  • Weekly apero family get together
  • Apero Retirement party
  • Apero party to celebrate passing an important exam 
  • Apero dinnatoire marriage.
  • Apero at the end of a business meeting
  • An apero end of year school party
  • After parent-teacher meetings.  
  • Just because you want to for no other reason.

There is no limit to what type of occasion an apero is suited for. The most important thing is it happens before diner, but sometimes people take an apero before lunch. 

You can enjoy an apero anywhere. Even on the ground or on the steps of an old church

APERO CAN BE CASUAL AND STRESS-FREE: Cocktail parties are the opposite.

Cocktail parties are usually fancy events, where guests stand enjoying hors-d’oeuvre, and the host has spent hours planning something elaborate for guests. 

The main goal of an apero is to relax, enjoy yourself and socialize. It means no slaving over the stove preparing a meal while your guests wait and watch you. Not only will you not be able to relax, but it’s not very relaxing for your guests to watch you zipping around the kitchen trying to cook and get things together. 

This is why it’s crucial to serve certain types of food items at an apero party. Good food and dishes that you can put out ahead of time that can be eaten at room temperature.

If it’s casual, a bag of chips, olives, pretzels, French cheese, some radish, baguettes with some garlic olive oil for dipping, a quiche, etc.

If it’s more of an upscale apero, choose fancier food and better quality: a giant charcuterie board with saucisson, paté, Brie in a puff pastry, or better quality French cheeses. Don’t forget a bottle of white wine and red wine. Maybe kick off the meal with a French aperitif drink like the popular Kir Royale.

results of a survey conducted by research company to discover criteria for a successful apéro

AN APERO CAN BE IMPROVISED OR IMPROMPTU: Cocktail parties cannot.

Apero time can be as fancy as you want for special occasions and get-togethers. But more often than not, apero time is usually very low-key and not fancy at all. Can you imagine having a fancy apero every week?

It’s too much work to do so often.

This is why an apero can be with whatever you have on hand in the cupboards—a bowl of nuts and a glass of wine and each other’s company. 

CHILDREN ARE VERY WELCOME DURING APERO TIME: But usually not at happy hour or cocktail parties.

Another critical difference between an Apéro, happy hour and cocktail parties is children. 

Children are not excluded from apéro get-togethers, especially at someone’s house or outdoors, such as at the beach or picnic style. 

Apero culture is ingrained in French culture; it’s not uncommon for young people as early as 17 or 18 years to have aperos with their friends. 

WHAT PEOPLE USUALLY SERVE DURING APÉRO TIME (AT HOME)

Everyone’s idea of a perfect french apéro is different but here are some general guidelines to follow if you want to do it the French way.

APERO DRINKS: Not all drinks are appropriate apéritif drinks

When it comes to happy hour and cocktail parties, anything goes. Not so when it comes to l’heure de l’apero.

An apéritif drink (pre dinner drink) is meant to stimulate the appetite. A cocktail can count as an apéritif, but in general, all pre dinner drinks should meet specific criteria:

  • A pre dinner drink should have low alcohol content. No one should get drunk or ruin their appetite with heavy and high alcohol level drinks.
  • Many aperitif drinks are bitter and sweet: Bitter to whet the appetite and sweet to cut the bitterness.
  • The limit is usually one maybe two aperitif drinks before everyone heads their separate ways to have dinner.

There are no sweets desserts during apéro time.

In French culture, sweets are eaten after the savoury parts of the meal are finished. This means that all deserts are taken after all the courses are finished: appetizer, main course and cheese course.

Since an apéro is an appetite opening (not squashing) predinner event, eating sweets is a nono because it would not only ruin your appetite, but you would be eating sweets before you even start the main meal. 

The exception is during an apero dinatoire.

It’s ok to serve something sweet at the end of an apero dinatoire because it is the main meal. You can also serve an after-dinner digestif drink and coffee at an apero dinatoire but not for an apero.

Food Should be ready to go and can be served at room temperature

None of your food should need additional cooking or attention. You’re buying components to mix and match everything. If you want to make something in advance like mini quiches, that’s fine, but, again, no one should be stuck cooking in the kitchen.

An apero is the perfect time to try new or fancier food products that you wouldn’t usually eat or serve your family: truffle chips, bellinis etc. Some classics that typically make the list are charcuterie boards with saucisson, cheese, and spreads such as guacamole, houmous or tzatziki. 

The food served for l’apéro can also be regional. 

For instance, in Marseille and Nice, the specialty is Panisse and Socca, both made with chickpeas and not really popular or readily available in other parts of France.

In the south of France, anchoïade, a garlic anchovy paste which you spread on small pieces of bread or as a dip for carrots and cucumbers, usually makes an appearance.

The closer you get to Spain, the more likely you’ll come across Tapas.

French grocery stores aisles where people buy their apéro products

Top Apero preparation choices in France, ready made, vs tartinage, vs elaborate recipes

In France, the number one aisle people usually shop for their aperitif goods is the apéritif aisle which usually has chips, salty cookies, pretzels and fancy goat-flavoured breadsticks.

In the refrigerated section, you’ll find bellinis and spreads such as tzatziki and in the condiment aisles cornichons. 

Survey: Top 10 foods French people serve at an apéro. Average number of dishes served is 5

At the top of the list of things people serve at an apero party at home are crudités, carrots, celery, broccoli.

Not far behind are nuts, charcuterie, and cheese.

Then there are quiche and salty cakes, chips, crackers, olives, dips, spread, and small bites that one might prepare but can also be bought in French grocery stores. 

Here are other small finger foods that make great apero food choices. 

  • Petits four: small bite-sized cooked items, Mini quiches, pigs in a blanket, pizza bites, 
  • canapes
  • Toasts
  • Verrines:

Cheese: Fromage

  • Soft Cheeses: Crème de gruyère, camembert, brie, goat cheese/chèvre
  • Semi Soft Cheese: Tomme de Savoie, Beaufort, mozzarella, Fourme d’Ambert, 
  • Hard cheeses:Comté, Beaufort, Parmesan, pecorino, maredsous, etc.

Charcuterie: Cold meat

  • Saucisson sec
  • Jambon sec
  • Prosciutto
  • Salami
  • Foie gras
  • Pâté
  • Rillettes
  • Terrine

Spreads, Dips & Sauces: Tartinage

To eat with bread or with the cruidtés.

  • Tzatziki
  • Hummus
  • Anchoiade (anchovy paste)
  • Tapenade (an olive spread)
  • Onion Confit (sweet onion jam)
  • Tomatine: (type of tomato pesto: sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oils)
  • Guacamole
  • Yogurt or Creme fraiche garlic sauce

Vehicles:

  • Baguette
  • Crackers
  • Breadsticks
  • Fougasse (bread)

Veggies: Crudité:

  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Carrot sticks
  • Radishes
  • Cucumber
  • Celery
  • Broccoli

Fruits: Fruits

  • Melon
  • Grapes

Salty bites:

  • Nuts
  • Olives
  • Pistachios
  • Peanuts
  • Cashews
  • Chips / Crisps
  • Tuiles: pringles shaped chips

Pickled items:

  • Cornichons (Look like baby pickles but crunchier and not sweet).
  • Oignons
  • Capres

Small Bites precooked:

  • Mussels
  • Calamari
  • Salty cakes
  • Quiche (large or mini quiche)
  • Pigs in a blanket (Roulées saucisses en pâte feuilletée)
  • Pizza bites
  • Smoked Salmon

QUANTITIES

Number of bites

  • When estimating food quantities, plan on serving around six bites per guest per hour for a two-hour party.
  • For a light aperitif, it takes 4 to 5 bites per person.
  • For a full dinner of small plates; apero dinatoire about 15 plus bites per person per hour.

Serve plenty of Aperitif drink.

Every good apéro has something alcoholic to drink, so count on serving a light alcoholic drink that stimulates the appetite.

I’ve read some articles online that say wine is not part of an apero. That’s just not true. Wine is always recommended, even white wine and beer, but they should be light and crisp, not heavy.

Some French apero drink staples fall under the fortified wine category, including liqueurs such as crème de cassis, port-like drinks and aromatized drinks.

Here are some safe pre dinner drink choices:

In France: You can order apéro kits delivered

aperix: Curated apero box kits

There are an abundance of pre-packaged apero kits and services for the busy person or the person who enjoys trying something new. Even Uber eats in France delivers apero kits from restaurants that offer it. 

I recently tried APERIX which offers curated apèro boxes from four different French regions: Alsace, Brittany, Lorraine and Provence.

Each box has French products made by local producers from one of those regions. These kits come in handy in the off chance that you don’t have time to get to the store or you have an unexpected guest. It’s also handy when you’re in a pinch, like when you’re invited to someone’s house for an apero at the last minute. You won’t arrive empty-handed. 

Aperix: curated regional apero boxe with regional products

But as you can see, the apero time is serious business in France. 

Wrapping up with some common French Apero expressions and phrases

When it’s apero time in France, people will usually say, “On prend un apéro? (shall we take an apero?)

Another common way to say it’s apero time in French is “C’est l’heure de l’apéro.” This phase usually gets translated to English as “It’s Apero Hour, but idiomatically, it means “It’s Apero time.”

Here are some examples of other common French phrases using “C’est l’heure de…”

  • It’s Apero time = C’est l’heure de l’apéro.
  • It’s diner time = C’est l’heure du dîner.
  • It’s bed time= C’est l’heure de dormir
  • It’s time to workout= C’est l’heure de s’entraîner.

Bon apéro

Photo of Annie André: www.AnnieAndre.com

Annie André

About the author 

I’m A Bilingual North American With Thai And French Canadian Roots Who's Been Living In The South Of France For Over 10 Years. I Love Writing Weird, Wonderful, Interesting, Forgotten, And Fascinating Articles For Intellectually Curious People Amazed By France, French Culture, And World Travel.

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