If you have ever heard the term apéro and wondered what it was, you’ve come to the right place. The word “party” doesn’t cover it. It is a get-together that has become a ritual in France after a long day of work, a wonderful excuse to sit down with a drink and enjoy the evening.
And I should note the classic French apéro is not just a thing for young and hip Parisians. As someone who has lived in France for 10+ years, I have to note that it goes much beyond that. It is 1 part cocktail party, and 1 part casual gathering of good friends, with a good mix of alcohol and hors d’oeuvres thrown in.
You can have an apéro at a brasserie, someone’s house, or even a picnic somewhere. The French version of happy hour, where you relax and enjoy people’s company.
And when can you have an apèro? Let me count the ways!
1) The Happy Hour before the Meal
In the evening, the Happy hour apéro starts anytime after 5pm. Light snacks are served like chips, olives, carrot sticks, etc. Since wine is only served with the main meal (starter, main, dessert), the apéro hour is the perfect time to serve something else. Classic french apéritifs like pastis or kir are mainstays, and why not a glass of champagne?
You can actually have an apéro before lunch as well as before dinner. Not on a weekday obviously, but a Sunday apéro can start at 11:30 am before lunch. This is usually with close family and friends, perhaps after a trip to the morning market or church.
Guests are usually careful not to indulge too much though, the French etiquette rule for lunch and dinner is that you must finish your plate!
☞ READ MORE: 15 Best Apéritifs for your apéro
2) The Apéro Dinatoire
If you want to invite people over to your place, but don’t want to feed them a formal dinner, then an apéro dinatoire is in order.
In France, the typical dinner is usually a formal affair even at home. So you can imagine what a dinner party is like. Elaborate table settings, multiple courses, different wines to pair with each course, starters, mains, desserts, cheeses, the list goes on and on. And all the while, the host is scurrying back and forth to keep the meal moving along, without truly enjoying his/her guests.
The French apéro is the response to that exigence. No need to fear inviting people over, this is the casual version where you can let loose a bit. No need to set places, decorations, or meal courses, just put out a few large appetizers and drinks and you are good to go. Guests usually are given small plates for finger foods to help themselves.
☞ READ MORE: 15 Easy French appetizers and Hors d’Oeuvres
There is no French word for “potluck“, but at an apéro your guests may even contribute a bottle of wine, some charcuterie, cheese, crudités, and bread to help out. (French guests don’t usually bring wine to a formal dinner party, as it is presumed that the host has picked the wine to match the meal!)
The apéro dinatoire can go on late into the night, as all good get-togethers do. If the food does run out and people are hungry later, well tant pis pour eux (too bad for them). Keep a couple of digestifs on hand though!
☞ READ MORE: Top French Digestifs you have to try
3) At a Brasserie
Now an apéro doesn’t necessarily have to be at someone’s house, it can also be at your neighborhood bar or brasserie. After a long week at work, on a Friday night, it is a moment to enjoy relax and just do nothing.
Pick a place in a central location, invite some friends, and enjoy!
☞ READ MORE: Pastis: The Ultimate French Apéritif
4) At a Picnic
Apéro-ing out all the time may get pricey, and since apartments in Paris are small, the local favorite is the apéro picnic. Every evening you will notice hip Parisians gathering around their favorite places to picnic near the Seine River and Canal Saint-Martin, ready for the evening apéro, perhaps with a game of pétanque.
Just like the apéro at home, anything goes and the gathering goes late into the night.
☞ READ MORE: Packing the perfect Parisian Picnic basket
5) At a Wedding
Yes, there is such a thing as the Wedding apéro, also known as vin d’honneur. In France, it isn’t considered bad manners to invite someone to the morning ceremony, but not invite them to the dinner afterward.
I’ve been at weddings where there was a ceremony at the church, then photos, and a cocktail apéro where guests mingled and chatted with small plates. And then some of the guests left, and the rest of the guests (mainly close friends and family) sat down for the long traditional dinner.
It is a way for the wedding party to keep costs down, while still inviting everyone they would like to have there. It is also a great option for guests with young kids, who may not make it through a 4-hour dinner late into the night!
Frequently Asked Questions
What food should you serve at an apéro?
Pre-cut vegetables like carrot sticks, radishes, celery, and cherry tomatoes are also popular finger foods. And you can never go wrong with pitas, hummus, tzatziki, and other dips.
☞ READ MORE: Proper Cheese etiquette: the French Way
What alcohol should you serve?
Light apéritifs like pastis, kirs, and champagne always make the list, but you can also branch out into more interesting drinks like Génépi or Pineau de Charentes.
You can also offer light wines like the Beaujolais which is low in tannins or the Côtes du Rhônes. Generally for an apéro, you would select wines that are not too fancy in taste or in price tag (no Pauillacs please!)
☞ READ MORE: Easy Guide to the French Wines
Who should you invite?
An apéro is a casual event, so I wouldn’t suggest inviting the President of France or your boss for instance (unless they are cool like that)! It is usually for close family and friends, who you happily want to spend a few hours with.
What should you bring to a French Apéro?
If you are invited to an apéro at someone else’s house in France, they will tell you if they want you bring something. If nothing has been specified, bring a bottle of alcohol such as wine, or champagne.
You could also bring dessert, like an assortment of cakes or little pastries from a patisserie.
So are you ready to host an apéro tonight? Remember to cheers and look deeply into your friends’ eyes when you say “Santé!” (otherwise, it is 7 years of bad luck 😉
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