When it comes to pre-dinner drinks, the French got it right. Unlike the traditional American happy hour that has cheap beer, fried foods, and bottom-shelf liquor, the French apéro offers sophisticated sippers and some thoughtfully curated snacks that are perfect for transitioning to dinnertime.
What is French Apéro?
Apéro is not exactly a happy hour, a pre-dinner, or a barbeque. Short for l’apértif, l’apéro is a quintessential French activity where the French stop what they’re doing and convene for drinks over small plates. It’s the time of day when the sun starts to set after work, and it’s done before dinner, before a party, or before a dinner party. It is always done with the company, whether it’s one friend or fifteen buddies. Company is what makes it a familial ritual, as the day winds down and there’s nothing left to do but hang out and have good food and drinks with friends.
Here’s how you can have your own French apéro:
Host it at your place.
Apéros are usually hosted at someone’s house – usually the house of the person who wanted the get-together. The French love the outdoors, so hosting it in a backyard, a rooftop, a balcony, or even a room with lots of windows and natural light would be fine. A small balcony will be enough if it’s just an apéro for two.
No need to decorate.
Unlike most parties, there’s no need for streamers, balloons, placemats, or any party decorations. Apéros are casual affairs that only need drinks, food, good company, and conversations. The French are relatively unfussy in their setup, and preparing for apéros is no exception. You just need to pop a simple folding chair or bistro set open, drape a table cloth, and serve your drinks and snacks. Just make sure there’s enough seating and space for everyone you want to invite in your place.
If you want to decorate, a vase of fresh flowers would be enough. You can have candlelight if you’re serving at night or some twinkle lights in your outdoor setting. Here are some tips when entertaining outdoors during the summer.
Have the right cutlery.
Make sure you have enough serving plates, glasses, napkins, boards, and toothpicks, as well as small plates for eating off of.
In France, many apéro foods are served in verrines, which are little glasses that look like mini drinking glasses but are designed to carry food and desserts. It usually comes with tiny spoons.
As for serving dishes, anything goes. There’s no strict rule for this casual affair. But if you want to stick to its French roots, you can use Provençal or Parisian-inspired trays and dishes, for instance.
Serve light and simple drinks.
Every good apéro has some alcoholic drinks. Classic apéro beverages tend to be slightly bitter and low in alcohol, which is ideal for sipping during the hours between day and night. Some Suze and tonic, kir, spritz, or a coupe de Champagne are some of the traditional sipping options. Ricard and Pastis are two essential liqueurs that are a standard at a French apéro.
Wine is always recommended, especially dry and light white wine like Touraine, Chablis, and Graves. Crisp wines like Muscadet and Sauvignon Blanc are perfect for popping at apéro. If you prefer red wine, get a light one. Rosé is good too, especially during the summer. Beer is also a great drink to serve at an apéro. Something French or Belgian would be fitting.
Don’t forget to serve water and other non-alcoholic options like juices, lemonade, and flavored seltzer water. You can serve your drinks in many ways.
The cardinal rule for the aperitif hour is to relax, so you don’t need to serve cocktails that need you to play bartender. If you’re feeling fancy, you can offer a bowl of orange twists or berries for garnish.
If you have a signature cocktail that you’re eager to serve, you can make batches of it beforehand and let the guests serve themselves from pitchers.
Serve good snacks.
No apéro is complete without a solid choice of snacks. The key is that none of your food must need cooking or extra attention. The components you buy must be mixed and matched. You can make something in advance like mini quiches, but again, no one must be stuck cooking in the kitchen.
Here are some food options to serve:
- Cheese – Mozzarella, Tomme de Savoie, Comte, Beaufort, Camembert, Fourme d’Ambert
- Charcuterie – prosciutto, saucisson sec, jambon sec, pate, and other meats
- Spreads and dips – hummus, tapenade, rillettes, tzatziki, fig jam, terrine, pesto
- Fruits and veggies – cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, cucumber, radishes, melon, grapes, cornichons
- Savory bites – nuts, olives, sausages, small hotdogs, anchovies, smoked salmon
- Bread – baguette, pain de Campagne, bruschetta, pita chips, pain aux olives, little sandwiches
As for what to do with these things, some must be put on platters, bowls, or baskets, and some should be assembled. Here are some ideas on serving snacks for an apéro:
- For a quick drink and chat with friends, offer the basics: olives, nuts, cornichons, and radishes.
- For a simple apéro, serve wine, bread, and cheese.
- Top a slice of pain de Campagne with some radishes and Fourme d’Ambert cheese.
- Put some diced tomatoes and chevre on bruschetta.
- Make small hummus sandwiches with tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, and goat cheese.
- Get a nice wooden board and serve some charcuterie, crackers, and cheese.
A later apéro is better.
American happy hours can begin as early as 4 pm to 7 pm. On the other hand, French apéro often happens between 6 pm to 9-m. Apéros can last for an hour or three, and it’s always a great sign when aperos run directly to dinner. When hosting this kind of event, be prepared for it to go long.
Invite your favorite people.
Invite as many people as you want as long as the space is enough for people to socialize, move freely, and grab a seat if they want it. But still, it must feel intimate. You don’t need to send some formal invitations – a text or a Facebook message will do.
If you’re invited to an apéro, it’s always polite to bring something. If the host says to bring food, think about snacks. If the host didn’t say anything, coming up with a bottle of wine would be great.
An apéro is meant to be a casual affair, so when guests arrive, show them where the food and drinks are, then relax. You have to be able to get up, move around, eat and drink, chat with your guests, and enjoy your French apéro.
You may also check out our list of Entertaining Gift Ideas for Hosts and Hostesses if you need recommendations about what to give your party host.