What is a Tabac?
How’s is a Tabac different than a cafe?
Isn’t a Tabac a cigarette store?
Is it a French rule that there must always an old man standing at the counter?
Everyone seems to have a basic understanding of a bistro and a brasserie and we all mostly get the concept of a cafe (even though the lines can be blurred regarding those differences anymore).
A Tabac, however, isn’t typically a tourist’s jam. It’s a French thing. A very French thing.
It’s understandable why a Tabac might be off-putting to a foreigner.
These are some Parisians’ answers when asked what a Tabac is and what a Tabac is and what purpose it serves to the French;
A Tabac (bureau de tabac) sells tobacco products, postage stamps, maybe a few other things too. Oh, lottery tickets etc. And there is a café-tabac which is a café in which there is a counter that sells the same things as the tabac.
You can often get a carnet of metro tickets at the counter of a Tabac.
Certainly combining a tabac with a bar of cafe is very common, paricularly in smaller towns.
And this is probably the most thorough explanation of a Tabac and what a Tabac does…
A tabac is a place that sells tobacco products and often (incidentally) things like stamps, lottery tickets, and mobile phone recharges. They have a legal monopoly over tobacco, and a near-monopoly over stamps (post offices and tax offices can sell the stamps, too). A tabac can be a business on its own, or part of another business such as a café or bar. There will be a red lozenge-shaped sign outside (it’s supposed to look like a cigar) if there’s a tabac inside. Outside normal business hours there may be a line of smokers outside waiting to buy cigarettes, if it’s open.
Oh, and another thing, a cafe can be a Tabac but a Tabac isn’t necessarily a cafe.
Some Tabacs are small, dingy and an almost set-like hangout for locals to gather, argue, and wag their fingers at each other with typical Parisian flair. And drink of course. A Tabac is the locals’ neighborhood bar. Tabacs in more upscale districts are a little more likely to have a bit more ‘approachable’ charm. They offer cafe counters, sometimes a few banquettes and often solid, inexpensive French dishes.
A typical Tabac’s menu might feature;
Petit déjeuner with items like…
- soft scrambled eggs
- toasted baguette/bread with beurre and confiture
- Croissant with confiture
- boulangerie pastries
- coffee, au lait, teas, juices
Lunches and dinners…
- jambon beurre & other simple sandwiches (spelled sandwichs in France)
- baked Camembert
- light salads
- onion soup
- beef bourgignon
And de rigeur…
- simple booze drinks
- aperitifs like Lillet, Vermouth & Ricard
The things that a Tabac encompasses are the things that locals do and need on a regular basis, not usually things in which tourists participate so there’s not always a reason to solicit a Tabac if you aren’t running Parisian errands. Don’t let that stop you from experiencing something that may well represent one of the most French things you can do as a visitor.
So find a Tabac that suits your style, sidle up to the bar or grab a stool at the counter and listen, look and learn…local life.