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Tabac? What’s That??

May 16, 2020
Tabac Shop

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.

A Tabac is a trés French institution.

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.

Confused yet?

Baked camembert with croutons
Just a petite dip

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…

  • wine
  • beer
  • 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.