In recent years, however, a more casual form of entertaining has crept into the French stylebook. Called the apéro dînatoire, it’s a relaxed and informal gathering in which guests lounge on the couch or wander around the living room, some (if not all) of the food is store-prepared, and everything is eaten by hand. The concept is surprising in a country where “la table” remains sacrosanct, granny’s recipes are prized, and pizza, hamburgers, and bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese are regularly consumed with a knife and fork. And yet, from Paris to the provinces, it has become a popular way to host friends.
“It’s basically the love child of the apéro and the dinner party,” says Rebekah Peppler, author of “Apéritif: Cocktail Hour the French Way.” “There’s plenty of food and drinks, no seating arrangements, you can go back for as many seconds as you want. As a host, it’s a way to gather people together in a way that’s informal, chic and, most importantly, allows you to enjoy your own party.”
The word apéro is an abbreviation of “aperitif,” the post-work, pre-dinner cocktail that is itself a French ritual. Adding “dînatoire” implies the occasion is more than just a drink — that the accompanying finger foods will constitute a meal. “It’s truly a full meal of small bites,” says Marie Asselin, author of “French Appetizers.” Unlike the formal French dinner party, which starts traditionally at 8 p.m., the apéro hour can begin as early as 6, making these types of gatherings extremely family friendly.
“It’s spontaneous,” says my friend Jérôme Avenas, who lives near Lyon. “You can invite more people, you can move around. It’s perfect for kids, because they’re not forced to be constrained.”
Of course, this being France, there is a prescribed formula. “I’m expecting crudites,” says Avenas. “Definitely charcuterie. Dips — always dips. There’s no apéro dînatoire without tapenade” (the olive spread from the south of France). These salty snacks — which pair well with wine and cocktails, and can also include chips, nuts, olives, savory puff pastry palmiers, and gougère cheese puffs — form an ad hoc first course. “We are French, so not everything is on the table yet,” he explains. “We always like to have new things coming. We have to keep the ritual going.”
While the main course of the meal is also bite-size, it’s more substantial — and usually served hot. “I like to serve one or two hot bites — meatballs, quiche or a galette,” says Asselin. Often, a homemade savory cake will appear — a quick bread studded with bits of cheese and cured meat. These generous loaves are popular with French home cooks, who call them cakes salés. “You can make a savory cake a day or two in advance,” she suggests. “They reheat beautifully. Freeze it and keep it on hand.” Next? A cheese course, bien sûr, with lots of baguette. “You’re following the same rhythm as a traditional French meal, but in a more casual way,” says Asselin.
When selecting cheese, Peppler advises quality over quantity. “I like to choose one or two things that are really excellent in lieu of extraneous variety, she says. “I also usually tuck a fig jam or mostarda on the board, as well.”
No meal would be complete without something sweet, and the apéro dînatoire is no different. Especially in the spring or summer months — or “apéro dînatoire season,” says Avenas — there’s often ice cream or a fruit tart. (The finger-food rule is relaxed at dessert — spoons and forks are okay.) I’ve even been served chocolate-covered ice cream bars. But if you have extra time, a homemade boozy granita combining crisp white wine and St-Germain, an elderflower liqueur, requires minimal preparation but offers a refreshing, icy kick.
Speaking of a kick, what about the number one requirement of an apéro dînatoire — the apéros, or drinks? “The French tend to be more conservative in their habits,” says Kate Hawkings, author of “Aperitif: A Spirited Guide to the Drinks, History and Culture of the Aperitif.” “When it comes to aperitifs, it’s the same.” For a French-themed apéro, she suggests pastis: “It’s so appetizing and refreshing, though it should be treated with caution.”
Avenas sticks to the basics: “A good quality local wine, usually white or rosé,” he says. “Something light and easy to drink.”
Whatever you’re pouring, remember that the ultimate goal is ease and simplicity: “One of the best things about apéro dînatoire is that, done right, they should be easy,” says Peppler. “Flexibility and a relaxed, open mind are key factors.” The apéro dînatoire isn’t just a party — it’s a way of life.
Tips for hosting an easy apéro dînatoire
Keep staples on hand. Nuts, crackers and jars of tapenade or shelf-stable pâté or rillettes can all be stored in the pantry and make an instant first course. Keep a bottle of white wine in the fridge, too. Before you start shopping for the party, mine your pantry and fridge for food you can just lay out. “Enjoy the moment just as your guests do — don’t spend the whole evening in the kitchen,” says Asselin.
Cook only one thing — or don’t cook at all. “Often, the only thing you cook is a quiche or savory cake,” says Avenas. “Everything else is bought at the store.” Even frozen pizza is common. “Cut it into bite-sized squares,” he says. Prepared items like hummus, guacamole and charcuterie are not only acceptable, they’re expected.
“There’s nothing wrong with choosing assembling over actually turning on the stove top or oven,” says Peppler.
Add condiments to make it fancy. “Charcuterie platters are extra impressive when you round them out with condiments like cornichons and a jar of mustard,” says Peppler. For oeufs mayonnaise on the fly, she suggests seasoning store-bought mayo with lemon juice, black pepper and paprika. Scoop a dollop on hard-cooked egg halves.
Ask for help. Though the potluck doesn’t really exist in French culture, the apéro dînatoire’s casual, relaxed vibe means anything goes. Feel free to ask friends to bring a dish to share.
Pour something French — but make it unexpected. “Add a little orgeat (almond liqueur) to your pastis to make a mauresque, or crème de menthe to make a perroquet,” says Hawkings. “Pineau de charentes (a sweet fortified wine) makes a really lovely aperitif — chilled, over ice with maybe a slice of lemon. And of course you can never go wrong with champagne.” Hawkings and Peppler both offer appropriately French drink recipes in their books.
Do end with dessert — but keep it simple. “If don’t have time to make dessert, I’ll take a big bar of dark chocolate and break it into pieces,” says Asselin. “People help themselves.” Fresh fruit is another good choice.
Make it spontaneous. “Often an apéro turns into an apéro dînatoire unexpectedly,” says Avenas. “Like your guests weren’t supposed to stay, but you lost track of time.” If this happens to you, throw a frozen pizza in the oven, grab another bottle of wine from the fridge, and let the evening unfold.
Mah is a food and travel writer based in Washington and Paris, and the author of several books, including “Mastering the Art of French Eating” and, most recently, “Instantly French! Classic French Recipes for Your Electric Pressure Cooker.”
8 servings (makes one 9-by-5-inch loaf)
MAKE AHEAD: This cake improves with age, so you can make it a few days in advance. Slice it before storing, and reheat in a 300-degree oven for 10 minutes before serving.
Unsalted butter, for the pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup plain full-fat yogurt
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup minced fresh chives
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
3 ounces cooked ham, diced
4 ounces grated Gruyere or Comte cheese, grated (1 cup)
6 ounces log-style plain goat cheese, crumbled
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use some butter to grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Line the bottom and two longer sides of the pan with a sling of parchment paper.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, pepper and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk together the eggs, yogurt, olive oil, chives and thyme in a separate bowl or large liquid measuring cup. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture, stirring until just incorporated.
Fold in the ham and Gruyere or Comte cheese. Gently stir in the goat cheese, taking care not to break up the crumbles.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, and smooth the surface.
Bake (middle rack) for about 45 minutes, until the bread is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool completely directly on the rack before serving or storing.
Cut the bread into slices, and/or cut them into halves or quarters to create dainty bites. Serve at room temperature.