Everybody knows that the French have unlocked the secret to living the good life; they’re the ones, after all, who coined the term “joie de vivre” and do an amazing job showing the rest of the world what it means to live joyfully.
At its essence, a life well lived is about celebrating each day—and in France, this includes partaking in time-tested traditions, enjoying the company of good friends, and solidifying bonds around a beautiful table topped with delectable food and delicious drinks. No ritual embodies this approach to making each day special more than l’heure de l’apéro, otherwise known as apéro hour—that little block of time carved out somewhere between lunch and dinner that signifies a shift into relaxation mode at the end of the day.
Because the French hold mealtimes sacred, there isn’t a culture of snacking in France, and that imbues the apéro hour tradition with a heightened sense of anticipation and pleasure. Unlike a dinner party, formal dining standards do not apply here; there are no set tables set with fancy plates and silverware, no seating charts, and no extravagant multi-course meals. The only rule is to enjoy oneself among friends, without unnecessary fuss or fanfare.
While the apéro hour is a time to bend the rules of convention by eating outside traditional mealtime hours, there are still some basic guidelines to follow. Rule numéro un: Forgo the family-size bags of potato chips and pretzels in favor of small dishes. Think small dishes of plump green olives and mixed nuts, simple store-bought hummus served with crackers, or a diminutive bowl of Trader Joe’s truffle chips. When in doubt, err on the side of more options and smaller portions; this is, after all, just an pleasurable interlude before the real evening meal commences.
Rule numéro deux: Serve a drink to stimulate the appetite. Instead of wine—which is most often reserved for mealtimes—hosts typically offer their guests something light and refreshing, with or without alcohol, to prep the palate for the salty snacks on the apéro table. In France, this might be a traditional aperitif (after which the apéro hour is named); in the south, anise-based elixirs like pastis are popular, but classics such as vermouth, kir (white wine with cassis syrup), or even an Aperol spritz (to borrow from the Italians, who partake in a similar ritual known as aperitivo) are all acceptable swills.
Rule numéro trois is, perhaps, the most important rule to follow: Enjoy yourself! This little window of time exists for the mere pleasure of reconnecting with friends and family and cementing bonds in a low-stakes, convivial environment. As our lives become increasingly digital, remote, and virtual, we need these analog moments of in-person connection more than ever. Be present, check in, catch up, and have fun.
The possibilities are myriad when it comes to the apéro-hour location. It can be as simple as one’s living room with the hors d'oeuvres artfully arranged on a coffee table, in one’s backyard, or even centered around a picnic table at a local park. On warm days in Paris, the banks of the Seine morph into an apéro-hour hotspot, with clusters of revelers enjoying their drinks and nibbles en plein aire. And friends often meet at a local cafe, where, along with a cool drink, the server might deliver a small dish of something salty—peanuts and olives are common—to complete the apéro hour mis en scene.
Want to create a special moment with friends in the French style, to celebrate the joy of being alive? Here’s a simple roadmap for adding a dash of joie de vivre to your day.
Let “casual” be your guiding star; choose store-bought over homemade, informal over structured, simple over elaborate, and intimate over busy and boisterous. Invite your next-door neighbors and a friend or two, choose a jazzy playlist with the volume dialed down low, and have some salty snacks and a festive drink at the ready.
Whatever you serve, keep it light (save the martinis for another occasion!). You don’t want your guests to get drunk; this is, after all, just a prequel to the dinner you’ll enjoy later (after guests have gone home). Try a French aperitif, or, in a pinch, a glass of rosé or sparkling wine. Bubbly water with a dash of Torani-style sweetened syrup is another popular option.
This is an opportunity to showcase that classic vegan go-to, hummus. Scoop it out of the tub and into a pretty little bowl and put it on a plate along with some crackers, and voilà! Snacks are served. Other savory morsels you’ll likely find at a typical apero gathering include olives and nuts, but whatever you can prepare with minimal fuss to keep it stress-free and casual works.
Cue the Django Reinhardt, Ella Fitzgerald, and Pink Martini tunes, but keep the volume low! Apero hour is all about catching up with friends and connecting, so you’ll want the music to be just audible enough to create a festive ambiance, but not so loud that it impedes your ability to enjoy conversation.