The décor of a restaurant sets the tone for the customer's entire experience. Like a stage setting, the interior design creates anticipation for and informs the patron of the meal about to be served. Selecting materials, furniture, colors and accents should start with the menu itself. A French café suggests dishes such as salade niçoise, croque monsieur and crème brulée. These homey, delicious foods draw inspiration from the French provincial style.
Install flooring of polished wood or black-and-white ceramic tiles in a checkerboard pattern. Wood absorbs noise and tile reflects it, so the ambiance of a larger space will benefit from wood, whereas tile in a smaller space is not a problem. Wood can be either formal or informal, while tile lends itself to a casual atmosphere.
Paint wooden built-ins, counters and other large furniture pieces bright white or creamy off-white, or finish them in very dark wood. If furniture is painted, an eclectic blend of antique, retro and modern pieces are pulled together for a cohesive look while giving the appearance of items lovingly collected over time. This blend of vintage and new is thoroughly French. Take into consideration your clientele and meal service times. Light and airy is welcoming for breakfast and lunch, while dark tones are cozy for dinner service and imply more formality.
Choose a wall color that is either traditional white to accompany the dark tones of the built-ins or shades that come from the French provincial spectrum. Accent pieces from the French artisans of faience pottery are ideal. These colors and patterns provide authenticity and will suggest the right shade for the walls. A sunny yellow is often used in French cafés.
Hang wall décor such as reprints of early 20th-century posters for French champagne and wines. If original art is preferred, display works-for-sale by local artists and rotate the pieces as they are sold. Add to the artistic tone by playing French mid-century music. A slate chalkboard with menu specials at the entrance is classic bistro, and window treatments can be timeless white lace or a toile in a pattern that complements the rest of the décor.
Furnish the cafe with wrought iron or rattan chairs and tables with marble or Formica tops, which add to the bistro feel and come in a variety of colors and patterns. Use thick white china and white cloth napkins if budget permits. Outfit waitstaff in black and white with extra-long white aprons to enhance the setting. Fresh flowers are "de rigueur" or required by custom for a French café and can be as simple as a few carnations on each table to elaborate countertop arrangements.
Display breads and tarts if bakery items are featured on the menu, to entice customers with their colors and aromas and show off the pastry chef's skills. Provide visual interest with built-in wine racks and sparkling glassware, reminding customers that a glass of Chablis or Bordeaux will complement their meal. Install weatherproof chairs and tables with umbrellas on the sidewalk for a time-honored addition if local climate and restaurant zoning regulations permit.