Apéros are a great excuse to hang out with friends at a café, home, or beach bar, have a drink and some snacks. Like a lot of things French that have to do with food and drink, there are rules for apéros that make them fundamentally different from cocktails (or cocktail hours).
There are apéros and apéro dînatoire, meaning drink and drinks with more than enough food to qualify as dinner. And while the drinks and food may be as free flowing as in the US, there are standards that must be maintained. Drinks are generally spritzers or wine—the idea is to stimulate the appetite, not to get hammered—most people will have only one, possibly two drinks. Occasionally people will have a cocktail, but you’ll tend to see a lot more Apérol spritzes than gin and tonics, the focus being on something bitter and sweet—”bitter to whet the appetite and sweet to cut the bitterness.”
Nuts, chips, olives, and pretzels and other salty finger foods give everyone a chance to snack, something the French don’t do as a rule of thumb. But there must be some outside snacking going on, otherwise how to justify the 20 different flavors of potato chips (ranging from roast chicken to onion soup and everything in between) found in even the smallest of grocery stores?
Speaking of grocery stores, all stores have an aisle, or part of one, devoted to apéros–drinks and snacks in one convenient location (that’s where I found peanuts to use in Pad Thai…). Even Picard, known for anything and everything frozen, has an area near the checkout with all the non-frozen components needed.
Apéro hours are usually 6-8 but apéro dînatoire generally goes later, since it’s a dinner replacement. This may be just speculation but the apéro dînatoires I’ve been to seem to involve cooking some element of the hors oeuvres (like a delicious Spanish potato omelet a friend made recently) while apéros are simpler—something to pick up and eat (and absolutely not a “girl dinner”). There might be charcuterie, but generally not cheese as the French tend to view that as either dessert or a prelude to dessert. And since it is a prelude to dinner, nothing sweet.
If you want to try making your own, there are plenty of guides online, or just hit a couple of cafés for inspiration and practice. I’ve been working my way through versions of the Hugo spritz (hoping to find one as good as I had in Croatia years ago). Santé!