This article uses a wide range of evidence, including images and accounts from foreigners (primarily English and German travellers) to place the early history of coffee and cafés in France in a sharp comparative perspective. These references to the contexts of coffee consumption (where, with whom and with what other products did one consume coffee?) allow us to test and reframe key claims linking cafés, the public sphere, gender and social hierarchy in the Old Regime. The rise of the Parisian café was shaped by fears about the social inclusivity of tobacco smoke, questions of access for elite women, a focus on luxury décor and a distinctive approach to conversation and sociability. A careful exploration of these contexts of consumption can qualify and nuance our view of the café as a locus of the public sphere in the first half-century of public coffee-drinking in Paris.