Before I left for France, a friend in San Francisco asked me what the drinking laws are like in Europe. At that moment, I really couldn't think of any, except that the minimum age in France and Germany (and probably the rest of Europe) is 18. And Europeans don't make a big deal of underaged drinking the way Americans do. I've never seen anyone carded in a European bar. But then I've seldom seen anyone drinking who looked like they ought be carded. The exception was in an Irish bar one afternoon when the cup final was being shown on the television. Three guys came in who may have been over eighteen but certainly looked young to me. The bartender (owner, actually) served them with no problem. Of course he may have known them and carded them on a previous occasion.)
In every French bar, there is posted a copy of the law For the Protection of Minors and Suppression of Public Drunkenness. The typeface makes it essentially unreadable, though, unless you get really close up, and nobody seems to pay much attention to it. I didn't read the whole thing carefully, but it says that there are five classes of liquor. Anyone over the age of sixteen can legally be in a bar and served class one drinks, i.e. non-alcoholic. There didn't seem to be any restrictions for customers over age 18, as long as they were sober.
My friend Eugenia told me that in Greece, young people don't go out with the objective of getting "all fucked up," as they do in American, although sometimes this is the end result. Presumably this is also true for the rest of Western Europe. In Athens, in any case, the one thing a bar owner must definitely not do is to get customers drunk, or to serve customers who are already drunk. How this can work in ouzerias, where customers drink ouzo (the Greek version of Pernod) and eat octopus is difficult to imagine. I never went into an ouzeria myself.
I did go out one evening in Athens with a large group of Eugenia's friends. We drove to one bar and stayed quite a while and all had one beer apiece, then after quite a while drove to another bar where we also had a single beer. And that was our total drinking for the night.
In Germany, beer and wine glasses are marked with labels for quantity, so one can be sure that one is getting exactly 150 mililiters or 250 ml or whatever. In France, this is only sometimes the case, although beer glasses are often marked. The bartender pours so that the liquid comes exactly to the mark, with a nice head above.
In French bars, a least, there is often posted a price list for all the drinks the bar offers. Rather lengthy, obviously, but readable. Some brasseries have a shorter list though, mostly beers, wine, and sandwiches.
As far as I know, every bar, brasserie, café, restaurant, bistro or whatever carries the full range of alcohol. But I get the impression that most of them have a very limited range of mixed drinks, which don't seem to be especially popular in France.
The license for a bar specifies the hours during which
it may be open.
Some bars close at 2 AM,
but some are allowed to stay open all night,
at least on certain nights.
The owner of the Fifth Bar, a small very nice English/Irish bar
on Rue Mouffetard,
told me that on Superbowl Sunday, he gets special permission from
the Police Department to stay open all night.
(Because of the time difference, the Superbowl comes on
in the middle of the night in France.)
On some other nights, presumably Fridays and Saturdays,
the special permission is not necessary.