To understand Paris, you must sit in a cafe--perhaps at a sidewalk table beneath lush plane trees facing a broad boulevard or historic square, perhaps on a leatherette banquette inside a dim neighborhood bar/tabac on an obscure side street. You must sip an espresso, a Perrier, a glass of wine, whatever, and watch the world go by (or come through the door). You must let the sense of the city soak in. Above all, you must take your time. The hours spent at a cafe--hours of watching, thinking, idling--aren’t wasted. They’re part of the ebb and flow of the French day, giving it rhythm and meaning.
In America, the word cafe has come to mean a casual eating place--a lunch counter, a purveyor of quick, inexpensive food. In Paris--which did not invent cafes, but which has raised them to their highest form--the same word describes not just a genre of refreshment station but a whole way of life. The cafes of Paris define the way the city looks and feels as much as any Eiffel Tower or Notre-Dame. Paris is cafes.
Cafes in Paris acknowledge the importance in our lives of not just private but also public sociability. In a cafe (you won’t be the first to remark), you can be alone without being lonely. Cafes are animated by the love of laughter and of the word--both spoken and written; the solitary writer at the corner table, the solitary reader in the window, are essential to the cafe concept. As with any culturally specific institution, there are unwritten rules for the proper use and enjoyment of cafes (see page 43)--but cafes in general are extremely democratic. Anyone with the price of a beverage can use them--can sit in them, not just to read or write but to meet friends, talk, flirt, look and listen, dream.
It is said that the world’s first cafe opened in Istanbul (the Turks were great popularizers of coffee) in 1550. Paris got its first one in 1686, when a Sicilian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened an establishment called Le Procope on the Left Bank, on what is now the Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie. It is still in existence on the same site, having closed and opened several times--reviving most recently in 1952 as a restaurant now mainly patronized by tourists, who may or may not be impressed by the fact that Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau drank on the premises.
In the 19th Century, the focus of Parisian cafe life shifted from the Left to the Right Bank, to the gilded and chandelier-hung establishments of the Grands Boulevards--that once-elegant series of broad thoroughfares that leads from the Opera to the Place de la Republique. At the same time, painters, writers and all-purpose bohemians began to haunt the steamy cabarets of Montmartre.
The everyday corner cafe, or cafe du coin , now so emblematic of Paris, began to flourish in the city around the turn of the century, when hardy rural types from the Auvergne in central France began to set up shop in the capital to sell coal and charcoal for heating and cooking. They offered wine and strong drink to their customers along with other kinds of fuel, thus providing meeting places for ordinary Parisians who weren’t interested in gilt or bohemian pursuits. The descendants of these establishments are everywhere in Paris today--scruffy generic places that supply such basic components of Parisian life as jolts of thick black cafe serre , darkly aromatic French cigarettes, stamps and lottery tickets, telephones and lavatories of dubious sanitation. Occasionally, authentic old cafes from the early years of the century still exist in virtually unchanged form--inevitably mythically smoky, scented with damp wood and anis and equipped with a long zinc bar, a mustachioed patron and a clientele of accordionists and market porters.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the cafe action crossed the river again, focusing in tough, cheap Montparnasse, in whose modest dives Picasso and his circle--and a slew of expatriate English and American writers with equal talents for drink and letters--helped create the leg end of prewar Paris. In the 1940s and ‘50s, it was the turn of philosophizing Existentialists, who took flight from their unheated garrets and established all-day residence in the warm and forgiving cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The literary/artistic/historical cafe still exists, too--often glorious, but often ruinously priced--and sometimes animated by a spirit that suggests a wake more than a party. ( Jean-Paul Sartre and Co. have a lot to answer for.)
In the 1970s, back on the Right Bank, the Marais, reclaimed marshland long known as the city’s North African and Jewish quarter, became hot cafe country, as French Yuppies--the so-called BCBG, short for bon chic bon genre (“good style, good manners”)--gentrified the neighborhood’s ancient buildings.
In the ‘80s, the same thing started happening to the traditionally working-class Bastille area. In both parts of town today, as elsewhere in Paris, you’ll find plenty of examples of the cafe a la mode , the fashionable cafe--minimally appointed display zones for the modish that usually seem to miss the point of cafes entirely.
There are about 5,000 cafes in Paris today. But 10 years ago, there were twice that many. As unthinkable as it might seem, the cafes of Paris are disappearing. The French press variously blames their demise on the invasion of Paris by American-style fast food, an antiquated system of cafe licensing and the new (if thoroughly un-Gallic) French preference for simply staying home.
Such supposedly palliative measures as a three-year course in cafe management for young would-be proprietors and a stiffer code of historic-building protection have been officially proposed. Those, alas, are probably not the answers. The art of the welcome can’t be taught--and though historic architecture can be restored, the indefinable soul of a great cafe is sadly unprotectable. The cafe-loving visitor to Paris wants to say: When it comes to your cafes, Parisians, use them or lose them.
Of course, we visitors can help. Here are some of the best cafes in Paris, in many different styles and parts of town--each in its way worth visiting, loitering in, enjoying:
Les Deux Magots. You pay handsomely but, in the end, happily for your people-watching space on the terrace of this cafe on the busy, pretty square of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Incomparable location and big-league literary/artistic credentials both past (Gide, Picasso, Hemingway, et al.) and present (lots of journalists, editors and art-world types from the many publishing houses and galleries nearby). The cafe even awards its own literary prize, the Prix de Deux Magots. (“The Story of O” won in 1955.) Coffee, at about $3 a cup, comes with a glass of ice water and a little square of Valrhona chocolate.
Cafe de Flore. A worn, comfortable study-away-from-home for artists, writers and the like since 1875--homier and altogether more believable than its near neighbor, the Deux Magots (but no less commercially astute; there’s even a Flore shop around the corner, selling custom-designed neckties and scarfs, Flore coffee cups and even, for $10, copies of the menu). Apollinaire, Prevert, Sartre and De Beauvoir are the presiding spirits here. Always crowded and particularly good at breakfast time--with plausible scrambled eggs and extremely good coffee (though no chocolates).
La Palette. Since 1900, the cafe de boheme incarnate. The palettes of almost a century’s worth of artist-patrons hang above the bar, and their actual paintings (no quality control has been exercised) fill the walls. Located on a pretty, tree-lined Left Bank street in the art-school district; in warm weather, the terrace is perfection.
Le Select. The least mucked-with, most “right” of the showpiece establishments of Montparnasse. (Pity poor Le Dome and La Rotonde, nearby, both shinily refitted in an off-the-shelf Nouveau-Deco mode.) Opened in 1925, it was the first Parisian cafe to stay open all night--though it now closes at 3 a.m. The croque monsieur is superb.
La Coupole. Montparnasse again. Vintage 1927, restored two years ago, with the years (unfortunately) taken off. Not at all the smoky, dark-paneled, romantic place it used to be, but still great fun. The actual cafe part is in the front, and there’s also a so-called “American bar.” Most of the place is a brasserie-restaurant, where le tout Paris comes day and night to dine and drink (good oysters and such, serviceable grilled meats) in a vast space laden with arty-theatrical associations.
Le Cochon a l’Oreille. Museum-quality tiles painted with scenes from the once-neighboring Les Halles--the market halls now replaced by a dreary concrete park and tacky shops. An authentic zinc bar and an authentic clientele of butchers, construction workers and wholesalers from the Rue Montmartre.
Cafe Costes. This elegant, spare design shrine of the mid-1980s (interior by Philippe Starck, customers by Comme des Garcons), with tables spilling out onto the Place Saint-Opportune in Les Halles, has become a fixture on the Paris cafe map--full of real life despite the flashy fittings and despite (or maybe because of) the McDonald’s just next door. This was the original cafe a la mode , and for some reason it remains the only example of the genre that really works. Whatever else it might be, it’s a real cafe.
Cafe de la Paix. The Paris of the Belle Epoque abundantly preserved. A shaded terrace with grandstand views of the Place de l’Opera and an interior embellished by Charles Garnier--architect of the Paris Opera itself. Zola, De Maupassant, Chagall and Maria Callas were regulars here, and Escoffier himself used to be the chef.
Le Depanneur. Sleek contemporary-retro place, representative of the “new” Pigalle, in which the spirit of a diner is accented with French overtones. The customer profile shifts with the hour: students, impoverished artists and miscellaneous locals in the morning; actors and the fashion-and-design crowd as the day wears on; rough customers in the wee hours of the morning.
Le Rubis. Bustling, noisy, absolutely no-frills cafe-cum-wine bar. Goodish wines by the glass, sandwiches on Poilane bread, and a clientele that includes firemen, food sellers from the nearby Saint-Honore market and money-men from the local merchant bank.
La Tartine. Another cafe/wine bar, with lower decibels, better wines, blunt welcome and an echt tobacco- smoked interior. An honest, mellow refuge from this unlovely stretch of the Rue de Rivoli.
Au Petit Fer a Cheval. One of the nicest cafes in the Marais, tiny and full of charm, with a marble-topped horseshoe bar dating from 1903. Good simple food is served at lunchtime at tables at the back. The occasional local character still comes in, but the neighborhood is increasingly defined by clothes and furniture shops of the kind that sell major-statement black-wire candelabra and bad French attempts at American country style.
Ma Bourgogne. A place to enjoy the pure arcaded pleasure of the oldest and loveliest square in Paris, the Place des Vosges. Enviably sited, unpretentious, well stocked with good wines and capable of serving better-than-average cafe food.
Cafe de l’Industrie. An unreconstructed cafe du coin --a corner hangout--in a quarter that mixes back-alley workshops with hip new designer boutiques. A proper zinc bar, two 1940s-vintage side rooms filled with black-and-white photographs, and a colorful local clientele--except late at night, when the place gets spillover from the trendy clubs of the Bastille.
GUIDEBOOK: PARIS FROM A CAFE TERRACE
Cafes by neighborhood: (All are open daily unless otherwise noted):
Left Bank: Brulerie de l’Odeon, 6 rue Crebillon (Place de l’Odeon), 6th Arrondissement, open 10 a.m. to 6:45 p.m., closed Sundays, Mondays and in August; Cafe de Flore, 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 6th, open 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.; Cafe de la Mairie, 8 Place Saint-Sulpice, 6th, open 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., closed Sundays; Les Deux Magots, 190 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 6th, open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.; La Palette, 43 Rue de Seine, 6th., open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., closed Sundays and in August.
Montparnasse: La Coupole, 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 14th, open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Le Select, 99 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 6th, open 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Right Bank: Bar des Theatres, 6 Avenue Montaigne, 8th, open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., closed in August; Cafe de l’Epoque, 2 Rue du Bouloi, 1st, open 6:15 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Sundays; Fouquet’s, 99 Avenue des Champs-Elysees, 8th, open 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.. Le Rubis, 10 Rue de Marche Saint-Honore, 1st, open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., closed Sundays.
Opera-Pigalle: Cafe de la Paix, 12 Boulevard des Capucines, 9th, open 10 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.; Le Depanneur, 27 Rue Fontaine, 9th, open 24 hours.
Les Halles: Cafe Costes, Place des Innocents, 1st, open 8 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.; La Cloche des Halles, 28 Rue Coquilliere, 1st, open 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., closed Sundays; Le Cochon a l’Oreille 15 Rue Montmartre, 1st, open 4 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; La Tour de Montlhery, 5 Rue des Prouvaires, 1st, open 24 hours, closed Saturdays and Sundays and in July and August.
The Marais: Au Petit Fer a Cheval, 30 Rue Vieille du Temple, 4th, open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.; Le Brin de Zinc, 50 Rue Montorgueil, 2nd, open 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., closed Sundays; Le Brisemiche, 10 Rue Brisemiche, 4th, open 8 a.m. to midnight; La Tartine, 24 Rue de Rivoli, 4th, open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., closed Tuesdays and until noon Wednesdays; Ma Bourgogne, 19 Place des Vosges, open 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., closed in February.
Bastille: Cafe de l’Industrie, 16 Rue Saint-Sabin, 11th, open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., closed Saturdays and in August.