Monday, October 3, 2011

A tribute to Parisian cafés...

Patriotic bistro chairs
(American Frog Photography)

I have lived in the United States for fifteen years. People often ask me what I miss the most about France, and more specifically about Paris. I reply I certainly don't miss the weather, "la grisaille" (grey skies, very similar to what we get here in Seattle,) long lines, or traffic. What I miss, right after my family and friends, are Parisian cafés

Cafés are an integral part of Parisian life, like la Seine, the Eiffel Tower, a visit to the Louvre or a walk in the Luxembourg gardens. If I - or a lot of other people presumably - woke up one morning, and saw the following from my window, I would immediately think: "C'est Paris" (This is Paris.)

Photos by American Frog Photography

I could be wrong: This familiar street scene could take place in any other French city, in London, or even in New York. I will explain why later on.

Truth is, the first cafés were not born in France. It seems the original coffee houses first appeared in the Middle East, in Istambul (Turkey,) Damascus (Syria,) Cairo (Egypt,) and in Persia (today's Iran.) Coffee houses did not reach Europe until the 17th century and even then, made it to Italy, Austria and England, before the first "original" French coffee house opened in Marseilles, followed by similar establishments in Lyon, and finally in Paris.

Ottoman coffee house in Istambul (undated, artist unknown)

"Paris is the café of Europe."
-- Ferdinando Galiani (1728-1787) Italian philosopher

Why, then, has le café become such a Parisian institution? A few minutes spent browsing online reveal there are hundreds of books, articles, research papers dedicated to Parisian café culture. Photos of café terraces are featured on postcards all over the French capital. Who can say they stayed in Paris and never visited a café?

From the start, coffee houses were social hubs, the perfect place to meet friends, indulge in lively conversation and people watch. Coffee, as a drink, was certainly a big draw, but it was always more about the convivial side, the socializing. 

London coffeehouse (after 1750) - artist unknown

In the early 18th century, there was growing discontent in France among the wealthy and the intellectuals following the extravagant reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715.) They met in literary salons and coffee houses to discuss political and social issues of the day. This led to cutting edge thought in a variety of disciplines and eventually, to the French Enlightenment, headed by Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot. A few years later, French revolutionaries (Robespierre, Danton, Marat) delivered stirring speeches in coffee shops near St Germain, on the Left Bank. 

The Enlightenment was a European cultural movement, and there were attempts by the French and the English governments to close coffee houses, perceived as threats, but they failed. In fact, coffee houses were immediately embraced by the masses. They represented the ultimate social leveller. Social status did not matter au café and from the start, coffee houses were associated with equality and republican ideals. 

After the French Revolution, their popularity continued growing among the masses,  artists and intellectuals, all over Paris: In the 19th century, painters such as Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Cézanne met in Parisian cafés around Montmartre. 

Later on, the iconic cafés of the Left Bank and the Montparnasse neighborhood became an international hub and welcomed foreign writers, artists, and the likes of Picasso, Cocteau and Hemingway. Throughout the 20th century, the renowned Café de Flore and les Deux Magots, in St Germain, became the refuge of French Resistance members and a favorite drinking [and thinking] hole for contemporary philosophers (French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.)

Cafe de Flore, Robert Doisneau (1949)
Ernest Hemingway and American writer Janet Flanner,
Les Deux Magots, Paris circa 1940-1945 (artist unknown)
Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone du Beauvoir and friends
enjoy a drink and conversation at the iconic Café de Flore

(artist unknown)

Recently, the charming and funny Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris showcases the Parisian cultural and intellectual scene in the 1920s when the hero, Gil (Owen Wilson,) travels in time, visits Left Bank cafés and meets Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other artists of the "Lost Generation." 

French poster for Midnight in Paris

Parisian cafés are so instantly recognizable, so illustrious, that they have their own stars, just like the movie industry. I have already mentioned Les Deux Magots and le Café de Flore on boulevard St. Germain, but famous cafés can be found all over the city. For a customer, choosing a "star café" often means paying twice as much for un petit noir (a shot of espresso.) Overpriced or not, star cafés, like small neighborhood coffee houses, come with one great perk, enjoyed all over France: the privilege to sit at your table for as long as you want without being pestered by the waiter. 

Le Café de la Paix, near the Paris Opera house
(American Frog Photography)

How many French and international movies feature scenes shot at a café? About as many as the movies featuring the Seine riverbanks, or the Eiffel Tower. A lot. Voilà a few examples of famous café scenes, filmed in recent years.

Le Café des Deux Moulins became a Montmartre landmark
 thanks to the movie Amélie  (2001)
Very few people look as elegant as Angelina Jolie
 while sitting outside a Parisian café (The Tourist, 2010)
Thanks to amazing special effects, Leonardo DiCaprio remains cool
 while Paris is getting destroyed around him in Inception (2010)

Like many, I am able to point out my favorite cafés, just as I can list a few favorite boulangeries in Paris, where I lived for ten years before moving to the United States.

What makes a good café? 

To me, it's about l'ambiance, the atmosphere of the place. A café can feel very different at different times of the day. Professional people will stop by in the morning and sip "un express" (a shot of espresso) at the zinc (the counter) before heading to work. Mid-day, business people will sit down for a meeting over a light lunch, a sandwich or a salad, or even a plat du jour (a special.) In the off-peak hours, things will be a bit quieter, depending on the neighborhood. If the café is off the beaten track, there won't be many tourists, just a sample of locals, les habitués (patrons.) In the evening, a good café will remain open late, and become a bar of sorts, and friends will meet there for drinks and conversation. 

Mind you, I do not mind paying more and sit for an hour at the terrace of a large café in a touristy neighborhood. People watching - the cheapest form of entertainment in Paris - is at its best there. 

I also like all cafés to be clean, especially in the bathrooms. Waiters must be courteous and efficient. I have written a story about French waiters earlier this year. I enjoy interacting with most, and love their professionalism and sharp sense of humor. 

Waiters chez Café de Flore (unknown artist)

Finally, the coffee must be good. The definition of "good" of course, varies with each individual. I realized this as I read an interesting article published in the New York Times this year. It seems a lot of Americans do not like Parisian coffee. Quelle surprise! The journalist did not mince his words when he panned the coffee served in Parisian cafés, not once, but twice. The comments left by [French?] internet users after each article were entertaining, irate and often hilarious. What's your take on this? What do you think about Parisian coffee? 

Even though I live in the land of Starbucks, highly-trained [finicky?] baristas, and fancy coffee drinks, my taste, when I visit Paris, has remained simple: un express (shot of expresso) after lunch or the occasional cappuccino in lieu of dessert make me happy. A favorite quote of mine from a 90s movie, You've Got Mail:

"The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, no-fat, etc. So people who don't know what the hell they're doing or who on earth they are, can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee, but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall, Decaf, Cappuccino!"
-- Joe Fox (Tom Hanks)

It seems obvious Joe Fox would have felt right at home in a Parisian café

Yes, drinking coffee can be a different experience in France. If you want to know more, I spilled the beans in this story a few months ago. 

We can't discuss Parisian cafés without mentioning their terraces, the best vantage point for people watching. What makes a café terrace better than another? Space, light... and outdoor furniture. 

Who has not looked at the iconic chairs laid out on the sidewalk? Did you know that only two companies in France still make these chairs by hand today? Meet the renowned Maison Gatti and Maison Drucker. Their colorful, comfortable and weather-resistant furniture is made out of rattan and other natural fibers and custom-ordered by some of the most legendary French cafés and restaurants. The international market has been booming in recent years, especially in the United States where Drucker and Gatti furniture collections can be found in many restaurants, museums (the M.E.T. in New York city for example) and residential kitchens. 

Each chair carries the manufacturer's logo
Maison Gatti, since 1920

Le Café Kleber uses Gatti outdoor furniture
Drucker custom-makes chairs and tables for the iconic Café de Flore
Maison Drucker, since 1885
(Photos by American Frog Photography)

So many weaves, so many colors. Note to le Père Noël (Santa Claus): I would love to receive a set of these chairs for my American home, tucked away in American suburbia. 

This summer, while visiting a Seattle nursery, I was lucky to find French bistro furniture by another renowned manufacturer, Fermob. What's a French Girl to do? I figured these would help fight the occasional pang of homesickness. Besides, it makes me feel special to know my girlfriends and I sit in the same chairs Fermob have been making for the Luxembourg Gardens, in Paris, since the 1990s!

Bistro set in paprika 

Luxembourg low back chairs in poppy
(used by Moi and  - millions of tourists -
in the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens)

But I digress. This story is an ode to Parisian cafés and it is almost time to wrap it up. 

They say the Parisian café as an institution is in crisis. There are only about 40,000 cafés left in France these days (down from 200,000 in the 1960s.) Many are struggling, especially the "mom and pop" coffeehouses located outside of touristy neighborhoods. Alleged culprits or contributing factors are many. The French government crackdown on drunk drivers. The smoking ban in cafés, restaurants and bars. The recession (people come less often and spend less when they do show up.) Competition from Starbucks and Starbucks-like coffeehouses. Competition from social networks (Facebook, Twitter, who make it so much easier to socialize from home or on the road without having to physically meet people.) 

Is this a sign that the traditional French or Parisian café has become an endangered species? After all, Starbucks has been opening stores all over France faster than you can say "McDonalds." 

Does this mean French people will soon have to drink their "noisette" or "petit noir" in giant-size paper goblets, while walking down the Champs-Elysées? Will they have to forsake their traditional morning croissant and switch to industrial muffins and pumpkin bread? -- the horror! 

That, folks, is a scary sight to the average French person!

I prefer to believe the Parisian café's glory days are not over. Yes, there is a recession out there and many businesses are suffering. Still, many café owners understand that in order to survive, they have to adapt; serve quality products to a large variety of customers with increasingly refined tastes; and serve those products with a smile. If some of those customers require fresh orange juice, a smoothie or a wifi connection, so be it. They will have to provide it. That is not a bad thing. 

Sorry Starbucks, but the Parisian café will always be my favorite place to people watch, take a break during the day, meet friends, daydream, read or write. When I get there, pick my table and sit down, I am not just buying a cup of coffee, I am also paying for a uniquely satisfying experience. Au café, I can be certain there will be no interruptions. The waiter will respect my privacy, for as long as I sit at that table. And when I finally step outside, I will not be just anywhere in the world. Paris will be there, waiting. If I close my eyes, I can almost see myself at that table. Almost.

(American Frog Photography)

A bientôt.


  1. while on vacation for three weeks in France, I came home jet lagged wanting a coffee...I went to Starbucks, took one sip, then another - then it went in the garbage...once you have great coffee, it's hard to go back...three years later, I still can not drink Starbuck's ...

  2. What a shame Starbucks is taking over Paris! That makes me sad. :( I always associate glamorous and relaxing outdoor cafes with Paris. It really is a staple of the city's identity.

    I had no idea coffee shops started in the Middle East. That is REALLY interesting.

    And I love that Woody Allen film! I often wish I could go back to 1920s Paris. I'm reading a book about 1920s writers right now (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc.) and Paris really was the place to be back then! :)

  3. I don't know how you do it. You bring us so much interesting information. You h it on one of my favorite topics today V. I have photographed a million chairs I think. I'd kill for those red chairs from Luxembourg and Tuileries!!!! I shudder at how much they must cost. And you ended with Nemours. J'adore Nemours as you well know. How many posts I've done on that iconic Paris cafe!

  4. I think that the magic of Parisian cafés is something that both natives and tourists can agree on – perhaps the only thing! Can't beat the people-watching. I can’t comment on the merits of French coffee as I do not like coffee from any country, but I’m sure it is all a question of what you’re used to, like many things in life.

    Also, that’s one of my favorite quotes from You’ve Got Mail too ;)

  5. What a fabulous thorough post on Paris cafes!
    Brilliant. That chart is horrifying, though I'm told Starbucks is doing well because of the ambience - big chairs for relaxing and wifi.
    I LOVE Paris cafes but I simply don't know how to relax in them the way the French do. I need to run run run :(
    merci carolg

  6. Another fantastic post, Véronique! Gosh, this is almost enough to make me wish that I was still living there, but nope, I'll take the cafés in tiny Arles plus the 30°C temp today!!

    Am curious about your favs. I do love Nemours too but also le Café de la Marie in the 6th--very fashion!

  7. Je suis absolument en extase devant la richesse de vos posts, les recherches effectuées, l'iconographie.. Chacun est une petite these!ça donne un regard different sur les choses simples: plus jamais je ne prendrai un café sans penser à vous, et à tout ce qu'il y a derrière ce simple geste! Bravo et merci!

  8. I love this post! I keep hearing also about Parisian coffee being not so good. But I've heard a foreigner call our coffee bison pee. Maybe it's because we are used to a certain taste? All I know - if it has caffeine and it makes me shake a little, I'm good to go. And the ambiance helps! =)

  9. -- Jacquelyn-- Thank you for stopping by. I guess we will add your name to the "Love French coffee" column, then ;-)
    -- Jennifer Fabulous -- Great to hear from you again. That little Woody Allen movie was quite magical, wasn't it? Be careful what you wish for, though. Remember when the main character finally chooses the present over the past (granted that's after he has dumped the horrible girlfriend and her horrible parents ;-)
    -- Virginia -- Thanks for visiting. Oui, I know you love the Nemours. What's not to like? It sits across from the Louvre! One day, one day, you and I will get our Parisian café chairs!
    -- Katelyn -- Welcome chez French Girl. I agree with you: People tend to enjoy what they are used to. It's probably hard to switch from an elaborate Starbucks coffee drink, that tastes more like dessert, to a tiny cup of French espresso!
    -- Deebee L. -- Merci beaucoup!
    -- Paris Breakfasts -- Carol, you h.a.v.e. to learn how to relax in a Parisian café. ;-) It's hard to slow down when you know you only have limited time in fabulous cities like Paris or London, but slowing down and soaking in the local atmosphere is part of the experience. Parisians are stressed as heck, but even Parisians know how to take a deep breath and relax at their favorite café.
    -- Lost in Provence -- Merci beaucoup. I can't blame you for choosing Arles cafés. I miss Nice cafés right now ;-) I do not know your café in the 6th. Will have to look it up. Two favorites of mine: Le café de l'Opéra. Overpriced, but magnificent. Amazing people watching AND I used to work in the neighborhood. Any café around la Place des Vosges. What a peaceful, romantic place to sit and daydream in Paris.
    -- Malyss -- Un sincère merci. Les compliments des "autochtones" me touchent très particulièrement.
    -- Sandy -- Welcome back. Bison pee. Ha. Ha. My brother used to refer to American coffee (in the pre-Starbucks days) as "jus de chaussettes" (sock juice), in reference to the dirty, brownish water one gets after washing their socks ;-)

  10. You have immersed me in the atmosphere of French cafes. It's really one of the most wonderful attractions of living in France. Perhaps French people take it for granted. In Canada, I really miss that culture.

  11. C'est vrai que les terrasses de cafés, quelles qu'elles soient, sont toujours agréables, surtout à la belle saison. Mais à Paris, il y a un plus. C'est magique. On oublie le bruit et les vapeurs d'essence et on se sent bien.
    Tu as raison dans ce que tu écris.
    Bonne journée!

  12. Another treasure-trove of information and insider points! I love the café chairs and have so many photos that I have to pace them on my blog (like my cemetery and pâtisserie shots) - hah! I love the green chairs found in les jardins et les parcs in Paris and although the red just pops, I would choose a pair of green ones to sit out among the azaleas in our yard (to enjoy with a glass of wine, bien sûr)!


  13. évidemment, je boycotte starbucks car il tue les petits bistrots de quartier déjà bien délaissés depuis qu'on ne peut plus y fumer.
    dans la mesure où je ne bois pas de café car je n'aime pas cela, je ne peux répondre exactement à ta question, mais en tous cas, le café des bistrots parisiens sent mauvais, et contient sans doute plus de robusta que d'arabica (il semble épais, noir, acre), contrairement aux cafés torréfiés blonds du nord de l'europe dont l'odeur n'est pas désagréable. ceci explique sans doute pourquoi nombre d'américains n'aiment pas le café des bars parisiens.

  14. I want to visit them all - lovely post - s comprehensive and informative - Greetings from the riviera...

  15. I'll drink to that ! (before I run off to bed for my beauty sleep, this was a last little visit before turning in... but one can never get enough of Paris cafés and bars, an immense variety to choose from)

  16. -- Olga --I assure you the French (and the Parisians) do not take their cafés for granted. They may not always realize how lucky they are to have them though ;-)
    -- Richard --Merci Richard. Les terrasses de café à Antibes ne doivent pas être trop mal non plus...
    -- Genie -- Thanks for stopping by! My favorite color was actually aubergine, but they were sold out. The chairs were 50% at the end of August and beggars can't be choosers. I had to pick between Red and Black...
    -- WInterludes -- Une bonne analyse je pense... mais les cafés parisiens vont devoir s'améliorer rapidement (pour certains) s'ils veulent survivre...
    -- Catherine -- Thank you for stopping by. Love Riviera cafés too. The view is often unbeatable...
    -- Owen -- Thanks, Owen, and I agree. There are almost too many to choose from!

  17. Great post! I love the wonderful cafes of Paris and I was sad when I saw the Starbucks open on Ave Opera. Hopefully the glory days of Parisian cafés are not over! However the most crowded McDonalds that I've ever seen was in Paris. :(

  18. My God, this post is really impressive. You did a lot of research no doubt. Much more than what I did for my post on PDP !!

  19. Veronique, give me a Parisian cafe any day over Starbucks, we used to live just round the corner from Cafe de Flore and le Deux Magots, I spent many happy hours there, whiling away the whole afternoon accompanied by coffee's and a book, never harassed or moved on by the waiters. I think what makes Parisian cafes unique are the way the tables and chairs are positioned on the terraces, very conducive for people watching. I know they are not very eco friendly but I love the heaters to keep you warm on the terraces during the colder months. Sad to hear that some cafes are struggling, from what I understand the main reason they struggle is due to the extortionate contracts they are bound into with unscrupulous suppliers. As for the coffee, It tastes like coffee should, not that synthetic rubbish that takes on the flavour of the receptacle it is served in.

  20. Thank you for showing some of our French Bistro Chairs by Maison Gatti
    Style by Maison Gatti

  21. thanks for sharing all these beautiful photos with us!
    i love france, i love paris and i love cafés!


  22. Bonsoir,

    Je viens de découvrir votre blog et je l'adore! Je suis prof de français en Floride et toujours à la recherche de choses à utiliser avec mes élèves. Merci pour votre excellent travail. Véronique (comme vous!)


Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle