Paris's cafe renaissance

For centuries they have been the stomach and soul of the city, but today the cafes of Paris are enjoying a renaissance. Wanderlust's man in Paris, David Downie, reports on the new scene in the City of Caffeine.


David Downie
September 21, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

At about 6 o'clock every morning but Sunday, Madame Renie or her husband, Josi, drag the banged-up tables and chairs out of their cafe and set them up on the cobbled terrasse under my bedroom window. At anywhere from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. they muscle them back in again. Renie has been doing this all her life: Her mother ran the cafe before her and her daughter will doubtless continue the tradition.

My wife and I have lived above Renie's for 12 years or about 7,500 chair-and-table draggings. We don't feel particularly privileged. There are roughly 10,000 cafes in the City of Caffeine. Up and down the scarred asphalt sidewalks and across the quaint cobbled squares, the patrons do the same dawn and midnight chair dance.

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Enough, you might say, to make us hate Renie, Josi and Paris cafes in general? Not a bit of it. Well, maybe once in a while we'd love to pour boiling oil out the window.

But what would Paris be sans cafes? They're the stomach, lungs, liver, bad conscience and -- oh yes -- soul of the city. You buy tobacco in some, gamble in others, philosophize, write or surf in yet others, and drink and eat in all -- sometimes well. Romance buds, hatred flares, revelation dawns, violence erupts, fortune smiles upon lucky winners, smoke gets in everyone's eyes.

If nothing else, cafes animate the city -- that is, they keep it awake with noise and stimulants. They've been around for centuries (Le Procope, now a travesty, was founded by a Sicilian in 1686). And though there are fewer of them today than, say, 20 years ago, they will be here forever.

Admittedly, the coffee itself is often pretty bad. "For the coffee? Good heavens, no, I don't go to a cafe for that. Coffee is simply about the cheapest thing you can order while occupying a table for an hour or so ..."

It was mid-morning. We were in the Cafi Jade on the Rue de Buci in the Saint-Germain-des-Pris neighborhood. I always meet my English friend -- a Paris denizen for the last 35 years -- in cafes. That's where she does her entertaining, holds meetings, reviews scripts, edits manuscripts. She took a hummingbird sip at the black tar in her espresso cup and nodded at the goings-on: waiters whirling among the mushroom-shaped tables, a mixed clientele of aging regulars from the 'hood, loners, mavericks, tourists, Sorbonne students, a businessman seated outside on the shaded terrasse, shouting into his cellular telephone.

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The open market was in full swing around the corner so the street swam with colors, movement, voices. Our table was an eddy: In safety we snapped up snatches of foreign and French conversation, feasted on the sight of passersby, drank in the kitchen smells of simmering food.

'

"That's why one comes, isn't it?" asked my friend. "For this -- the life, the human contact."

Once the haunt of Paris inevitables like Jean-Paul Sartre, Picasso, Hemingway, et al, Saint-Germain-des-Pris may have lost most of its intellos (intellectuals), artists and retenues of sycophants. But its dozens of cafes live on very much as before -- with the exception of the famous Deux Magots and the Cafi de Flore, which have become exquisite tourist traps.

My friend and I hadn't actually meant to meet at the Cafi Jade, now a pleasant enough wannabe-trendy retro spot. Until a few months ago, it had been known as the Cafi Dauphin. We were unaware of the changeover. Gone are the Dauphin's booths with their slippery, pumpkin-colored moleskin seats. Now there are faux-antique wooden tables and hard-bottomed chairs. A salmon- colored neon tube curls across the ceiling. The awning is a matching salmon pink.

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It's odd to feel nostalgic about the cruddy old Dauphin and its hideous 1970s decor, lousy food and worse coffee. But as my friend pointed out, the decor, food and coffee are marginal considerations. It's the feel of the place that counts, the atmosphere, the relationship between waiter and client, waiter and patron, patron and client, client and client.

This web is spun over months, years, decades. More than anyone perhaps, photographer Robert Doisneau captured this microcosm of Frenchness in his grainy black-and-white shots: images that have become icons and clichis, like berets, baguettes, pitanque bowlers, ripe camemberts.

Camembert or not, even today most Paris cafes are still family-owned or -managed and many, like Madame Renie's, are handed down through the generations, webs and all.

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While they have long been taken for granted, recently these supremely democratic social institutions have become the focus of renewed attention and appreciation.

Restaurant critics have started reviewing them alongside their siblings, the bistros and brasseries. And for the last five years or so, a festival celebrating them has been held in late September: The Bistrots-en-Fjte, as it is known, has quickly evolved into a popular modern Bacchanal featuring dancing, feasting and drinking, often to excess.

The top end of the fashion/lifestyle industry has begun to pay attention too, wedding the cafe revival to Food-in-Shop, that nifty invention pioneered in London and New York. Now it's trhs chic to buy CDs and hang out at the Virgin Megastore cafe; drop megabucks at Emporio Armani and be surrounded by monied X-rays as you lap up a foamy cappuccino; and toy with the accessories at Lanvin before lunching in the modish Caffi Bleu.

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An aberration of another kind is Ah! ga ira!, a self-service, patriotic, red-white-and-blue (yes, those are the colors of the French flag, too) cafe that opened this June. It's cold, charmless, has no waiters, no regulars and caters primarily to cheapo tourists, though many locals, fed up with high cafe prices, are being converted. The coffee is cheap, the beer is cheap and the decor is strictly high turnover, but you can get a decent brownie and a cuppa something hot for less than $3 (the place is not officially a cafe, so it pays only 5.6 percent Value Added Tax (VAT), not 21.6 percent like other cafes, and there's no 15 percent service charge, either).

The name refers to the cafe's location at Place de la Bastille, stormed by patriots in 1789. One of their Revolutionary chants included that catchy refrain, Ah! ga ira! -- yeah, we can do it, it'll all work out! Could it be the chant of a new Tax Revolt? Hmmmm ....

The nearby Cafi des Phares, the first and still most popular philosophy cafe in town, provides a counterbalance, with a volunteer army of bespectacled intellos ready if necessary to storm across the square and tongue-lash the faux-Revolutionary "ga ira" types with quotes from tomes by Pascal, Descartes, Camus, Sartre, Deleuze, Foucault.

That's about as political as cafes get in these post-Berlin Wall days.

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In synch with Paris' cafe renaissance, a friend of
mine, Daniel Young, food critic at the New York
Daily News, has written an intelligent and amusing
book called "The Paris Cafi Cookbook," featuring
his favorite 50 Paris hot spots. Many happen to be
my own personal favorites, too, and though soon I
will no longer be able to get a table in them because
of this opus, I must applaud it nonetheless.

It was in this book that I finally confirmed rumors of
why French roast is better stateside and so uniformly
awful here (ga n'ira plus!). It turns out that for a
hundred years or more most Paris cafes have been
controlled by an Auvergnat "mafia" that supplies
everything from furniture to loans, lettuce to coffee
beans.

The Auvergnat came to the capital from the
impoverished Auvergne region centered around the
Massif Central. They transformed cafes from their
earliest Italianate incarnation into havens of the
working class, serving food and drink while carrying
on their main business activity -- selling coal or wood
for heating.

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This "mafia" is more like a mutual aid society and
has nothing to do with organized crime. The rub is
that the blends the Auvergnat supply their brethren
are generally undrinkable, but everyone has always
taken them and those who discontinue risk becoming
PNGs.

As my long-suffering English friend and I walked
from the Cafi Jade toward lunch at the
Saint-Andri-des-Arts, we agreed that cafes, though
burdened by high VAT and employment taxes, are
nonetheless a good feeding-time alternative to even
pricier restaurants.

Like 9,950 others, the Saint-Andri-des-Arts didn't
make it into "The Paris Cafi Cookbook." For good
reason: The food is nothing special. Yet we were
happy to be greeted with the usual banter by our
perennially pale-faced but cheerful waiter.

"You think there's less smoke out here than inside?"
he quipped as we settled onto the terrace facing the
Place Saint-Michel metro. "Now that we've put in a
nonsmoking room, no one wants to come inside.
There's more smoke from the buses and trucks out
here."

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But he couldn't convince us. We had our croque
monsieurs (which sounds better than toasted
milk-soaked bread with ham inside and melted
cheese on top) in the sun. An impromptu gathering
engulfed us as crowds of students rushed around
buying and selling their textbooks on the square, a
September back-to-school ritual.

Leaving my friend to her afternoon cafe meetings, I
decided to stop at the remodeled Cluny on the
Boulevard Saint-Michel on my way to the bus stop.
Like the Jade, the Cluny has also received a retrofit:
wooden tables and chairs, mock-old prints,
bookcases. By shedding its moleskin and linoleum
it's trying to reclaim its position as a literary cafe.
The upstairs, especially, has become the haunt of
scribblers of all kinds, most of them French,
well-dressed and able to afford the stiff prices.

As I sipped my passable coffee upstairs and listened
to the pens scratching away, I reflected on the fact
that most of the working writers I know in Paris --
French, Italian, British and American -- are cafe
habituis, with their own personal lists of favorites.
But none would be caught dead scribbling in one.

Most of those beautiful pens and handsome writing
pads at the Cluny -- and a hundred other self-styled
literary haunts -- are doubtless used for composing
letters back home to Peoria, shopping lists, Sorbonne
course outlines and tragically unpublishable
masterpieces.

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As I rode the 96 bus toward my office in the 20th
arrondissement, I tried to count the cafes we passed:
about a thousand, I reckoned, before a pierced belly
button and a Le Monde closed off my view.

Gluttony takes many forms, including the occasional
desire for self-destruction, and I decided to indulge
it, get off the bus and have yet another coffee -- this
one admittedly a dica (decaffeinated) -- at one of
the hottest of the Paris pseud hangouts, the 11th
arrondissement's Cafi Charbon, on the Rue
Oberkampf.

To fully appreciate the Cafi Charbon it's essential to
know several Paris buzzwords. Branchi means hip,
cool, hot, trendy, but is often used as a pejorative,
because it suggests a lack of authenticity and an
excess of frime, as in frimeur, the other pertinent
buzzword. A frimeur is a poseur of a peculiarly
pernicious sort, the kind employed to star in the very
worst of current French cinema.

According to "The Paris Cafi Cookbook," the
Charbon has been several things over the last 112
years, including a pocket theater and an industrial
workshop. But it has never been an authentic
Auvergnat, a coal- and wood-dispensing cafe, as its
name would suggest. Everything in it is strangely
marvelous, bona fide 100 percent frime. War of the
World-style lamps. Zinc (tin) counter. Broken-tile
floors. In short, a retro decorator's dream.

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Yet it is so well done that most denizens actually
think it was once powdered with coal dust and filled
with Potato Eaters in funny hats.

Happily the hard-core frimeurs don't show up until
after work, so a midmorning or midafternoon visit is
a treat. I sat in the dark recesses of the place and
watched the sneaker-shod, un-uniformed waiters
groove with the hipsters perched in booths or poised
in front of huge mirrors while billowing smoke like
Russian coal-burning plants. Jazz was on the radio.
No one pestered me. I had a table all to myself, with
plenty of room. And the coffee was good. Italian
coffee, naturally, nothing to do with Auvergnats,
their mutual aid society and daily grinds.

Perhaps I was experiencing the future of French
cafes, but I hoped not. If it's going to be this or Ah,
ga ira! then I'm moving to Alaska.

Having ingested enough stimulants to keep me
awake until the year 2000, I couldn't stay still at my
office. And besides, by the time I got there it was
aperitif hour. Dispensing l'apiro, as my French pals
call it, is another important function of the cafe.

My wife agreed to meet me across town on the
glassed-in terrace of Brasserie Balzar, an old Latin
Quarter favorite of ours and about a million other
locals and visitors, including Daniel Young, who may
have stretched the definition of "cafe" to put it in his
cookbook. Naturally we couldn't get a table for
dinner.

"It must be the atmosphere," said my wife, indicating
the Art Deco interior, the mirrors and cozy tables
pushed up to moleskin banquets. "The food certainly
has never been great, but who cares?"

We quaffed several ruinous rounds of draft beer,
eavesdropped on an adulterous couple and decided it
would be all right to continue on for dinner at
another favorite, Les Fontaines, near the Panthion.

This is the antithesis of Balzar: tacky decor, great
food. The view of other portly, savvy, ecstatic
regular diners obscures the black tuck-'n'-roll vinyl
banquettes and jaundice-hued lighting. Les Fontaines
is the cafe to end all cafes: chummy, comfy,
hideous, noisy, 100 percent provincial French and
brimming over with devastatingly caloric delicacies
and wines. Clever Mr. Young has included it in his
book, so we're indulging ourselves there as often as
possible before the word gets out and the tables get
even scarcer.

My liver needed a crutch after the chicken heart
salad, the pbti, the rabbit kidneys with mustard
sauce, the tender sweetbreads and creamy wild
mushrooms, the strawberry pie and all that chilled
Brouilly. There just wasn't room left for a coffee. So
we figured, what the heck, let's finish the evening at
Madame Renie's.

But by then it was midnight and Renie was locking
the door. "Shucks," I exclaimed, "you won't be
waking us up tonight after all." My wife and I
yawned, said goodnight to Renie and Josi and woke
up as always to their table-and-chair dance at 6 the
next morning.


David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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