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Journeys: Café Klatsch

Jack Smith

In the world of the Parisian sidewalk café, where rudeness is no more remarkable than cracks in the pavement, Jean Francois, the waiter at La Palette on the rue de Seine in St-Germain, looms as a cultural high-water mark. "He is the rudest waiter in all Paris," says the Paris-based Barbara Pasquet James, editor-at-large for Bonjour Paris, the Internet Franco-zine. This is more than one person’s opinion. Jean Francois’ disdain for his customers, his capacity for inattention, and his penchant for brusqueness have been documented on web sites and limned in guidebooks: "You must order quickly and without indecision, or he’ll ignore you until you’ve learned your lesson," says Access Paris (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998).

It’s more than an act, more than some vaudevillian show of pique for the regulars, says James. "I once saw a customer so enraged with him, he smashed a chair to pieces over the table," she whispers, as Jean Francois, a man of about 50 with a gruff demeanor and several days of stubble adorning his jowls, wanders by in his black vest and apron, glowering. The naive might wonder how—given the undistinguished cuisine, the primitive toilet facilities, and the sometimes abusive service—the place gets any customers at all. Why, back in the customer-friendly United States, such behavior would be a formula for failure, if not a lawsuit and court-ordered sensitivity training.

But this is Paris, and for decades La Palette— founded in 1905—has enjoyed a cult following among local artists, writers, and actors, not to mention expatriate Americans looking for that rush of the authentic, the primal, that je ne sais quoi to be found only in a Paris sidewalk café.

This is not to say that some cafés are not more fashionable than others. Take the grandest examples of the genre: the Café de Flore and its almost-next-door neighbor, Les Deux Magots, on the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés. According to the avant-garde, who keep score of these things, the Flore is the most chic café in Paris and the Deux Magots, the least. It is easy to explain the Flore’s cachet. In the 1940s it was where existentialists Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir held court nightly. But what about the Deux Magots, once the haunt of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and, for that matter, Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir before they moved to the Flore? There is also Hemingway, who used the Deux Magots as a backdrop in The Sun Also Rises and A Movable Feast. The equation is quintessentially Parisian, explains French essayist Jean-Paul Enthoven. "Since the Flore is now the city’s most fashionable café, the Deux Magots must be its opposite. It is determined by the very idea of fashion. When you place two things side by side, one will become fashionable and the other will not. It’s the nature of things to choose, and to choose absolutely."

Zut alors, it can be confusing! On the face of it, the sleek L’Avenue, on the posh rue de Montaigne, has the look of drop-dead chic with its bevy of young, beautiful people lounging with practiced insouciance at the tables outside, their Ferraris and Porsches and Bentleys double-parked nearby. But impresario Jean Marie Grenier, a grand seigneur of the Paris theater, dismisses the thought with a wave of his hand. "The girls are very pretty," he says, as his chauffeured Cadillac glides past, "but that is not a true café. It has no soul." The way Grenier—himself the grandson of a café owner—explains it, the link between a Frenchman and his café borders on the mystical. "Almost everyone in Paris has his own café, and each one is unique, with its own history, its own character. A café is never static. It is like a kaleidoscope; its mood changes with the hour, the light, the clientele, and the people moving by. You can sit at a café and feel life moving around you. You feel the city breathe."

Curiously, it’s a thin line—or none at all—that divides the classic form of the café from the cliché. The tourist clutching his guidebook expects a place where the proprietor stands behind a zinc-covered counter, with sawdust on the floor and a bright blue or red awning shading patrons at tables on the sidewalk. The purist will demand that the owner be Auvergnate, descended from those émigrés from the French Massif region who took over the café trade in the late 1800s. He will further expect a billiard room toward the back and a newspaper rack by the door, and will take his orange juice—like his coffee—steeped in sugar. Both customers are likely to order a croque monsieur, the Inspector Clouseau of sandwiches, essentially a grilled ham-and-cheese with the melted cheese on the outside.

Yet this vision of the café hardly encompasses the exquisitely feminine ambience of Ladurée on the Champs- Elysées, whose ornate gilt doorway suggests a parfumerie and whose stylish young clientele are more likely to sip tea and nibble macaroons than to wash their baguettes down with a pastis. At the other end of the spec- trum, there is the gritty, 4 am scene at Au Pied de Cochon, in the market district of Les Halles. One of the city’s few open-all-night cafés, it’s a favorite place for truck drivers and workmen to begin their days—and for the weary-eyed femmes fatales at nearby tables to end their nights—over helpings of pig’s feet and beer.

Ultimately, one man’s café may be another man’s tabac, bistro, bar, brasserie, restaurant, or patisserie. The terms are often used indiscriminately. Suffice it to say that a café is as a café does, serving as a place to think, dream, or escape. It is the most Parisian of institutions yet, ironically, it was invented by a Sicilian. In 1686, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened Le Procope, a small restaurant in the rue de l’Ancienne-Comedie, where he introduced Parisians to the brew that was then all the rage in Italy: coffee. Three hundred sixteen years later, Le Procope is still doing business at the same address, its glittering chandeliers lighting the trophies of sustained success—oil paintings of ancient statesmen, busts and statuettes, sofas, love seats, and escritoires. A doorway between the second-story foyer and a dining room is carved with the names of bygone habitués—Marat, Robespierre, and Bonaparte, who never reclaimed the hat he left as security for a dinner tab. It is displayed in a glass case for all to see.

What’s notably missing from Le Procope are sidewalk tables, as there were no sidewalks to speak of in the 17th century. Even if there had been, the streets—often running with sewage, with horses and carriages splattering mud and dust as they passed—were hardly conducive to dining. That all began to change in the 1870s when, at the behest of Napoleon III, French urban planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann transformed the city. Under Haussmann, the city’s chaotic rabbit warrens of narrow, medieval streets were reshaped into broad, sunny boulevards with expansive sidewalks, parks, and a sewage system that made the outdoors more inviting. In the wake of Haussmann’s handiwork the sidewalks sprouted chairs and tables. Who wanted to eat inside, asked sun-starved Parisians, when you could be outside?

It wasn’t merely the solar rays that coaxed fashionable Parisians out onto the sidewalk. Unlike their counterparts in Victorian England, who took their cue from the highest echelons of society and who viewed the gentlemen’s club as the apogee of civilization, French style setters—writers and painters, philosophers and dandies—took their cue from the streets. What the British condemned as common and vulgar, the French deemed vital and romantic, and the apotheosis of this view was the café. Regardless of the establishment or its patronage, a general unwritten law applied: As long as a patron had a coffee, wine, or pastis in front of him, he could sit at a café for all eternity. The existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre fit this paradigm. In the 1940s he wrote, "Simone de Beauvoir and I more or less set up house in the [Café] Flore." The couple would sit—writing and thinking—at the café’s tables from 9 am until 8 pm, after which time they would hold court for their friends and admirers.

In this regard, it would appear that little has changed. For the tourist or the irrepressible romantic settling into his wicker café chair to watch the vehicular traffic and pedestrians flow by, it is comforting to feel that such customs are as enduring as the Seine. However, this is an illusion. In an era of less drinking, streamlined efficiencies, and fast food, the number of cafés in Paris has dwindled. At the turn of the previous century the city boasted no fewer than 100,000 cafés, 11 times the number of pubs per capita in London. Today, only 10,000 cafés remain. This, at a time when French francs have been displaced by euros. When Americanisms such as "le management," "le software," and even "le touchdown" continue to infiltrate their language. When Gallic teenagers have abandoned berets in favor of baseball caps.

In response, French intellos (intellectuals), shopkeepers, and politicians are embracing the city’s cafés as emblems of national identity. Newspaper restaurant critics, who once snubbed the cafés in favor of Alain Ducasse and Tour d’Argent, are now reviewing them. And Bistro en Fete, a new weeklong, citywide festival, celebrates the Bohemian ethos with eating, drinking, and dancing at the cafés.

The movement has also spread to the cognoscenti. In the past four or five years, the city’s BCBG (Bonne Chic, Bonne Genre, or "Young Fashionables") have been swarming to the "café philos" at places such as the Café des Phares, Au Petit Fer à Cheval, and dozens of others in town. After paying a nominal fee, usually about $2, they spend the night arguing philosophy—Should man dominate nature? Does anything matter?—with 20 to 30 other like-minded patrons. Other trendies can be found at the "café psychos" at the Chope des Vosges, in the Place des Vosges, where group therapy is cheap and chic. For about the same price, they get to share their ardent wishes and dark imaginings with other café patrons. Even at the Deux Magots, though condemned by the avant-garde as hopelessly bourgeois, the tables beneath the greenish, glowing marquee are almost always jammed. "Some say it’s touristy, passé," says Philippe Le Boeuf, general manager of the famed Hôtel du Crillon, "but when I return from a trip abroad, I go there. I don’t feel as if I have returned home until I am crowded up against one of their tiny tables, watching the world go by. There is a marvelous sense of serendipity. You never know who is going to sit down next to you."

Then there is Fouquet’s, on the Champs-Elysées, with its ancien ré­gime, red velvet ambience, and plump, tasseled chairs, a favorite of Grenier’s and theatergoers. A mecca for French and British aviators during World War I, its bar, the Bar de l’Escadrille, is hung with propellers and pictures of dashing pilots. "It was quite stylish when I was young," says Grenier, "but then it became passé. Now, a whole new crowd of Parisians is discovering the café. Fouquet’s has not changed, but the world has de-cided that it is once again chic." As the French would say, c’est la vie.

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Photo by Cheryl Zibisky
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