Strolling through the streets of Montparnasse looking for a café on a grey Paris morning can quickly turn into a headache without some prior knowledge.
There are many historic cafés in the “City of Lights,” but it’s important to pick the right one in order to get the full experience of the culture surrounding coffee in Paris. You could miss out on sitting in the very same spot Hemingway wrote his debut novel or where Simone De Beauvoir discussed her feminist views. Even if you’re not interested in the backstory of your café allonge, there’s a reason why these old cafés haven’t yet been converted into another type of shop.
Café De Flore
Café De Flore seems like the most Instagrammed café in the whole of Paris. A quick look at the café’s location tag on the app reveals countless coffees and berets. Long before influencers were posing with a strategically-placed elbow on the table, Flore’s fashionable allure attracted the likes of Pablo Picasso and the French writer Raymond Queneau ever since it opened its doors in the 1800s.
On my first morning in Paris, I was delighted to find plenty of chic women lining the outside of the café. I headed straight for the bar, but the bartender, smartly dressed in monochrome, scrunched his eyebrows together as I approached. Before I could even say a word, he was pointing away from the bar and uttering something in French. I promptly wedged myself at a table next to two pairs of sunglasses smoking cigarettes. A photographer on the floor scowled–I had ruined their photo.
Everything looked the same as it did in the 1963 French film “The Fire Within.” The seats were a hot red and the tables were green–apparently a feature since WWII. The menu was an alarming price (four euro for just hot milk), but from the looks of everyone else’s table, it was great quality. I didn’t dare to order food or wine because I didn’t want to further annoy the waiters with my toddler-level French.
Les Deux Magots
I crossed the road to try again at another old café, Les Deux Magots. Famous feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir would often visit this café with friend and philosopher Jean-Paul Satre. Together, they would come and discuss la vie (life) over drinks.
I ordered a basic croissant, which made the waiter’s eyes roll. It was only later that I discovered that Les Deux Magots also serves pastries by Pierre Hermé–one of the best pastry chefs in Paris. I guess to the waiter, it was like ordering tap water at a champagne bar.
Le Dôme Café used to offer mashed potatoes for the equivalent of one euro to poor artists, but that certainly isn’t the case now. Their specialty is fish. As soon as I arrived, I was greeted by a bed of it on crushed ice. Each fish had an unpronounceable name and cost more than ten English breakfasts. This is thanks to the café’s old regulars, nicknamed the Dômiers. Artists like Henry Matisse and Man Ray established this café as a den for their art– the origin of its one euro mash.
I waved at the waiter from my seat. He pouted and lifted a single finger at me. I hadn’t realized he was trés occupé (very busy) and my waving had caused me to wait longer. I quickly learned that French waiters are professionals and they don’t need flagging down like New York taxis.
In the evening, I perched on the corner of Le Select with a glass of white wine recommended to me by the extremely nice waiter. He had softened when I asked about his knowledge of wine and talked enthusiastically about their selection while offering some food recommendations to pair it with it.
I had first heard of this place in Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises.” It was said to dish up the best Welsh Rarebit in the country, but sadly they don’t make it anymore. The clientele seemed as eclectic as it was back in its golden era. Le Select boasted customers like Vladimir Nabokov, author of “Lolita,” Picasso, and many more. For the first time at a Parisian café, I hadn’t done anything wrong.
La Closerie Des Lilas
La Closerie Des Lilas was a little different from the other cafés. Instead of being out on display to the passersby on the street, the terrace was surrounded by tall green bushes cutting the café off from view. The go-to café activity–people watching–was not on the menu.
Only five people sat close by. But 100 years ago, La Closerie was thriving. It had become the location of the pre- and after party to the nearby ballroom. When prohibition happened in the United States, Americans expats flocked to Paris and treasured La Closerie. However, none adored it as much as Hemingway. He once wrote,
“There was no good café nearer to where we lived than La Closerie des Lilas, and it was one of the best cafés in Paris. It was warm there in winter; in spring and autumn, the terrace was so pleasant…”
With the added privacy it wasn’t hard to see why he felt that way.
Café de la Paix
In the 50s, actress Marlene Dietrich stepped out of the taxi on the side of Place de l’Opera in a constellation of flashing lights. She smiled as she strutted into Café De La Paix draped in white fur as the crowd gasped and called her name. My entrance was not so glamorous.
It was raining hard outside and I had forgotten to pack an umbrella. My soaking hair and squelchy shoes looked out of place in the Café De La Paix which resembled a set from “Downton Abbey.” Not wanting to be on display, I sat at the closest table to me which was another huge mistake.
When I told the waiter I just wanted a glass of wine, the waiter scoffed and snatched the cutlery from my table. It seemed I was sat at a food table which is a Parisian café faux pas.
At night, La Rotonde looked like an Art Deco cinema with its huge, gold name mounted on the red awning. Inside, the walls were lined with replica paintings by big-name artists. This was not because the owner was an art collector, but because he accepted payment in the form of paintings. These replicas now on the walls used to display the originals. At one time, this was the most valuable collection of art in the whole of Paris.
My friend arrived and I pulled up a chair so she could join me. She slowly sat down and put her face in her palm as people began to stare. “They don’t like it when you move chairs,” she said.
There’s a Parisian café etiquette that I had been failing at. But despite my mistake, sitting in La Rotonde was beautiful and I highly enjoyed their iced tea.
Procope was the place where the French café culture began. It opened its doors in the 1600s, making it one of the oldest cafés in Paris and one of the first establishments to serve coffee.
I climbed to the upper deck to look at the neatly-preserved desk of the philosopher Voltaire. It was at this very desk he would sit and supposedly drinking ten cups of espresso with a side order of chocolates to get rid of his caffeine jitters.
Café Procope felt half-café, half-museum. History stared at you from every wall and little cabinets showcased antiques. It felt even more like a museum when I was shushed by the table next to me when I was on the phone laughing. Being loud is frowned upon in all cafés. Frustrated at my bad Parisian etiquette, I vowed to get my last café experience right.
Le Café Tournon
Strolling through the sixth arrondissement, I headed for an empty, outward-facing seat with zero cutlery in Le Café Tournon. I acknowledged the waiter with a half-smile and was immediately served. I ordered a Petit Chablis and a recommended chèvre chaud salad. My phone was on silent in my bag and I finally felt like a Parisian café pro.
Although I left this café until last, it was the one that most intrigued me. During the 40s, Tournon became a hub for the African-American community escaping extreme racial segregation in the United States. Jazz was a Le Tournon staple and the café featured famous musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. Although the Art Deco style remains, I sadly couldn’t see hardly any trace of Le Tournon’s jazzy past inside the brightly-painted walls.
The rest of my time in Le Tournon was spent sipping, smoking, people watching, and lounging for a few hours without buying much more than my salad. But that was perfectly okay–Parisian cafés are meant for taking your time. It made me sad to think that if I tried to do this back home in England, the staff would get horrendously annoyed at me for hogging one of the tables. I would also have a hard time finding a café that served wine as well as coffee. In Britain, cafés are deemed cheap little places to stop for five minutes before moving on. In Paris, cafés seem more like grand hotels to spend a week in.
Looking to get outside of Paris? Read about France’s UNESCO World Heritage sites here.
Header photo by Bram Naus.