I have lived in the United States for many 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 cafésCafés 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 Savoye Images

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 watching. 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 leveler. 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)

A few years ago, 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
(Savoye Images)

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)
Inception cafe
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 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 foreign visitors do not like Parisian coffee. 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.

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 Savoye Images)

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.

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.

Savoye Images

A bientôt.

Véronique - France with Véro
Véronique of France with Véro

Véronique of France with Véro

Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.

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