“Le Zinc.” There used to be a well-known expression in France when referring to people enjoying a drink standing at the “comptoir” (bar) in a café: “Prendre un verre au zinc (sur le zinc.”)
After all, patrons in a French café know there are two main reasons to hang out in that corner: Drinks are cheaper than “en salle” (sitting in the room) or “en terrasse.” “Le zinc” is also where “les habitués” (regulars”) congregate and chat with the bartender or their favorite waiter throughout the day.
Why “le zinc?” Most café countertops these days are not made of zinc after all. Things were different back in the day, especially before WWII.
As it turns out, “Zinc” is the wrong way to refer to the beautiful, well-worn countertops in so many old French cafés, bistros and brasseries. “Etain” (pewter) is the metal they were really made of.
These beloved “comptoirs” were quite an investment for a business, wiped down several times a day and well taken care of, their intricately carved, raised edges meant to contain water (and other liquids) on the countertop.
By the time the Nazi left France at the end of WWII almost all “zincs” had disappeared, like so many statues on city squares, confiscated and melted down to make weapons.
Two decades ago, the birth of a new trend in French cuisine launched by chefs like Yves Camdeborde (“la Bistronomie”) brought back both the French bistro and its traditional accoutrements, checkered tablecloths, wooden furniture and countertops made of pewter, “le zinc.”
Today, there are only a handful of companies in France that still make and install custom pewter “comptoirs.” Almost half are sold abroad, but if you visit neo-bistros (like Camdeborde’s businesses) you will be able to admire “un zinc” and enjoy a slice of Parisian (and French!) life just like in the old days.
My favorite “Zinc” happens to be at my favorite small museum, le Musée de Montmartre, located at the top of “la Butte,” along peaceful rue Cortot.
Many visitors reminisce about the artists who once worked (and lived) in the old house that’s been there since the 17th century, they say, Berthe Morisot, Renoir or Raoul Dufy.
I go there to travel back in time to Old Montmartre thanks to the fascinating permanent collection of artifacts and excellent signage in the museum’s main building. It overlooks a small vineyard, referred to as “le Clos Montmartre,” the only surviving vineyard on a hill once covered in vines.
A visit to le Musée de Montmartre is also a chance to stop in front of Francisque Poulbot’s bronze bust before reaching the museum’s front door. The great Poulbot helped save this once abandoned vacant lot as real estate speculation had started transforming Montmartre. Poulbot convinced local authorities to turn the land into a public garden (“le Square de la Liberté”) to be enjoyed by local populations. A few years later a vineyard was planted there, a tribute to Montmartre’s wine-making past. The rest is history.
On the museum’s second floor in the corner of a cramped room, stands a beautiful “zinc.” Once located in a local bistro it survived the war (and the Germans) because it had been walled in. It is, quite simply, perfection.
This humble pewter counter is magical, you see: It tells many stories about Parisian and French life or Old Montmartre to those who listen. This self-confessed Harry Potter fan likes to think that if she ever knew the right spell, she could use “le zinc” as a Portkey and travel back in time…
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