Paris, the so-called “cafe capital of the world,” is an excellent place to get acquainted with French cafes. Not only can you get something to eat at one, be careful! You might even start a revolution. Read on to learn the basics of Parisian cafe culture.
For outsiders, a French cafe is an interesting, if not puzzling, phenomenon. If you’re pedantic enough to look up the word “cafe,” you’ll happen upon the following definition: “a small restaurant selling light meals and drinks.” But a Parisian cafe’s uses extend far beyond being a place to get something to eat or drink.
What it is, what it isn’t
For one thing, a cafe is not a restaurant, but more of an “extra living room” for the city’s residents. It’s a place where you can order coffee, drinks, or a light meal. But you can also dig in and just hang out there. Grab a newspaper, order a cafe au lait. Sit there all day if you want. Everybody’s cool with that.
You can even discuss a revolution in a Parisian cafe. That’s what revolutionaries like Voltaire and Rousseau did when they got together in Cafe Procope, the first cafe in the world which was established near the end of the 17th century. Cafes quickly became harbors for thinkers, writers and artists, some of whom came in to these establishments to warm their bones, taking off the chill of winter. Sometimes they paid their bills with a painting.
Historic cafe rivals, my favorite
Two of the most famous cafes in Paris share something of a rivalry. One of my favorites, Boulevard St.-Germain’s Café de Flore, which maintains a very classy and formal atmosphere, is right around the corner from Les Deux Magots, a favorite of writers – Hemingway, Andre Gide and Appolinaire among them. The area around these famous places is, of course, bustling, and the prices are also premium – the cost of history!
A literary institution
And speaking of writers and all things literary, I’d like to point out a spectacular institution in Paris that is not so much a cafe, but a shop that’s a bit of a throwback in our 21st century digital world. Shakespeare and Company, which sells new and second-hand books, also offers a free, public reading library. It’s not the original bookseller opened by Sylvia Beach in Paris in 1922, but this one, opened in 1951, used to have beds for writers tucked among the bookshelves; now they’re upstairs. The shop’s cozy atmosphere is very intriguing and it is possible to have coffee and snacks next door at the Shakespeare and Company Cafe.
Oh, yes. There’s the people watching aspect of cafes, too. Outdoor cafe chairs are typically set up with the chair backs facing the facade of the building, meaning you’re set up for observation, for interaction with the outside world, or for simply staring off into space. The world whooshes by – people, cars, birds, bees – and you’re safe on your perch. “Could I have another café au lait, s’il vous plaît?”
A “must stop” on your Paris trip
What else can you do at a French cafe? It can be a great place to read a newspaper, catch up on your Baudelaire, or ponder how the city works its magic on you. Meet your friend for a chat and a laugh, kindle a new flame, or even break up with someone. Because you’re out in public, maybe they won’t throw that Pernod into your face – or maybe they will, screaming epithets at you in French. Then you become the people being watched, but that’s just one of the costs of frequenting this French living room – a must for those making Paris trips.