I’ve always been attracted to depth over breadth. Visiting a new city, I might eat in the same restaurant every night, trying to explore the entire menu. Discovering a new bookstore, I’m unlikely to only visit the sections that I’m interested in and know that I’ll buy from, but very likely to walk around the entire store, seeing what it’s strong in (in Denver, the former Borders in Northglenn for judo, the Tattered Cover for history, Barnes and Noble for obscure French books; in Paris, Gibert Jeune for theoretical semantics, Attika for bilingual French/English novels, and Gibert Joseph for cheese, kids’ books, and general linguistics). This makes me a super-boring person to visit a new city–or a new bookstore–with, but I love the feeling of knowing a place deeply, and prefer it to knowing lots of places more shallowly.
I’d always been interested in an in-depth exploration of the cafes of Paris, but had trouble finding a good, and preferably literary, guide to them. Then today I read a chapter in John Baxter’s Five nights in Paris: After dark in the City of Lights on just that topic. Baxter starts by debunking the myth that Parisian writers work in cafes. He says that Hemingway was the last writer of importance to actually write in cafes in Paris. He also, however, quotes a friend as saying that only one of her writer friends still writes in a Parisian cafe. There’s a clear inference from this: writing in Paris cafes has certainly been popular, and people still do it. I will even confess to having spent a pleasant afternoon or two sitting on the terrasse of a Paris cafe working on a (not very interesting, unfortunately) book myself. He lists a number of cafes frequented by writers, musicians, or other folks of interest; I’ll round it out a bit with material from Graham Robb’s Parisians: An adventure history of Paris.
- Cafe Procope: I’ve heard different stories as to whether this was the first cafe in Paris, or the first successful cafe in Paris. Graham Robb describes the original offerings: coffee and sherberts. Habitués over the years have included Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, Thomas Jefferson, and Léon Gambetta. 6th arrondissement, which I think is not its original location, but I haven’t been able to verify that.
- Les Deux Magots: one of the most famous cafes in Paris. It was opened in 1885 in the former location of a silk store. According to the Paris-Bistro.com web site, the name comes from the two magot, or seated Oriental figurines, that are mounted on the wall and are the last vestiges of the silk shop. Expect to pay about double the cost of a coffee or beer anywhere else in town for the privilege of hanging out in the same place as Rimbaud, Mallarmé, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Bertolt Brecht, once did (list from Wikipedia and the Paris-Bistro.com web site). I was really surprised at how small it was on the inside–it’s easy to imagine the air choking with cigarette smoke and the smell of espresso. 6th arrondissement.
- Cafe Flore: right up there with Les Deux Magots in the fame department, and still popular. Like Les Deux Magots, it was built in the 1880s. Habitués have included Pablo Picasso and Zhou Enlai. Adam Gopnik‘s essay A tale of two cafes (reprinted in his Paris to the Moon, which I can’t recommend highly enough–my favorite book about Paris) contains a variety of wildly speculative explanations for why Les Deux Magots stopped being the cool place to be while the Flore remained popular; all or none of them may be true. 6th arrondissement.
- Cafe Beaubourg: Edmund White hung out here. As Baxter relates, and White himself says in his memoir Inside a Pearl: My years in Paris, part of the attraction was walking by the air intake of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique afterwards, so that his dog could poop in it–a dispute over being refused an interview. 4th arrondissement, in the Marais.
- La Closerie des Lilas: Hemingway liked to write here. Other habitués have included Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Gide, Paul Éluard, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Man Ray, Ezra Pound (list from French Wikipedia page). 6th arrondissement.
- Café Fleurus: I haven’t been able to find much in the way of information about this one, but it appears that Gertrude Stein lived right up the street, at 27 rue de Fleurus. 14th arrondissement.
- Wepler: This was a favorite of Henry Miller. The character Joey in Miller’s book Quiet Days in Clichy has a relationship with a prostitute that he meets there. 18th arrondissement.
- Tournon: This was a favorite of post-war African-American expats in Paris, as well as the early male-female transsexual April Ashley. 6th arrondissement.
As Baxter points out, these days Paris cafes are about food as least as much as coffee, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating at any of these. A number of the cafes that I’ve listed are in the 6th arrondissement. If a cafe tour takes you there, I would recommend that you eat at Au Pied de Fouet. This is an island of affordable meals in the midst of a sea of super-overpriced places, and the food is some of my favorite stuff in Paris, particularly for French stuff (yes, Paris has a bazillion great restaurants serving things other than French food).
For a Zipf’s Law connection, let’s look at the vocabulary items that appear in some of the cafe names:
- le magot: hoard or booty; Barbary ape; statue of a seated Oriental person.
- la closerie: a small fenced-in field; a house in an enclosed grounds.
- lila: I think it means “lilac,” but strangely, I can’t verify that.
Do you have a cafe to add to my list? How about mentioning it in the Comments? I’ve focused here on cafes with some literary history; you can find a list of other cafes here. Some of them look pretty interesting.