Paris cafes? Party? Disco? You must be wondering what I've been smoking! Lol Sorry, I just could not get that song from the Talking Heads out of my head! So, carrying on... Cafes have always served an essential social function in Parisian life. They’ve been around for centuries in one form or another and used to be found virtually on every street corner.
The oldest cafe on record, Le Procope in the 5th arrondissement was founded in 1686, twenty years after a tonic beverage called café (coffee) was introduced. Sicilian Francesco Procopio Dei Coltelli decided to open a place where it could be savored. Over time, Le Procope drew illustrious patrons including Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Benjamin Franklin, and French revolution icons, Robespierre and Marat.
Paris cafes are a meeting place, neighborhood hub, conversation matrix, the rendez-vous spot, networking source, a place to relax or to refuel, the social and political pulse of the city; Some Paris cafes are really a home away from home for a built-in clientele of people who all know one another, or of one another.
More so in the old days than today, this was a business handed down from generation to generation. But it is still by en large the norm. The café business sometimes doubles as a “bureau de tabac”, a sidekick tobacco shop that can sell you everything from metro tickets to prepaid phone cards.
Some of the newer cafes enable you to connect to the internet while you enjoy some coffee and a tasty snack. There are some great gambling games on Casino.org to keep you entertained while you rest from the hustle of the city, or test how many hands you can win playing blackjack in an hour.
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In the 2001 popular French movie Amélie, you get a satirical glance of the fabric of social links and interactions at play in typical neighborhood Paris cafes.
Whether you live in a cramped apartment and need to get outside to preserve your sanity, or you’re just hungry for some human contact, Paris cafes have always been the solution to all that ails you.
The loss in stature that Paris cafes seemed to have suffered for a while has now given way to a new appreciation, a sort of revival of the significance of these icons of Paris life.
Although international fast food chains have made their permanent mark on the Paris landscape, and while fewer in numbers than ever before, Paris cafes are re-establishing the weight of their rich tradition and making a stand for what they are and what are they are not.
Here, you may get a quick snack on the run, but you will sit down and have it properly served to you. The food may not aim to compete with bona fide gourmet restaurants, but as someone once asked, “is there really such a thing as a bad meal in Paris?” Just seek and you will find…
Typical Paris cafes are not “coffee shops”. Paris Cafes generally come with a complete kitchen offering a restaurant menu with meals for any time of the day, a full bar and even a wine selection.
And what of that little distinction that cafés were in fact named for the French word for coffee? Well, the coffee is not necessarily always of gourmet quality, or with the dizzying variety found in the Starbucks of the world. It is usually adequate, occasionally excellent; But one cannot argue with the fact that a cup of coffee at Paris cafes is the cheapest conceivable way of paying for a prime spot to sit undisturbed for a couple of hours, and delightfully watch the world go by. That’s the Parisian way.
Thus, in that mere capacity, some of them have gained fame and notoriety. Here’s my list of some of the most recognizable names among Paris cafes, but keep in mind that there are wonderful cafés all over the city of Paris.
Café de la Paix
A huge name among classic Paris cafes and a throwback from a time of high society elegance. Today’s world marches to a different drum and Café de la Paix no longer carries the scepter it once did, but it is still a prominent spot, most celebrated in part thanks to its proximity to the landmark Opera Garnier. The two were in fact designed by the same architect, Charles Garnier, and share the same past grandeur, style and flair.
A sophisticated, modern twist in the Paris cafes world, courtesy of the famed Costes brothers who are responsible for the Hotel Costes and Café Costes buzz-worthy name brands. Café Beaubourg is known for its chic, hip clientele, its minimalist contemporary décor and furnishings, and the same atmosphere and music offerings the Costes brothers and international DJ Stephane Pompougnac have concocted for Paris over the past decade.
Les Deux Magots
Café de Flore
With Les Deux Magots being arguably Paris most famous café, these two side-by-side rival cafés are renowned for the stellar clientele that used to frequent them in the early part of the 20th Century; Names like Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, just to name a few. This was a notorious era in the modern evolution of Paris as a haven for artists and intellectuals and these were their choice Paris cafes.
Café des Phares
Café Le Bastille
These two cafés share not only the prominent location of the Place de la Bastille and all the historical reverence attached to this Parisian cornerstone site, they were also linked to a sort of renaissance movement in Paris cafes known as the Philocafés. These are spots where people would meet as a club, and whose purpose was to philosophize, almost in ways reminiscent of the art and intellectual movement of the early 20th Century. If not in actual potency, they definitely hit a chord with nostalgia. The two bustling cafés have seen it all and probably roll right along with an amused grin.
After a devastating fire over 3 decades ago, the destroyed building was redesigned in glass, into a stylish, post-modern, grand version of the American drugstore, hence part of the name. But in fitting Champs Elysées fashion, Drugstore Publicis was made to be so much more...
It includes a chic trendy café, movie theatres, restaurants, a gourmet food shop and delicatessen, a select gift shop, an international tobacco shop and magazine stand, a bookstore that offers English language books, a cosmetics space, a French-style pharmacy store, a radio broadcast studio, an international wine cellar with weekly free wine tasting, etc… You get the idea. This place moves! My first year of university many moons ago, this is where I used to set-up rendez-vous’ to impress the girls with my worldliness! Lol…
You may need a bit of time to take it all in, but this definitely qualifies as a must-do on one of your Champs Elysées outings.
Since February 28th 1980, date of the first Césars, the French Equivalent to the Oscars, the ceremony ends with an official dinner at this iconic Champs Elysées café-brasserie. In fact, the establishment honors lucky winners with its own film and literature award. Founded in 1899 by Louis Fouquet, I’m not sure whether the founder envisioned that his creation within steps of the awe-inspiring Place de l’Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe would one day attract the likes of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, but it did and continues to thrive today. It has reportedly now joined the official list of Paris historical monuments. On a regular day, you will get to enjoy it for its fine dining or simply as a casual-chic Champs Elysées favorite hangout. French movie star Gérard Depardieu won't be one to disagree, based on his renowned 3 or 4-hour meals in this revered eatery.
This is another one of the string of elegant Champs Elysées cafés that you have seen on postcards time and time again. Well, this is not the most celebrated avenue in the world without a reason. The convergence and concentration of this type of establishment is no accident either. The outdoor terrace of Le Deauville and that of some of the other cafés on the avenue have perfected a style that’s very distinctive of the Champs Elysées cafés, as they advance well into the extra-wide sidewalk with tables, chairs and colorful parasols or a canopy. They can accommodate large crowds that delightfully sit out, enjoy their time and watch Paris move.
Café Le Paris
Yes, I know… Yet another famous café that animates the Champs Elysées scene, Le Paris is known for its more “neighborly” feel cultivated between the staff and a local area clientele, making it a more close-knit group. That is in contrast to the other nearby cafés where there may be a little less familiarity between the crew and patrons just passing through. This probably has more significance to the local patrons than it would to occasional visitors, but I suppose it’s always good to know that Le Paris aims to present a not so touristy face, which I’d say is a tall order in one of the top tourism spots in the world. In any rate, it does not fail to offer the style, décor and sidewalk terrace that are such a magnet to visitors, foreign and local alike.
You may also want to check out the iconic Brasserie Lipp, which I reviewed under my Best Paris restaurant rubric but could just as easily fall under the café/brasserie category.
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