It’s not the coffee culture of Paris that I was enchanted by, it’s the cafe culture. And they are two different things.
I leaned heavily on David Lebovitz and his blog to guide me through Paris. After all, he was the pastry chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. In my book, that’s a pretty good indication that we would see eye-to-eye on what it means for food to be good.
Anyhow, he had a list of places to go in Paris to actually get good coffee. I got to swing by two of them, and they were a pleasure. David also warned about the state of coffee around much of Paris. Like Manhattan, despite the presence of some truly great places, there’s a lot of thin and bitter swill.
But the cafes of Paris themselves are utterly charming. These are different from the coffee shops. Yes, you can get coffee in one of these cafes, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. And I think it’s telling that they are more omnipresent there than fast food restaurants are here.
Let me tell you a bit about the love affair.
My first encounter with one of these establishments was on the first night of my recent vacation. I had just enjoyed a fine evening repast of wine, cheese, bread and butter with Mrs. Fussy up in the hotel room. As she prepared for her big talk the next day, I ventured forth into the night.
What I really wanted was an absinthe. But I hadn’t done any research, the internet in the hotel was wonky, and my trusty sidekick (the iPhone) was just about useless. So relying on on my wits alone, I went out in search of a remedy for my overindulgence.
I passed multiple establishments that all looked the same. They all had similar bistro chairs pushed as close together as humanly possible, with every two chairs sharing one small round table.
Les Deux Magots is a famous example of such a place. Almost right next door is the lesser known Le Bonaparte. Something about Le Bonaparte spoke to me. Maybe it was the warm red tones of the place. Maybe it was that it was tucked away a bit off the Boulevard. Or maybe it was just that I noticed a corner table was available for the taking.
Anyhow, I came in from the cold, and sat down at that corner table table in the enclosed patio. Above me was a heat lamp that not only took the chill out of the air but made this table abundantly cozy. The waiter came, and while there wasn’t any absinthe they did stock pastis. It would do the trick.
With my long, tall glass of cloudy anise spirits, I sat with my thoughts.
But I also had a pen and paper and started writing some of them down longhand. Across from me a young fellow was sipping wine as he read a novel. Next to me a couple was smoking and poring over a map of the city, planning out their next day of sightseeing. Outside the cafe the cobblestone streets were wet from the rain earlier and sparkled with the reflected lights hung from the trees in front of the adjacent church.
Perhaps my favorite part of the entire cafe experience though was that there were no expectations.
While the cafe serves food, I wasn’t expected to order a meal. When I finished my drink, I wasn’t expected to order another. When I paid the bill, I wasn’t even expected to leave. For the price of a cup of coffee, it would seem that one could sit and hang out in the cafe for hours. And I loved that.
I also loved that they had everything you might want: coffee, wine, spirits, cocktails, food, and dessert. It wouldn’t surprise me if they sold cigarettes too. What did surprise me, though, was that I didn’t see anyone working from their laptops. People were actually talking to each other. How weird. Awesome, but totally different from the modern American cafe experience.
Over the course of the trip I would return to Le Bonaparte for another equally satisfying pastis. I popped into a cafe in Montmarte for a cafe noisette while I got my bearings on Monday and figured out my agenda for the rest of the day. Mrs. Fussy and I visited another cafe on the Rue de Siene to recharge after our massive walk before we could even begin to contemplate dinner.
Each cafe visit was a delight. Not because the drinks were especially good. No. It’s just fantastic to have a place to sit and watch the world go by. No rush. No pressure. Where you can be surrounded by warmth and comfort, and served by gracious waiters.
In some ways it makes me think about what Vic and Heather had in mind for their wine bar in Troy. Dammit, I still haven’t been there yet. I have to make that a priority and see if they’ve been able to execute their vision. Because it sounds like just what I’m looking for.