Travel: The Great Cafes of Paris

Though times have changed on the old boulevards, the moveable feast continues

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After we got married, one spring afternoon in Paris, we wandered dazedly across the Place St. Sulpice, past the baroque fountain where the four stone bishops stand guard, and ordered a bottle of Moet & Chandon at the Cafe de la Mairie. Since that all happened exactly 40 years ago, it seemed a good time to return to Paris (When is it not a good time to return to Paris?) to inspect some of the cafes where we had spent much of our youth.

Indeed, one can recall not only one's own past but that of all Paris through its cafes. Both Robespierre and Lenin plotted revolution in Paris cafes; Hemingway and Joyce wrote in cafes; impressionism has been described by historian Roger Shattuck as "the first artistic movement entirely organized in cafes." Parisian cafes are not just places that serve food and drink but places to meet friends and talk and work and make deals and read the papers and watch life passing by.

These grand institutions began during the 17th century with the spread all over Europe of the Arab taste for coffee. The oldest cafe in Paris is the Procope, which has been operating on the Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie ever since 1686. The Procope was nearly a century old when it claimed Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire among its customers. Later came the revolutionaries, Robespierre, Danton, Marat and even Napoleon.

The Procope was refurbished with a vengeance in 1988 -- Pompeian red walls, l8th century oval portraits, crystal chandeliers, flintlock pistols and, for the waiters, quasi-revolutionary uniforms. Also a tinkly piano. If that all seems something that even Napoleon might call de trop, the food is generally good (Michelin recommends it), and the oysters are a joy.

Most of the old Montmartre cafes where Manet and Renoir once held court have long since given way to appliance stores and garages, but the artistic oases of the Left Bank have remained hospitable. Montparnasse reached its height during the 1920s, when Hemingway used to sit and write stories in the Closerie des Lilas, which had been a lilac-shaded country tavern during the 17th century. Hemingway complained bitterly when the management tried to attract a younger clientele by tarting up the bar and ordering all the waiters to shave off their mustaches. The Closerie is once again cozily moribund, and Hemingway, like the friendly red lampshades, has become part of the decor: a brass plate on the bar marks his presence, and his face ornaments the menu, which includes a rumsteak au poivre Hemingway.

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