“The taxi stopped in front of the Rotonde. No matter what café you ask a taxi driver to bring you to from the right bank of the river, they always take you to the Rotonde. Ten years from now it will probably be the Dome. It was near enough, anyway. I walked past the sad tables of the Rotonde to the Select. There were a few people inside, at the bar, and outside, alone, sat Harvey Stone.” Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
There are few better ways to know a city than to sit in a café and watch the passing scene. And there is no better place on earth to do it than Paris. In Paris, cafés are more than a place to have a coffee or a drink: they’re a way of life, a place to be alone or to meet friends and exchange ideas, to read or to work.
And especially during the 1920s, they were the centre of an amazing outpouring of literature and art. People like Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso and Modigliani spent their time in the cafés and bars, socializing, working and sometimes romancing.
Those writers and artists are long gone, but happily, the cafés they made famous are still there. On my recent visit to Paris, I passed them by often, and now and then I dropped in, to have a drink and think about the scenes that once took place where I was sitting.
You can do the same the next time you’re in Paris: most of the famous cafés are on the Boulevard du Montparnasse or the Boulevard Saint-Germain, clustered together within a few blocks. They’re a fine place to spend an hour in the daytime, and in the evening they’re a magical, welcoming place to take part in the night life of Paris.
Here’s a short list of some of the great literary cafés of Paris.
99 Boulevard du Montparnasse
Le Select is famous as the hangout for the characters in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Of course, the writer also frequented this classy-looking “American bar” (though there’s nothing obviously American about it). So did playwright Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett and many others, perhaps attracted by Le Select’s reputation as the first bar to stay open till the wee hours — it’s still open till 3 on Fridays and Saturdays.
I wandered into Le Select late one night, and made myself at home on one of the wicker chairs on its storied patio. I ordered a beer — though I could have chosen one of the bar’s 50 whiskeys — and when it arrived, with a complimentary bowl of olives to snack on, I took a photo, just as the waiter walked by. I expected a dirty look, but instead, he ducked out of my shot, with an apology. Obviously, Hemingway-seekers are a common sight at Le Select, though these days there are other celebrities to ogle: the website recommends “our famous roasted farm chicken in its own juice, which Scarlett Johansson loves!“
La Closerie des Lilas
171 Boulevard du Montparnasse
While Hemingway wrote about Le Select, the café where he spent the most time was La Closerie des Lilas. He liked it because it was just around the corner from his rooms over a noisy sawmill on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and because it was away from the popular cafés so he could work in peace. There he sat at his favourite tables, drinking café crème and working on his stories and novels, including The Sun Also Rises.
The café is still pretty much as Hemingway left it. The terrace where F. Scott Fitzgerald read him the manuscript of The Great Gatsby is now enclosed by a wall of shrubbery (a closerie, in the literal sense). But the comfortable interior has a brass nameplate at a spot at the bar where the writer used to sit: in fact, all the tables have a nameplate immortalizing the luminaries who used to frequent the café. The Closerie looks a bit daunting hidden behind its shrubbery, and the food is expensive, but it’s still worth at visit.
108 Boulevard du Montparnasse
Just across the street from La Rotonde and Le Select, Le Dome was the first major café in the Montparnasse district to attract the wave of writers and intellectuals that crowded into the city in the early 1900s. The list included the artists Man Ray, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso, Khalil Gibran, Ezra Pound, and of course Hemingway. In fact, the group that congregated there became known as “Domers”. In later years it attracted A-listers like Brigitte Bardot and a long procession of French presidents.
It’s said a poor artist could get a sausage and a plate of mashed potatoes for $1 at Le Dome in the café’s early days. But those days are long gone: today it’s a seafood restaurant, known as one of the best places in town to get fresh fish and oysters. It even has a Michelin star. But bring money: a seafood feast with wine can cost you a few hundred euros. The atmosphere is still vintage, though, and the walls are lined with photos of its legendary patrons.
Brasserie La Coupole
102 Boulevard du Montparnasse
Just down the street from Le Dome is a café more famous for art than literature. Of course, La Coupole had a clientele at least as famous as the others; artists and writers rubbed elbows here nightly. “Henry Miller took breakfast at the bar; Matisse sipped beer while Joyce lined up his whiskeys,” its website says. Writer Albert Camus showed off his Nobel Prize here, painter Marc Chagall celebrated his birthday, and President François Mitterrand ate his last meal at table 82.
But the real attraction at La Coupole is the room itself, a 1,000-square-metre museum of art deco with a ceiling supported by 32 pillars decorated with paintings by artists of the roaring twenties: the pillars are listed in the Registry of Historic Monuments. There’s a terrace, too, where Patti Smith once played the guitar. I walked by La Coupole several times, but never went in: what was I thinking?
Les Deux Magots
6 place Saint-Germain-des-Prés
Les Deux Magots is a Paris institution. Sitting in a prominent spot on Boulevard Saint-Germain, it looks across the street at the venerable Church of Saint-Germain-des-Près, built in 1014. Les Deux Magots played host to a panoply of famous names during its long history, including Camus, Picasso, Joyce, Bertolt Brecht and intellectuals Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote regularly at its tables. The café still presents an annual literary award, and plays host to regular literary salons.
I stopped by on a Sunday afternoon, walking past the crowd of Parisians and tourists enjoying a drink in the summer sunshine to find a spot in the covered verandah, there to watch the passing scene over a glass of red wine. Beside me, an elderly couple enjoyed their café and macarons; on the other side, a family of Japanese tourists ogled a tray of decadent-looking sweets. And out front, on the sidewalk, the life of Paris flowed by, oblivious to the history around it.
By the way, Les Deux Magots, which started life as a silk shop, is named after two Chinese statues that guarded the original shop. They still stand on a pillar inside the café: you can see a photo of them here.
Café de Flore
172 Boulevard Saint-Germain
A short walk from Les Deux Magots stands one of the oldest cafés in Paris, and one of the most influential. Café de Flore opened in 1885, at the beginning of France’s Third Republic, and during its early years two different newspapers were started and operated on the premises. It had its heyday during and after World War II, however, when French intellectuals and literary figures began to frequent the café.
Most prominent among them were de Beauvoir and Sartre, the “power couple” of 20th-century philosophy, who for a time used the Flore as their office, spending eight hours a day there, from morning to night (ironically, they went out for lunch). These days, the café still looks much the same, with its classic art deco interior, red upholstery, mahogany and mirrors. And its outdoor terrace on the tony Boulevard Saint-Germain is still a place to see and be seen.
That’s a short tour of some of the more famous literary cafés of Paris, but there are more, including La Rotonde itself, and Brasserie Lipp, the bar across from Les Deux Magots, where Marcel Proust sent orders for jugs of Alsatian beer and Hemingway later wrote dispatches for North American papers. And perhaps there are literary cafés that haven’t become famous yet, filled with the writers and artists of today.
Which brings up a question: does the literary café still exist, or is it a thing of the past, an antique like the manual typewriter? Today, creative people can hold a never-ending dialogue by text, or in chat rooms — do they need to get together at a favourite café or bar to create a community? If they do, it’s under the radar: I can’t think of a famous modern-day literary café in cities like New York or London.
In fact, with few exceptions, the star status that prominent writers once possessed seems to be a thing of the past, too. Novels still sell, but today they compete with movies and podcasts and streaming video for attention. Even the artists of the past seem to have more celebrity than those of the present.
It could be that the café crowd of Paris in the ’20s — the lost generation, as Gertrude Stein called them — was a one-time occurrence, never to be repeated in exactly the same way. If that’s true, then visiting the literary cafés of Paris is even more of a special experience. If you get the chance, here’s a map to help you find them, courtesy of the folks at Travelabulous.