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The Literary Cafes of Paris Welcome You!

Once upon a nineteenth century, the urban cafe was the place to be. Business, love, the business of love, and affairs of commerce took place in cafes, in full view of the world,  steps from the street.  Many of the cafes are enclosed now with a sound-proof glass between the cafe sitter and the exhaust fumes and passers-by. But inside, with a strong dose of imagination and a sense of history, the Parisian literary cafe mood stews the same scene.

You can sit where the greats once sipped, but to find where tomorrow’s ecrivans are penning, you have to plunge deep into la vie Boheme. Sometimes you’ll find a grimey smoke filled cafe just around the corner from the preserved banquettes that held the shanks of Fitzgerald, Miller, Nin, Flanner, Liebling or Sartre. Sometimes you’ll see a tweedy type with Hemingway’s bulk is still there, as I saw upstairs at Cafe de Flore, editing galley proofs with a fountain pen and sipping whiskey.

Interior of Le Train Bleu Restaurant
at Gare de Lyon.

During the cocktail hour at Le Train Bleu a gloriously guilt-free gilded expanse in the Gare de Lyon (20 Blvd Diderot),  people pose for each other killing time before a train departs, while covertly eyeing who is coming and going. A Japanese man dressed in a cape and suede boots converses intensely with a companion, a trio of German women dieted to fit their thigh-hugging cigarette pants tea and compare the day’s shopping victories. A Marlboro man in leather studies stocks or sports on an iPad.

Brasserie Lipp 1930s

Across town on the Left Bank, the neon and colored tubular glass signs of Brasserie Lipp advertise with jittery color. Just opposite Lipp is the Cafe de Flor, a good place to watch the passing scene sitting behind the broad glass windows.

Upstairs at Cafe Flore, away from the cafe society, a writer in tweeds sits alone and

Cafe de Flore

makes notations on book galleys with a fountain pen. He’s a throwback to the time when political writers crafted manifestos and experimental litterateurs scribbled their thoughts. To the time when Picasso doodled on matchbooks and Sartre confided his quest for a new lover to the understanding ear of Simone de Beauvoir. Cafe Flore’s menu includes sandwiches, snacks, omelettes and salads, some breakfast items, pastries and ice cream, and of course a variety of beverages, from cafe creme to a bottle of Dom Perignon.

Down at Harry’s New York Bar, sank rue Daw-Noo, (5 rue Daunou) it dosen’t take too long a leap of imagination to transform the hunched hacks at the bar into latterday Hemingways, Janet Flanners or Ben Bradlees — journalists and editors serving time in the trenches of Paris.  Pity them not.

Harry’s Bar has been a hangout for Americans in Paris for nearly a century, a place where they could feel at home, stop for a moment and toss back a bourbon or a brew.

I got there around three in the afternoon, after lunch, before the commuter crowd. Inside the curtain that screens the street, a shade of gold suffuses the room, the gold of money and wood aged by many seasons of cigarette smoke and whiskey breath. Harry’s is a bar where men can be men and women can hunt them. A long legged habitue scans the want ads in the Herald Tribune.  She could read it digitally, but where’s the atmosphere and fun in that?

At the opposite end of the limites of the downtown core is picture-perfect Place des Vosges. Said to be the oldest square in Paris, it has been restored and claimed by upscale designers. The wind is cut by the well proportioned houses that line the sides of the square. A secondary line of tended trees muffles noise froum outside the compound. Inside the square the visual range spells sophisticated life, and the calm is all encompassing.

Dozens of famous and extraordinary people have lived here. Madame de Sevigne, a writer and literary figure, was born in one house on the square. The houses on the square perimeter were residences of famous moneyed Parisians of the last century.  Victor Hugo’s house is diagonally across from Ma Bourgogne restaurant where steak and fries are menu staples.  Open every day from 8 in the morning to 1 a.m. the next morning, this is a restaurant that aims to please local sensibilities and visitors from around the planet. By 2 p.m. on a Sunday, French couples are already into their second luncheon course. Writers and students sit outside nursing a pot of tea and reading in the pale winter light reflected in the bleached red brick.

Hotel Sully

Hotel Sully, a grand historic mansion, anchors one corner of Place de Vogues. Vaulted passages around the square shelter galleries, offices and ateliers of famous designers.

Le Procope Restaurant

The oldest surviving and active cafe in Paris is Le Procope (13 rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie).  The tracks of time and re-decoration may have made the restaurant-cafe more polished and slick than when Benjamin Franklin hung out there with his liberty-loving friends.

The cafe is still a place to pause and contemplate the world gone by, to write about it or just stare at the passing scene. People also pass time sitting in cafes to be seen, to feel part of the background life of a city, no longer a tourist or visitor.  The ticket for a seat at the edge of the world’s stage with a front row view costs only the price of a decently pulled espresso.

Address Book:

Le Train Bleu, inside Gare de Lyon, 20 Blvd. Diderot, Metro: Gare de Lyon.

Harry’s New York Bar, 5 rue Daunou, Metro: Opera.

Ma Bourgogne, 19 Place des Vosges, Metro: St. Paul.

Cafe de Flore, 172 Blvd. St. Germain, Metro: St. Germain-des-Pres.

Brasserie Lipp, 151 Blvd. St. Germain, Metro: St.Germain-des-Pres.

Le Procope, 13 rue de l’Ancienne-Comedie,  Metro: Odeon.