The 10 best parisian literary cafés to visit. A journey through good food and ancient suggestions.
If the French, as Henry James believed, have excelled in the art of living – what they call l’entente de la vie – one of the most visible manifestation of this art is the café. Here one can sit in peace for hours, not hassled by impatient waiters or waiting costumers. Here one can read and write in the morning, conduct business in the afternoon, and stay with friends at night. In summary cafés are absolutely central in the life of any french and, most of all, of any Parisian. Something like ‘tell me which café you go to and I’ll tell you who you are’.
Part of the pleasure and excitement of café life lies in the bright colors, the play of life and the fusion of smells. Thomas Wolfe, in Of Time and the River describes the corrupt and sensual, subtle and obscene intoxication of smells in Parisian cafés. He bought the mélange could be described as a compact of the smell of costly perfumes, of wine, beer, brandy, and of the acrid and nostalgic fumes of French tobacco, of roasted chestnuts, black French coffee, mysterious liquors of a hundred brilliant and intoxicating colors and the luxurious flash of scented woman.
From the great illuminists to Simone de Beauvoir, from Ernest Hemingway to Apollinaire, from Leòn Paul Fargue to Sartre: these have all been some of the many literary people who attended frequently Parisian cafés. After all Paris has always been the mecca for any artist or literary men looking for fortune. And almost every French or expatriate writer and artist serves an apprenticeship in one Paris café or another. The café indeed served to them as an office, a place to host friends, to eat, to write, to think and observe life. And, last but not least, to have an heated room for an entire day at the cheap price of a black coffee.
The Italian Eye made a journey through the 10 most beautiful and symbolic Parisian literary cafés. Where you can still feel the scent of art and literature. And where, while enjoying a fantastic Croque Monsieur, you could be sitting on the chair where James Joyce wrote a part of his iconic Ulysses. Here the list of the best Parisian literary cafés.
LE DOME CAFE
08 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75014, Paris. Tel. +33 1 43 35 25 81
Les cafés crèmes du matin,
Montparnasse, le Café du Dôme,
Les faubourgs, le Quartier latin,
Les Tuileries et la Place Vendôme
Edith Piaf, in her songs, mentions also Café du Dome, where she often used to go to. This place, founded in 1897 has seen History to pass through its tables. During WWI its patrons included Lenin, Trotsky, Picasso, Modigliani and Lithuanian painter Charles Soutine. By the ’20s American and Swedes had joined the Russians and the Spanish expatriates to make this the major cheap drinking spot of the Left Bank.
It was also an informal renting service and loan office. An assembly point for parties. A place for magazine editors to look for contributors (and vice versa). And zoo for tourist in search of celebrities. Careers were made and broken at the tables of the Dome, where a boastful Sinclair Lewis, flushed with the success of Main Street, was told ‘Sit down. You are just a best seller!’. Since its last renovation in 1986 The Dome, still serving as café, has also become one of the best fish restaurant of the Left Bank. With a Bouillabaisse that is worth itself the visit.
CAFE DE LA MAIRIE
08 Place St. Sulpice, 75014, Paris. Tel. +33 1 43 26 67 82
Located in front of the marvelous St. Sulpice cathedral, in the namesake square, this café opened during the 20’s. It immediately became the place to meet for many literary man and artists, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Henry Miller and Saul Bellow. The place itself is very simple but charming and from the terrace you might admire the view of one of the best Parisian spots. The delicious cheese omelette is something absolutely to order.
43 Rue de Seine, 75006 Paris. Tel. +33 1 43 26 68 15
La Palette is voted every year the ‘best outdoor café’ in Paris by Le Figaro newspaper. It’s because its ambience and surroundings, the ‘beer, le Beaux Arts and dependable service with a snarl‘. Because L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts is just round the corner and up the street, this café has been visited since 1900 by every artist, great or unknown, who has ever sought fame in Paris. La Palette is probably the stylistic summa of the imagination’s Parisian café. In fact the dark boiserie, the colorful tiles, the pictures hanging on the walls and decorations fin de siècle give to this café a terribly charming patina.
Among its former patrons La Palette can claim Ernest Hemingway, Sartre, Alfred Jerry, André Salomon, Jacques Prévert and many other writers and philosophers that used to stay in the neighboring Hotel La Louisiane. La Palette has a flowered terrace where, during the good season, costumers can relax while having a café creme surrounded by green trees, in one of the most enchanting neighborhoods of the VI arrondissement. The specialty of the bistro are the platters of cold cuts and cheeses, absolutely to taste.
13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, 75006 Paris. Tel +33 1 40 46 79 00
When Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, the French Assembly went into mourning for three days. And the Procope was draped in black in honor of one its patrons and France’s favorite American. The café, which opened in 1686, was the birth place of the 18th century of the rationalist Encyclopédie, conceived during a conversation between Diderot and D’Alembert. These men, as well as Voltaire, Rousseau and Beaumarchais met here frequently. Danton and Marat used to meet here during the revolution. In the XIX century Le Procope was patronized by Hugo, Musset, George Sand, Balzac, Gautier, Verlaine, Zola, Maupassant and Zola. When Procope opened its door in 1988, after a complete renovation, it was full of reminders of its coffeehouse origins. Even if it looks a bit like a fake 18th century living room, the visiting clientele today seems happy and the large chrome marble oyster bar promises fresh fish.
105 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris, Tel. +33 1 43 26 48 26
Natural and historical opponent of the vis-a-vis Café du Dome, La Rotonde opened in 1911 and immediately attracted a big slice of the Montparnasse literary an philosophical world. During the ’10s and the ’20s grand painters such as Picasso, Derain, Vlaminick, Salmon, Jacob, Modigliani and Kisling used to attend La Rotonde, as well as Russian expats Lenin and Trotsky that, sitting at the tables of this café, theorized the assumptions of the revolution.
La Rotonde was at that time also known for the rudeness of its waiters: Peggy Guggenheim, Malcom Cowley, Luis Aragon and Lawrence Vail submitted various complains to the owner. This rudeness made the fortune of the close café du Dome that attracted all the artists and writers that stopped to go to La Rotonde for this reason. Nowadays obviously things changed and the Rotonde is a good bar and bistro where to stop for lunch and dinner or where to waist time with a coffee in the morning. And the spacious terrace has one of the most enviable positions in Paris because it’s sun lighted all day long .
51 Quai des Grands Augustins, 75006 Paris. Tel. +33 1 43 26 68 04
If you want to see what a good restaurant of 150 years ago looked like, go to Lapérouse. After dark chandeliers illuminate the upper two floors which are honey-combed with private rooms. The river bank affords an excellent view of this attractive spectacle. This café, with its dark boiserie, its gilded details and its ancient paintings is a Belle Epoque milestone, with an overwhelming atmosphere. The restaurant, founded in the second half of XIX century, became famous at the end of the century when it entered in the Parisian high end restaurants elite. Among its patrons there were Dumas, Hugo, Maupassant, Thackeray, Robert Louis Stevenson.
The restaurant is very expansive but the quality of food and the ambience are worth the price. A cheaper alternative could be to have a café or a drink at the bar downstairs.
CAFE DES DEUX MAGOTS
6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés, 75006 Paris. Tel. +33 1 45 48 55 25
Definitely the most renowned café of our review, the Café des Deux-Magots was established in 1875. It became very soon a hugely attractive place because of its lovely position. It overlooks the central square of St-Germaine-des-Pres and faces the old and beautiful church in its center. The menu says ‘ Rendez-vous de l’élite intellectuelle‘ (intellectual elite hangout) that, even if it’s written to justify the high prices, is kind of true. Among the pioneers of the Deux-Magots we find, at the end of XIX century, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud. Oscar Wilde used to have lunch here every day during his last year of life. And during the ’10s André Breton, Soupault and Luis Aragon wrote here the Surrealist Manifesto.
The meeting, the quarrels, the speeches and the events that have happened among the tables of café des Deux-Magots could fill an entire book. The Cafè became also, from the ’20s, the favorite hangout of Parisian good society. Nowadays the café is a bit touristic and many Parisians ‘prefer the close Café des Flores or the Brasserie Lipp, on the other side of the street. We equally recommend the Café des Deux-Magots because of its position and because the Croque Monsieur is the best in town.
19 Place des Vosges, 75004 Paris. Tel. +33 1 42 78 44 64
Here at the corner of Place des Voges, one of the oldest square in Paris, and Rue des Franc Bourgeois is the best and busiest café in the Marais – the quarter where from the 15th to the 18th centuries the aristocracy of paris lived. Here, under the historic arches of the square, you can have a drink with local residents and the 17th-century ghosts of those who dueled in the square. You will be drinking with Inspector Maigret of George Simenon’s detective story who stops here regularly. The café provides good specialties from Bourgogne region but you can stop here just to have a glass of wine while admiring the (probably) most beautiful square in Paris.
28 Rue Saint-Benoît, 75006 Paris. Tel. +33 1 53 63 79 20
Le Montana, rated frequently the best bar in Paris by a local magazine, has long been a private little place just off the Boulevard St-Germain. It is also a jazz club and dining place. Above it there is an hotel by the same name frequented by dozens of writers in this century. During the postwar decade Sartre used to escape to this bar from the tourists or hangers-on at the Sélect, his usual bar. Beauvoir said they often went for drinks to the smoking little red inferno of the Montana with various friends. Filmmakers Goddard, Resnais, Truffaut and Vian argued film philosophy here in the bar. Nowadays Le Montana is a bar with a downstairs disco club that is one of the trendiest places in Paris and where is incredibly hard to get in because of the door selection.
CREMERIE RESTAURANT POLIDOR
41 Rue Monsieur le Prince, 75006 Paris. Tel. +33 1 43 26 95 34
The Cremerie Polidor, conveniently located just off the Sorbonne University, has been, since its opening in 1845, the best and cheapest place to go to for students and bohemians looking for economic menus. This allowed Polidor to attract many artist that, during dry spells, used to come here for the low cost BOF menu (butter, eggs and cheese). Among the patrons of Polidor we find James Joyce, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Max Ernst. Woody Allen chose this place, that rather changed from the time of its settlement, to shoot some scenes of his renowned movie ‘Midnight in Paris’. Nowadays Polidor still attracts a young and bohemian clientele because prices, in spite of the fame it reached, are still low. The home made tarte tatin is a must for everybody passing by.
Words by Federico Sigali