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Vous avez du feu? (Got a light?) Non? Well, you don’t have to park a cigarette between your lips or master the ultimate French pickup line to channel the atmosphere of the most classic Parisian cafés and their prized sidewalk terraces — you just need to have your camera ready. Whiling away an entire morning or afternoon in a Paris café is something the French have elevated to an art form that — with all due respect to le Starbucks — is, frankly, growing rarer and more necessary by the day. Most cafés wear multiple hats, too, being spots to nurse a café au lait, sip some pastis over ice or enjoy a meal. Our selection of these 11 are the real deal.
1. Café de Flore
Boulevard St-Germain wouldn’t be the same without it. With its vintage Art Deco interior — think mahogany, red and mirrors — the old Left Bank haunt of Jean-Paul (“Hell is other people!”) Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is the most quintessential of classic Parisian cafés. The Flore is so thick with atmosphere, it turns up periodically in French pop songs and though the days of lighting up in a blond smoke are long gone, Flore mornings are still made for oeufs sur le plat (fried eggs) and bacon, winter afternoons for a hot grog — rum, tea and lemon wedges — and mais oui, wonderful café au lait en tout temps. 172 Boulevard St-Germain.
2. Café Les Deux Magots
Pablo Picasso sightings are a thing of the past — so what? You’re still going to find ambience in spades at this prototypical, erstwhile intellectual Saint-Germain-des-Prés café where even the likes of Oscar Wilde and Arthur Rimbaud used to hang out. Though the people-watching may be less brilliant than back in its literary heyday, this is still the Rive Gauche terrace to beat. As for the name, it comes from a pair of statues of Chinese traders perched on the center pillars inside. 6 Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
3. Le Select
Tan walls, kitschy ceiling molding, brown banquettes and globe lighting fixtures: This 1923 café is the real deal. It figures prominently in Ernest Hemingway’s classic of expat life, The Sun Also Rises, and indeed it was a haunt of Hem as well as Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald and neighborhood denizens like Kiki de Montparnasse. This is not the kind of place where you ask for a Unicorn Frappuccino — no disrespect to Starbucks intended — the place is already mythic. 99 Boulevard du Montparnasse.
4. La Coupole
Across the Boulevard du Montparnasse from Le Select, this one is equally iconic but bigger and more overtly artsy. Its 33 interior pillars and pilasters were painted by Montparnasse artists ahead of the café-brasserie’s opening back in 1927. The two center pilasters on the back wall sport striking images of a gentleman with a monocle and top hat and a black rat dancing on a flutist’s head, respectively. All this illustration is set amid red velvet booths under jazz-age chandeliers, coupled with reliably tasty French dishes, so it’s no wonder La Coupole is always ready for its close-up. 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse.
One of the best and most beautiful brasserie I’ve ever eaten can’t wait to go there. Did u know the most famous artists, painters and many others came to La Coupole like Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. If you are in Paris this is a must. – – – – – #french #frenchvibes #france #explorefrance #explorefood #foodie #food #foodstagram #chef #chefs #cheflife #chefsroll #chefsteps #chefstalk #chefslife #chefsofinstagram #brasserie #lacoupole #brasserielacoupole #paris
5. Café de la Paix
Rendezvous at the Café de la Paix? You could do far worse than a light meal or libation at this stalwart. Although it’s been much gussied up since the days of Guy de Maupassant and André Gide, dropping in retains its old Parisian allure. There are green-and-white striped umbrellas outside and airy interiors that keep the whoosh of traffic at bay— people-watching is prime in both areas. The food is very good, too: No wonder Charles de Gaulle ordered a takeout plate from here on August 25, 1944 — the first, they say, in liberated Paris. 5 Place de l’Opéra.
6. Café Beaubourg
Not particularly historic, but, oh, does it have the vibe: From the famous terrasse of this contemporary classic you can see all who pass by the Pompidou Center. In chillier weather, the soaring interior of architect Christian de Portzamparc provides suitably dramatic succor. So grab a copy of Le Monde and a glass of wine, and be happy you’re in Paris. 43 Rue Saint-Merri.
7. Café Le Zimmer
It’s hard not to love a café built in 1896, but refurbished by Jacques Garcia with lots of red velvet and fringe. The food is great and the location, next to the Théâtre du Châtelet, makes it a plush people-watching perch par excellence. Once, spotting Jean-Paul Gaultier at a table here, I committed the ultimate faux pas by walking up to him and saying hello — but the fashion icon was exceedingly polite and my waiter actually didn’t toss me out on my ear. Paris, je t’aime! 1 Place du Châtelet.
8. Au Petit Fer à Cheval
If I’m going to be unapologetically subjective about this one, it’s because it’s in the Marais, the stunning neighborhood I called home for three years. There’s nothing overtly spectacular about this resto-café that is named for its 1903 marble-topped horseshoe-shaped bar, but the bar is kind of fantastic, the coffee and food are good and one of the booths is an old wooden seat from the métro. Man, I hate you, Instagram. You really make me miss this place. 30 Rue Vielle du Temple.
9. Café des Deux Moulins
You don’t have to love Montmartre and its steep, touristy slopes, but there’s no denying its charm. That extends to certain cafés, like this one, which rocks a 1950s vibe and whose name checks the two iconic nearby windmills, the Moulin de la Galette and the Moulin Rouge. But it’s the café’s role in the fanciful 2001 rom-com Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain that really put it on the map. 15 Rue Lepic.
10. La Palette
La Palette is not really a café the same way a Ferrari is not really a car. The old Left Bank spot is so profoundly Parisian that I can’t think of it without at least one tear forming. Yes, those are real artists’ palettes affixed to the walls, most dating back to the 1920s. The 1981 James Ivory film Quartet, starring Maggie Smith and Isabelle Adjani, was partly filmed here, but every moment feels cinematic and Sunday brunch on the terrace is simply sublime. 43 Rue de Seine.
Could any list of the most Instagrammable cafés be complete sans mention of the Champs-Élysées? This celebrated café-restaurant opened in 1899 and has attracted showbiz A-listers ever since; indeed, nominees for the Césars are selected in the banquet room every March. You can enjoy classic French fare — the kitchen turns out a mean mackerel in white wine and heavenly hachis parmentier, or French mashed potatoes with beef and spices — but you can also do well with an aperitif enjoyed on the terasse, with its iconic red awning at the corner of Avenue George-V and the Champs. And, psst! The “t” and “s” in Fouquet’s aren’t silent. 99 Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
What are some of your favorite cafés in Paris? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image by Venturelli/Getty Images for Bulgari.
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