Neighborhood Haunts, Part 2Print
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
December 7, 2016
Sooner or later, any self-respecting writer in Paris has to find herself a café. Hemingway had lots of them, none more beautiful than the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse. Jean-Paul Sartre installed himself at a window seat in the Café de Flore, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, and composed the entirety of his 864-page existential treatise, Being and Nothingness, there during the twilight of the Second World War. James Baldwin would later work upstairs, variously warming himself with coffee and cognac. The last time I tried to replicate the feat at that grand establishment—upstairs*—I found myself sitting directly across from the gorgeous film director Maiwenn, who was dining and typing furiously on her laptop. Despite its success with tourists, the place retains its authenticity. But with espressos costing € 6,80, few writers can afford to drink coffee there—let alone cognac!—for very long. That afternoon, I decided that I needed to find the Flore of my own era.
The Hotel Amour, on the Rue Navarin, has potential. The dining room is spacious, the back garden, dripping with foliage and screened and heated in the winter, is exquisite, and the menu is reasonable. The staff is good-looking and leaves you alone in the hours before and after the lunch rush. They play The Strokes, and every now and then you can spot a minor celebrity. But over the past year, I’ve found myself drifting a few blocks over to Le Pigalle, a handsomely refurbished hotel just below the eponymous place. The café is operated in a style so casual and friendly that it’s almost unbusinesslike, and you can settle in for the day. Best of all, the coffee pours for a euro per cup—a perfect writerly sum.
*Adam Gopnik’s 1996 New Yorker essay, “A Tale of Two Cafés,” which explains the seating logic at the Flore, is the best thing you will read today: “At the Flore, the fashionable people are spread out among the tables rather than concentrated in one spot or area; they occupy the place clandestinely, following the law of Inverse Natural Appeal. The terrasse of the Flore, even on a sunny and perfect day (especially on a sunny and perfect day), is off limits; the inner room, with its red moleskin banquettes, is acceptable; but by far the most O.K. place to sit is upstairs … and the banquettes are made of an ugly tan leatherette. (The law of Inverse Natural Appeal is at work: the outlawed terrasse, is, as it happens, an extraordinarily pleasant place to sit; the inner room is a very pleasant place to sit; and the upstairs room is reminiscent of the cocktail lounge of a Howard Johnson’s.)”
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.
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