July 14, 2006

Nostalgic for French cafés of yesteryear

One of the things I missed the most when I moved from Paris to Chicago in January of 1970 was the cafés. Of course I found some interesting bars in my new town and I spent hours in some of them. The Anvil on Michigan Avenue where many old reporters from the nearby Chicago Tribune told fascinating stories, Ricardo's on Rush where the bartender knew everybody by name, The London House on East Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue, where we would sip beer and have a sandwich during lunch hour while listening to Ramsey Lewis or Sonny Rollins playing live jazz music. Farther away from my office was O'Rourke's on North Avenue where the atmosphere was dark but often intense from boozy dialogues between regulars. I would listen to their conversations, but did not understand half of what they were saying. It was my way of learning the American language that I did not speak at the time. Later on, when I started to feel more comfortable speaking English, I got more involved talking with other patrons, while developing a solid taste for good bourbons. But nevertheless, in those days, except for Melvin on State Street, there were no cafes with a "terrasse" where you could sit on warm summer days, sip "pastis" (an anise flavored yellowish alcoholic drink) while reading "Le Monde" and wait for your friends to show up and sit down with you to discuss the latest French film or the political scoop of the day. Cafes in France play a very important role in your daily life. Whether or not they have a terrasse on the sidewalk, are a simple "bar-tabac" at the corner of two busy steets in a blue collar neighborhood, or a fancy two centuries-old grand cafe in Saint-Germain des Prés in the 6th arrondissement in Paris, you are sure to meet people you know there, or that you will eventually get acquainted with, starting with the "patron", the owner. When we lived on Rue de Seine near St Germain des Prés in Paris in the sixties, one of our favorite patrons of a bar-café was Monsieur Constant. He was a very short guy in his late fifties sporting a bushy gray and yellow mustache and wearing the same old uniform practically everyday: baggy corduroy pants, a tired and dirty grey flannel shirt that looked like the top of old-fashioned underwear and was always full of stains .He walked very slowly, at the rare times when he left his position behind the small real zinc covered counter, in his peasant galoshes. He had the nasty habit, twice per hour, of searching the pocket of his apron for a pinch of snuff tobacco that he extracted from an old leather pouch.He then inserted it into his nostrils and sniffed his snort noisily. But it would not stop him from continuing to serve marvelous wines from the Loire valley (he probably had the best Coteaux du Layon in Paris) in semi-clean old-fashioned small glasses that he would rapidly rinse before drying them with the same dirty cloth that he sometimes also used to wipe out debris from the counter. A few minutes later he proceeded to clean his nose again very noisily in a very large and dirty handkerchief. He had a very strong accent from his native Auvergne and rolled the r's. But he was a beauty of a human being , and some people came from the other side of Paris to drink his wines from small unknown vineyards. His cafe was not decorated, had only a couple of small table and chairs, and was lit by old gas lamps hanging down from the ceiling and one very weak electric bulb. From time to time the smell from the laundry that his wife was boiling every other month in a large tin basin in a tiny backroom behind the cafe's main room would mix with the odor of the cabbage and pork soup that she was preparing on a coal-burning stove in that same backroom. And it would be on some occasions so overpowering that you needed a strong calvados to suppress the gag reflex in your throat.

When you entered Monsieur Constant's cafe the first thing you noticed was a few bags of coal standing up against the wall across from the counter. Because Constant was one of the last authentic traditional ''bougnat'' of Paris who sold wine and coal, like all the other bougnats did before him since they started emigrating to Paris around 1820 from their native poor rural areas of the Auvergne where they could no longer find work or maintain their small farms and feed their families. The majority of them came from 2 "departements" (geographical districts): Cantal and Aveyron in South Central France. These hard-working auvergnats first started to sell coal to Parisian households, but rapidly they expanded the activities of their tiny shops by also selling wine, and later they became full-fledged café owners. Many of them occupied small apartments above the cafe.180 years later the heirs of these "bougnats'' had managed to control the largest share of the lucrative Parisian market of cafés and restaurants. In fact some ''auvergnat" owners of famous cafés and brasseries, like the brasserie Lip, Les 2 Magots, Flo, Le Procope, Au pied de Cochon, Chez Clément, and many others have created real dynasties and powerful groups of restaurants and cafés all over Paris, and even in some other large French cities. It has been estimated that people from Aveyron (there are 320.000 of them in Paris) control 6,000 hotels, restaurants and cafes in Paris and its suburbs. Another interesting community of cafe-owners were the Bretons (people from Brittany). Most of them had their establishments in the area north of the Gare Montparnasse, the train station for railway lines going to Western France, a neighborhood were most "Bretons" lived. In the late forties and early fifties one my favorite sports heroes was the French bicycle racer Jean Robic who was from Brittany. When he retired he got himself a cafe on the Boulevard Edgar Quinet behind the Montparnasse train station. The first time I went to Paris by myself I was determined to go to see that cafe. When I entered I could not see the cyclist and ask a waiter if he was actually there . Of course, he replied, can't you see him behind the bar? All I saw was a head, he was very short, behind that counter and two hands lifting a glass towards the ceiling light to check if it was clean. That was Jean Robic .. Many famous French sports celebrities owned bars and cafes in France in the fifties.

In lower-middle-class districts it is very frequent to observe odd partners standing and drinking at the same time at the counter: the mailman, the local baker, the butcher, the cop whose beat is limited to a few streets around the bar, the drivers of delivery trucks, the local wino or semi-"clochards" (hoboes), and even perhaps a prostitute taking a break between two customers. So, you may engage in a short but lively conversation with an unknown but colorful character at the "zinc", the "comptoir"(counter),which most of the time is covered with a shiny coating of copper that the bartender never stops wiping with his "torchon" (a piece of cloth). People stand at the comptoir to have a quick expresso, or a "demi" (less than a pint) of beer, or a "pousse-café" (after dinner drink) to help them start their afternoon after having lunch in the backroom. These countertops used to be made of thick grey zinc, and the nickname stayed. When a friend or neighbor asks you if you want to have a quick "apéritif sur le zinc", it means drinking a before-lunch cocktail at the bar of the nearby bar-tabac or cafe. And if you are reluctant to accept because you do not have much time you answer: "D'accord, mais sur le pouçe" literally translated: Fine, but on the thumb...which means in fact: "O.K. but let's make it fast". Practically every cafe or "bar" has a counter, except in large old style "grands cafés" or cafés-brasseries in big cities, like The Café de la Paix or Les Deux Magots in Paris, where everybody sits at a table, for two or four, or sometimes for more people in small cities or villages cafes. In traditional cafes you also find long communal seats called "banquettes", most of the time made of colored leather or faux-leather (moleskine). The bar-tabac got its name because, once inside the cafe, the first thing you notice is a special enclosed section at the end of the counter, close to the entrance door, where a person, quite often the wife or a relative of the owner, sells tobacco products like cigarettes, which are distributed by a state monopoly in France and are not sold in supermarkets or out of distributors. You can also buy all kinds of different products at this special "tabac" section of the bar: Candy, lottery tickets and games, lighters, tiny toys, souvenirs, postcards, stamps, knives, pipes, pens, etc. They often stay open late. And at all times of day, people who come to buy cigarettes, also have a quick beer, a cup of expresso, a coke or a glass of wine before going back to their work or occupation. Nowadays sophisticated expresso machines are everywere, but until the early sixties, the only equipment to make coffee in a cafe was the huge "percolateur", a shiny silvery small steaming tower that waiters wiped to a permanent shine with their "torchons" 24 hours a day.

Until the late eighties, every Sunday morning, from breakfast time until noon, all kinds of men and women used to sit at tables and fill out their special forms to play the "tiercé'', a famous horse race which took place in the afternoon at one of the two Paris hypodromes (race tracks): Boulogne and Longchamp. They queued at a table in one of the rooms of the cafe to register their form and place their bet with one of the official agent of the betting agency, which was controlled by the government. The conversations were often very animated since the players drank a lot while preparing their bets. In bars and cafés, lots of workers have breakfast at the counter in the morning, eating fresh croissants, or "tartines beurrées" (a buttered sliced portion of a baguette) that they dip in their "café-crème" (latte) or hot chocolate. But some people feel thirsty even at this early hour and it is not rare to see them drink a couple of demis (a little less than a pint) of draft beer before going to work. In old working class neighboroods you can still find some men having a "blanc limé", a glass of dry white wine tamed-down with limonade (a lemon-flavored seltzer) or even a small shot of calvados, a 90 proof apple brandy from Normandy to help them get energized before getting into the subway to go to their factory or construction site. Many people also have a quick lunch at the counter or sitting down at one of the few tables, usually a paté or ham sandwich with cornichons (small pickles) or maybe a croque-monsieur grilled by the owner or the waiter in a small electrical toaster-oven. Some bar-tabacs and cafés also offer omelettes, "assiettes anglaises" (a platter of assorted cold meats with "cornichons") and sometimes hot dogs. Many of them used to have a special device consisting of a warm steel rod on which they heated a portion of baguette in which they inserted the wiener which was kept hot in a glass steamer. And in old-fashioned cafés you still can grab an "oeuf dur" (hard-boiled egg) from a special egg-holder always present on the counter, and eat it with a glass of wine. The conversations are usually less intense in a bar-tabac than in a regular café where people often sit down at a table to read while they have a drink or meet with friends. But some people take the time to read the morning papers while drinking their coffee at the counter. Some make comments about the political situation or a crime to the waiter or to other customers if they know them a bit, which is often the case since most patrons are regulars and live or work nearby. The traditional cafe also has often a "comptoir" behind which reigns the "patron" who often prepares drinks that the waiters take to the seated customers, and serves standing customers. The "patron" (owner) shakes hands with all his regular customers and calls them by name. Sometimes, in very traditionnal places, his wife, "la patronne" officiates at the end of the counter behind a cash register where she prepares the "addition" (check) and provides the change due that she gives to the "garçons", the waiters.But the major part of the room is occupied by tables and chairs. In most traditional cafés, people come to drink, relax and chat. In the smaller ones in small towns and villages customers also play cards, or dominos and in some establishments in the South of France they stay outside to watch games of "boules" called "pétanque", or to play themselves.. The team that looses the game has to pay a round of apéritifs, often pastis, to the other players. I miss these Southern cafes with a pétanque court outside a lot. Very often the cafe is named after its precise location, street, square, avenue, or because of its proximity with a public building, a train station, a theater, or many stores and shops, or the statue of a famous native son: Café de l'avenue, Café de la Gare, Café du Commerce, Café de la Mairie, Café Napoléon. Sometimes the name was chosen either because it used to be a place where local business owners would congregate, where traveling salesmen would stop, or where sports fans would get together to watch a game on TV: Café des Négociants, Café des Sports. Or it would be named simply Café des amis (friends). But in Paris as well as in many other French towns and villages the cafe is often named after its owner and might be called "Café Langlade" or it bears only his first name or nickname preceded by "chez": Chez René, Chez Jojo, Chez Joséphine. Most cafés used to be full at the time of the apéritif before lunch (11:30 AM to 12:30 PM) or before dinner (6:00 PM to 8:00 PM) and in large cities late at night after the end of a theater show or after the last movie show. The people would get together to drink beer or brandies and discuss what they had just seen with friends. But nowadays in most French cities you find people in cafes practically all day long, especially young people and students, some of them spending hours to talk and organize their evenings. Others like to go there to play electronic arcade-type games.You still can find some old American pin-ball machines that the French call "flippers" In practically every major French town, a few cafés stay open very late at night and sometimes all night long. It is often the case in large cities near the main train station or at the edge of town where the highways start or converge. And in Paris, until the late sixties when the centuries-old "Les Halles" vegetable, fruit and meat central market was relocated to Rungis, a suburb close to Orly airport, there were very lively night-cafés and brasseries open in that incredibly picturesque neighborhood close to the center of Paris. There, workers for the market, purveyors and wholesalers, some of them dressed in white uniforms covered with blood stains from cutting and carrying large pieces of meat, would stand at the counter of these cafes in the middle of the night to eat and drink. They would rub shoulders with tourists, clochards (hoboes), ''putes'' (whores), students and bourgeois Parisians in their elegant outfits, having a last drink or eating something with friends after a party, a concert or a show. The famished and poor student that I was at the time in 1963 used to go to '' Les Palmiers", Rue des Halles to eat enormous "saucisse de Toulouse" (pork sausage) sandwiches with french fries. It was greasy but delicious and comforting after an evening spent working on a philosophy essay due the next morning at La Sorbonne. A couple of years earlier, when Nancy and I were studying in Aix-en- Provence, we loved to go to a seedy bar, The Gambrinus, which was open all night long, at two in the morning to recover some strength with marvelous ''oeufs sur le plat" (fried eggs) that they served in small white individual enameled cast-iron pans. We washed down these frugal snacks with ''ballons'' (round glasses) of red ''Côteaux d'Aix en Provence", or beer. The place, which had none of the atmosphere depicted in Van Gogh's famous "café de nuit" painting, was totally unattractive and very noisy, was in fact not too safe with a client base of rough truck drivers, motorcycle bikers, semi gangsters, cops, and all kinds of strange characters... But the owner, a short and very bulky but friendly fellow who was a former wrestler and did not get easily impressed by drunks or bullies, knew us and sometimes treated us to a free drink.

Most cafés do not generally serve food, except croissants and sandwiches, unless they are clearly marked "café-restaurant" which means that one part of the room or a separate room is entirely dedicated to diners at meal time. The brasseries are relatively large café-restaurants that you find in busy commercial areas of cities, around the train station, or on major avenues. They serve drinks and specific "plats de brasserie" such as steak-frites, choucroute garnie, poulet roti, salade composée, petit salé aux lentilles, andouillette grillée, cheeses, and charcuteries variées, all day-long.They used to specialize in beer, but nowadays offer a limited but often interesting list of "vins de pays" in carafes and by the glass. Even though many French people still say "let's go to the nearby bistro to have a drink", most educated people call bistrots (or bistros) a small restraurant where you eat "cuisine de bistrot", focusing on traditional French recipes including many slow-cooked dishes in sauces. The term " bistro" comes from the Napoleon wars period when Russian soldiers in Paris would rush into small local cafés, go the counter and loudly order something that they could drink or eat in a hurry. They would yell " Bistro, Bistro..." meaning quick, quick.

One of my favorite café-restaurants when I go to Paris in my adopted 15th arrondissement is " La Tour Eiffel" at the end of Rue du Commerce facing the St. Jean Baptiste Church, which has open French windows from May to October. That means that quite often you can have lunch in the sun inside the dining area of the cafe. Nicely decorated with beautiful old photographs showing the various stages of the construction of the Eiffel Tower, this place owned by "auvergnats" can at lunchtime be very crowded and smoky. But the waiters are very efficient and service is fast. They serve very tasty rustic dishes like confit de canard with lentils, salades auvergnates with Cantal cheese and a delicious air-cured mountain ham from Auvergne, and basquaise chicken.

I also like to meet with friends in old-fashioned "bistrots à vin", small cafés that specialize in good regional wines from small family-owned vineyards and serve quality ham, patés and terrines, dry regional saucissons, and "rillettes", as well as good cheeses on rustic bread. My favorite in this category is "Au Sauvignon" 80 rue des Saints-Pères in the 7th arrondissement near Sèvres-Babylone. The walls of this very tiny café are beautifully decorated with rustic mural paintings representing life in a wine producing region. The service is very pleasant. They serve beautiful Quincy, Reuilly and Sancerre wines by the glass.

Last but not least I miss the "grands cafés" . They have existed since the 17th century. The Cafe Procope, Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie, now is sort of a tourist trap of a restaurant, but we used to enjoy having a simple bistrot dinner there in the sixties. It was started in 1686 by an Italian immigrant,and is supposed to be the oldest cafe in Paris. In the 18th century it was the most celebrated meeting place for literary luminaries like Diderot, revolutionaries like Danton, and later well-known writers and poets such as Balzac and Verlaine.

When I was young, the grands cafes were very stylish with waiters who wore tuxedoes or the traditional "rondin", a long white apron, along with a black vest and bow tie. They would bring your drink on a porcelain saucer on which the price of the drink would be printed in red or black. Each time you ordered a new round of drinks the waiter would pile the saucers up on your table, and when it was time for you to pay and leave he would calculate your bill by adding the prices printed on each saucer. If you wanted to read a newspaper you had to go to one of the racks on the wall near the counter or the entrance and choose one which usually was clipped to a long rod of varnished wood. In the large cities of France, cafes usually were known for the political preferences of their patrons, and the regulars would totally despise the customers of the cafe located on the other side of the street or the square, since they were suspected of having a different political affinity and voting for the wrong guy in local elections. It is also interesting to notice the slow but noticeable evolution of the favorite drinks consummed in these grands cafes. From absinthe at the turn of the 20th century, to Suze, Picon, Dubonnet, and Noilly Prat vermouth, Guignolet Kirsch, and later Pernod in the thirties, forties and early fifties. Then Port, Sherry, Scotch, Pastis, and Martini and Rossi vermouth became popular in the fifties and early sixties. Since the late sixties, every French bar and cafe has several automatic dispensers of various whiskies, that people order sometimes as " un baby" which means "a small measure". But young people drink a lot of sodas and mineral waters.

When I was a student in Aix en Provence our favorite grand cafe was "Les Deux Garçons" on the Cours Mirabeau with its very high ceilings, beautiful mirrors and Louis-Philippe-period interior decoration. Unfortunately it was sold in the eighties to people who did not keep the original decor, and fired most of the the old fashioned waiters that everybody knew by their names. Some friends who recently had a drink there told me however that the place had been redecorated to match its former splendor. The owners also modified the simple but fancy brasserie menu that opera-lovers enjoyed with champagne after an evening at the famous summer Mozart music festival on the fabulous terrasse where everybody wanted to see famous or infamous people from all over the world, and of course to be seen. During the school year this terasse was an interesting mix of students and professors, artists, and actors, politicians, and foreign visitors. The two rooms inside were very quiet in the morning and I used to go there to have a coffee, eat a croissant and read the local paper, Le Provencal. One grey winter morning, I was doing exacly that when 3 people came to have breakfast at the table next to mine. First I was attracted to the very expressive eyes of the lady who was seating on the chair opposite me. I recognized her after a while: She was the famous Spanish movie actress Lucia Bose. I also, being a "corrida de toros afficionado", immediately regognized the very attractive gentleman seating next to her, it was Luis Miguel Doninguin, a famous matador. But it took me more time to find out that the third person in their party who was sitting, two feet from me, on the "banquette" and drawing little, not really fully shaped, patterns on the paper table cover was in fact Pablo Picasso. I could not concentrate very well on my reading while I listened to their conversation. They had come to attend the shooting of a film by their friend Jean Cocteau, "The Testament d'Orphée" in nearby Les Baux. When they had finished their breakfast, they put some money on the table and left. I was looking, mesmerized, at this piece of paper within my reach covered with all these little graffitis drawn by the old master, wondering if I would muster the courage to tear it off and keep it. But I was not fast enough. The waiter came to clear the table, crumpled the paper table cloth on his platter and disappeared in the kitchen without realizing what he had destroyed... 45 years later I still regret my lack of judgment and determination.

When I moved to Paris in 1963, and attended the Sorbonne, I walked all the way (about 8 blocks) to Saint Germain des Pres to drink a coffee at the famous " Les deux Magots" located 6 Place St. Germain des Pres in the 6th arrondissement. This place with its very large terrasse facing the beautiful romanesque church, used to be a Chinese silk shop in the 19th century. The new owner who took over the place in 1875 and transformed it into a cafe, kept the name and the 2 magots (small chinese statues). During and after World War I, this cafe had become the most famous litterary cafe where famous poets and writers, from Rimbaud and Verlaine, to the Surealists, and later Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as artists and actors, used to spend hours drinking, meeting friends and admirers, and sometimes writing.

In the sixties you had to go to the basement of Les Deux Magots to visit the restrooms, or to use the telephone. A great game at the time was to call the lady in charge of both the "Toilettes" and the telephone booth and ask her to call a certain person having a drink in the cafe upstairs to come down and answer the call. So it was very funny to hear her announce seriously on the PA system: " On demande Monsieur Proust, (or Monsieur Welles, or Monsieur Alain Delon), au telephone". Many people used to come at least 10 times a day to les 2 Magots just to show off with their new outfits, car, or dog, or to parade a new "partner"... Some aging former celebrities would sometimes spend a whole day at a table inside, talking with former "fans" and reading or pretending to write. Some relatively obscure poets and writers, like Maurice Fombeure, literally held court at the Deux Magots until the mid-sixties. I stayed at his table drinking coffee many times.

Above all I used to enjoy listening to the many street musicians and singers, as well as excentric "self-created" or wanabee philosophers and politicians who came to do their number several times a day on the sidewalk.

I still visit all these establishments on occasional pilgrimage trips. But when I come back to Chicago it is more the "spirit" of these places that continues to survive in me than their actual physical image.

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