Café au lait with a side of Camus at Café de Flore

June 3, 2011

Photo courtesy of Bryce Edwards on Flickr Creative Commons

PARIS, FRANCE – There’s perhaps no vision more quintessentially French than that of the chain-smoking intellectual at a sidewalk café bent over a cup of espresso and a notebook, scribbling poetry and philosophy. It’s a scenario that many a tourist to Paris tries to re-create (okay, maybe minus the chain smoking), whether they really have something to write or just like the idea of wearing all black and looking fabulously pensive.

If that’s your game (especially if you’ve got a new beret and an impossibly cool retro fountain pen you want to show off), Café de Flore may just be the place for you. Back in the day, this Latin Quarter hangout was where the post-war intellectual and literary elite like Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Hemingway used to linger over their espressos as they penned their masterpieces and pondered the meaning of life. These days, however, the classic green sidewalk tables are more likely to be jammed with tourists striking their best existential poses rather than serious writers. A disappointment, perhaps, if you’re a philosopher looking to earnestly converse with likeminded thinkers, but for a visitor content to simply look the writerly part as she drinks in the va-et-vient of the city, there’s no better choice.

Sure, you may not spot many locals stopping for an espresso, and the crowds can be particularly overwhelming in summer, but the bubbling, cosmopolitan mix of well-read tourists looking to connect with the city’s literary past makes for excellent people watching. Plus, while the Parisians may opt to pass by, you’ll be perfectly placed to scope their movements as they whisk down the elegant Boulevard Saint-Germain. Give me a sunny day, a café au lait, and a blank notebook, and I’m happy to wile away an afternoon eavesdropping on the globetrotting clientele, watching the chic Parisian set speed by on Vespas and Vélib’, and committing my travel-related ponderings to the page.

On the other hand, if you’re a purist who gets cranky at the thought of tourist throngs, don’t despair. (Goodness knows you philosophical types are broody enough as it is!)  All you really need to do is ditch the sidewalk and head inside, where there are still a few authentic local poets and intellectuals to be found (and, provided you parles français, they might even be up for a chitchat). Plus, the vintage red leather banquettes and mirrored walls haven’t changed much since the Sartre set gathered here, and the waiters, clad in starched whites and black bow ties, are just as classically aloof as you’d expect. The menu of omelettes, salads, and club sandwiches is also archetypally French, but I must report that the mains are mediocre and overpriced. Stick with the espresso drinks instead.

Just as the café once hosted heated intellectual tête-à-têtes, the restaurant itself has long had a robust rivalry with next-door café Les Deux Magots. The literary in-crowd was known to roost at both, and each café wants to lay claim to the most lofty legacy. Café de Flore’s sidewalk tables sort of run together with the neighboring ones at Les Deux Magots, so just take care when settling into an open table or you’ll accidentally end up inside “enemy lines.” If you’re really serious about communing with the spirits of the existentialists, you want to make sure you’re exercising your free will to the utmost and consciously selecting your café of choice…

Read more about Café de Flore in our Paris Guide. Or, check out our full-form mobile travel guide, The Purple Passport to Paris.

Café de Flore
172, blvd. St-Germain
Paris, France
(33) 014-548-5526

RL contributed to this post.

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