Friday, April 08, 2011

Coffee in Paris: not quite a guide

-The issue, lest there be confusion, is not that Parisians drink their coffee black because they're sophisticated existentialist-types, and so do not go in for such Anglo-Saxon inventions as mocha-frappa-whosawhatsis. It's that even if what you want is black coffee, espresso, or some combination of the above with foamed milk, there is no expectation in Paris that this will taste good. No doubt some Americans are disappointed when coffee arrives as an espresso and not a milkshake, but for those with that complaint, there's Starbucks. If, however, you're used to Oren's/Stumptown/Intelligensia/Gorilla, if you, in other words, have out-pretentioused or (more generously) out-quality-obsessed the Parisians, you're in more of a bind.

-If you're in town for a week or less, and have good coffee where you're from, this is not the thing to go around looking for in Paris. And it's not a matter of going off caffeine or switching, god forbid, to tea. The coffee you get at every café is perfectly drinkable. It's just not anything special, and always tastes exactly the same. Focus on the cheese, the pastries, the produce, the wine, the pavé de rumsteck, that which can't be replicated at home. Be grateful when a place that serves pastries also serves coffee, because that itself is a rare occurrence.

-If you decide you do want to go looking for good coffee, don't be under any allusions that you will be getting good French coffee, that the place you find will simultaneously have good coffee and be 'authentic,' filled only with locals, etc. (Speaking of filled with locals, if local teens count, Starbucks is for you.) You have to choose between that-which-is-French and places that are microcosms of Back Home, whether that's New York, London, Sydney, Portland, etc. The places that offer more than drinkable sludge with or without milk are... a bit like when you go into a place in Montreal, and speak on and on with someone in French until it's revealed you're both Anglophone. But if you don't speak French, it's a safe bet that anywhere known for its coffee that you just walk into speaking English, you'll find yourself welcome.

Today, for example I had a whole back-and-forth in French with a man who turned out to speak English with an Australian accent - the fact that he stood seven feet tall (I exaggerate only slightly) was something of a giveaway that he was not French, but otherwise he passed. Then, when it emerged that not only was I 'merican, but I wanted a cappuccino to go, a barista was called out of the woodwork who could, I'm not kidding, have been one at Oren's, Joe, Think... And I of course left with a caffeinated beverage of a quality that only a barista who discusses "bands" and "shows" while making your drink can produce. Which is to say, highly recommended. This was at Coutume, which will henceforth be where I get coffee to go with Invalides pastries, and then I'll sit and have this in a park with some Zola because this does, strangely enough, constitute work. But there's also Merce and the Muse, an NYU-grad run café which was where (long story unrelated to the coffee) I paid rent in the summer. There's also Le Bal Café, which is near the Alliance Israélite library, which is to say not in a posh tourist spot. If the cappuccino hadn't been 3.90 - all the more shocking given that the street it's just off is the Avenue de Clichy - who knows, maybe I'd have tried it and could report back. And then there's Oliver Strand's follow-up post about how coffee in Paris is no longer so horrible - that plus its many comments may provide more examples. Point is, there is good coffee in Paris, but it's not a matter of being in-the-know with the locals.

-There is no ice in Paris. None whatsoever. OK, maybe at Pain Quotidien, but for the most part, ice is not a thing here. So if good coffee in warm weather is something you associate with iced coffee/cappuccinos, from this point on you might just be best off making coffee at home (and for non-dorm-dwellers with freezers, ice is very doable) or just caffeinating for addiction purposes only at whichever café is most convenient.


Britta said...

Yeah. The one and only time I was in Paris (2004) I remember being shocked at how expensive coffee was. I guess you are also paying for renting a chair at some quaint cafe? What I don't get is why, given the proximity of France and Italy, the French didn't learn to make good coffee from the Italians, and the Italians didn't learn to make good bread from the French. Does national food chauvinism extend to obviously inferior products?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


In Paris as in Italian cities, coffee is cheaper at the bar - typically a euro even in a posh area, which amounts to slightly less than what a to-go cup costs in NY. Sitting it's usually 2 euros, which also seems fair given that people then sit for hours, but can reach ridiculous heights in the cafe is a) famous or b) facing the Seine or a famous monument. Given how many big-name places there are for a cafe to possibly face, it's easy enough for a visitor to end up at one without specifically seeking that out, and to get stuck with $6 sludge.

As for food chauvinism... maybe it's more that there's a general principle of wanting certain places to remain the best place to get X, and a kind of mutual respect that keeps other places (countries, or regions for that matter) from producing or even importing decent X. As in, these places mutually decide, for the benefit of their tourism industries of sense of self-worth or who knows, that it's more important for only Italy to have good coffee, for example, than for good coffee to be available everywhere.