Are Paris’ Cafés disappearing?

Are Paris’ Cafés disappearing?

In 20 years, around 500 of Paris’ cafés have closed. Why is that? Owners about the future of the iconic Paris café community speak out.

In a city known for its tiny apartments, cafés have long provided Parisians with an essential third space. Existentialists congregated at Café de Flore; Lost Generation writers met at La Closerie des Lilas; Camille Desmoulins and Jean-Paul Marat even plotted revolution at the luxurious Procope.

“There’s a phrase from Balzac that everyone always cites,” says journalist Jean-Laurent Cassely. “The café counter is the parliament of the people’.”

Whether steeped in glamour or suffused with decades of smoke, cafés have long been united both in their commitment to the all-day service of inexpensive coffee and their cultivation of an ambience where, according to culinary historian Patrick Rambourg, “you can find a CEO next to a blue collar worker”.

“The Parisian café is part of Parisian identity,” he says. “One cannot imagine Paris without its cafés.”

Café de Flore was a popular haunt for the Existentialists © shutterstock

And yet we might have to. In 2002, Paris was home to 1,907 cafés; today, it counts just 1,410. One cannot dismiss the impact of Covid, with 100,000 workers leaving the food and beverage industry in the wake of the pandemic, according to the Union des métiers et industries de l’hôtellerie. But there are other elements at play.

According to Marcel Benezet, café owner and president of the Café, Bar and Brasserie branch of the Groupement des Hôtelleries et Restaurations de France, the downward spiral of the Parisian café began in the 1970s.

He recalls the widespread razing of cafés to build housing in suburbs like Montreuil – much to the detriment of local communities. “Bistros were where young people met,” he says, “with the owner saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that…’- kind of bringing them up.” And young people weren’t the only ones who took advantage of low overheads to cultivate community.

“People who are alone at home come to the café,” explains Rambourg. “You hear people speaking, you speak, you observe, you have your drink. You chat with the waiter.” But with the shrinking of the middle class, Cassely says, “there’s less of this sort of working class café, the people’s café”. Those in search of inexpensive hubs turn to alternatives. For young people, who, Cassely asserts, deem classic cafés ‘corny’, McDonald’s now plays the role of corner café. “There, too,” he says, “you’re allowed to order at any hour, and to have only a little, or nothing at all.”

© shutterstock

Sign of the times

Writer Sylvia Sabes cites the surge of smartphones as another element deterring people from truly engaging in café culture; for Cassely, the smoking ban has led many to flee. And others are abandoning the café for a different reason: the poor quality of the namesake product.

“Parisian café culture has never been about the coffee,” says Sabes. “I asked a friend about his café habits, and when he tells me about his favourite cafés, he talks about the way the light falls on the counter, or his conversations with the woman working behind the bar.”

“Whatever you’re drinking or eating is the backdrop,” claims Lindsey Tramuta, author of The New Paris. “It’s the accessory to the overall experience.” But modern Paris has witnessed a craft coffee revolution, dotting the capital with spots where the quality of the coffee is very much the point. And this, reckons Sabes, is to the detriment of the café. “I believe that all the foodie cafés play an important role in endangering Parisian café culture,” she says. “Suddenly, getting a coffee is about the coffee and not at all about the culture of it.”

While due to a combination of factors – shorter opening hours, higher prices, smaller surface area – many experts claim there’s room for both, the presence of these spaces is leading to what Cassely calls a “segmentation or fragmentation” of the landscape. “The status of the café… I wouldn’t say it’s gone backwards,” he says, “but it’s a bit more complex.” Today, many cafés are populated more by tourists than by locals, contributing to what culinary journalist Domenico Biscardi calls their “museification or touristification”. He says these historical spaces have become attractions, losing out on sincerity and accessibility in favour of price hikes and queues out the door.

La Perle, © Emily Monaco

“Maybe for a tourist just passing through, there’s an authentic or charming side,” says Cassely, “but they can exist a bit out of time.”

But some cafés hold strong – thanks to a bit of reinvention. Paris’ official coworking spaces are far more expensive than the traditional café, and, unlike craft coffee shops, which usually eschew computers, cafés often welcome workers.

Benezet’s Quai Extérieur near Gare de l’Est was one of the first adopters of free wi-fi in the neighbourhood, with an outlet at nearly every table. “It’s essential,” he says. “A café with no wi-fi is a café that’s not with the times.”

This makeover may even extend not just to food, which, Tramuta opines, has long been “really average, mediocre even”, but to coffee, which she dubs “just foul”, an issue Xavier Denamur, the owner of several Marais cafés, attributes in part to many establishments choosing low-end lines from distributor Cafés Richard, which, as of 2020, controlled 14% of the café market across France.

An individual café’s lack of rigour is also part of the problem, he says. When Denamur first opened his café, Les Philosophes, in 1990, he immediately stopped using Cafés Richard as a coffee supplier. It was only four or five years later, according to Denamur, that CEO Arnaud Richard himself returned to Les Philosophes in an attempt to bring Denamur back into the fold.

Denamur acquiesced on the condition that Richard supply new machines and the company’s premium line – a line which Tramuta declares is “not half-bad”.

Exterieur Quai © Emily Monaco

Back in fashion

Denamur now brews organic Mexican espresso on a Marzocco, an Italian sports car of a machine. His espresso comes with an organic Valrhona chocolate and, at €2.20, is only slightly more expensive than the €2 average (and a steal compared to the €3 charged by a craft spot a few blocks away). His always-bustling café is an excellent example of how the space can both stay relevant and maintain its historic role.

Denamur plans to retire in 17 years, but his staff are beginning to take their leave. This summer will mark the last for Pierre-André ‘Pierrot’ Ayer, who has been the chef at Les Philosophes for 33 years. And while Denamur’s son has expressed an interest in the family business, he’s only 13. Plus, as Denamur knows only too well, being a café owner is a commitment. “It’s not just a weekend or a month or two,” he says. “If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t do it. Otherwise you drown.”

The relentless pace of life is concerning for the future of the café. Luckily, there are some who seem up to the task, such as Guillaume Courtois, who is the young proprietor of several cafés, including Les Turbines in the 2nd arrondissement. And according to Benezet, Courtois is not alone in bringing much-needed new energy to the capital’s café scene.

Xavier Denamur at Au Petit Fer à Cheval © Emily Monaco

“I see young people coming into this line of work,” says Benezet, optimistically.

“They are coming to relieve us.”

He firmly believes that café’s darkest days – the closures of the 1970s and the threat of terrorism in 2015 – are behind us.

“We lived through the downturn,” he says. “In my opinion, it’s come and gone.” In its place, a slowly growing nostalgia-fuelled fashion is paving the way for a new raft of neo-bouillons and neo-bistros, showing, perhaps, that today’s younger generation might not find the café quite as corny as they once did.

“There’s a bit of a braking in their disappearance,” acknowledges Benezet. “People have realised that neighbourhood cafés unite people. And today, more than ever, we need these spaces where people come together.”

We’ll raise a cup of coffee to that.

From France Today magazine

Lead photo credit : © shutterstock

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  •  Dominique
    2023-12-28 05:46:53
    Worthwhile article indeed but it makes no mention of the disastrous effects of social media; Wi-Fi invites people to share with others through internet, which eliminates the need for interaction with other café clients « autour du comptoir » and with the person behind the counter; another issue is the fact that so many cafés do not have the owner present, making a huge difference in ambience….in the « old days » each café was tended by its owner who lived on premise, or close by and knew everything there was to know about the neighborhood and was willing to share…..the café culture will never be the same, thank you Starbucks and the corporate world at large…c’est la vie!….🥲🥲


  •  J
    2023-12-27 06:31:04
    Well written and thoughtful article. One caveat: just say ‘said’, opined is less powerful.