Register Wednesday | January 17 | 2018

Down and Out in Paris

Caf├ęs and the art of voyeurism

By now, all the restaurateurs in my neighbourhood know me, not as a food critic extraordinaire, but as the strange woman who hovers outside their establishments a little too long and a little too often, fogging up the windows. For you see, aside from the occasional crêpe or bistro dinner, I cannot afford to eat out in Paris. The result is a perpetual, superficial state of hunger balanced by the desire to linger out in the streets, where I can at least see what marvelous things are being consumed by the well-dressed men and women of this city. I go to cafés where, for the price of a coffee, I can sit for hours and indulge my voyeuristic tendencies (both gastronomical and otherwise) and bask in a loneliness that is, at times, exactly the kind of lovely flickering, candlelit loneliness that you’re picturing—and, at other times, isn’t.

Les Deux Magots
6, place St. Germain des Prés; sixth arrondissement
(01) 45-48-55-25
café crème: €4,50

Unless you want to sit in a vast sea of safari-hat-tourists sporting mingled expressions of expectation, wonder and confusion—and pay too much for your coffee while doing it—my suggestion would be to avoid this infamous institution. It is, at most times of the day (and on most days) positively crowded with both Americans and the St-Germain-des-Prés élite—in other words, fat people wearing vests with too many pockets, and rail-thin women with designer suits and impossibly big lips pouting at salads. The waiters artfully swerve through the throng like embittered mustachioed penguins and are understandably, intolerably rude.

But the coffee is good. And the corner location offers a view of the cobblestone square where Église St-Germain is, as well as a view of the boulevard. One night I spent an entire evening there, wanting to get out of the torrential rain and not wanting to go back to my musty apartment. Dripping, I sat in my elegant chair, watching the rain blacken the walls of the church and the street outside. I enjoyed it very much indeed, but only because the weather and the dark had scared away most of the tourists—who, despite their safari hats, clearly have no sense of adventure.

Café des Deux Moulins
15, rue Lepic; eighteenth arrondissement
(01) 42-54-90-50
meal with wine and coffee: €15

Everyone knows this café as the one featured in the 2001 French film Amélie. Being a fan of the film, I headed to Montmartre to sample its wares, loathing myself all the way for being so terribly predictable. I suspected it would be crammed with tourists and, after hours of getting lost, did not believe I had the strength to be surrounded by their twinkly eyes and disposable cameras. To my great surprise the place was nearly empty, with the exception of a few dumpy, embarrassed-looking girls who clearly had the same idea I did.

A rather dingy café, actually. Not at all the picturesque, richly coloured haven of possibilities that you are led to believe it is in the film—and no picturesque aproned women with bobbed hair work there, either. Beneath a massive poster of the impish Audrey Tautou, a swarm of angry waiters (in white shirts so thin you could see the chest hair) stormingly went about their work; while beneath a smaller, dingier poster of the film, local men with pained, ashen faces smoked and drank beer by a copper-lined bar.

I ordered a salade de chèvre chaud, some wine and coffee. It was a wonderful meal, but perhaps only because I had been living on omelettes, bread and tomatoes—one never knows. In any case, I was content to sit there staring drunkenly out the window onto rue Lepic for an hour or more, while accordion music breezed in and out of my mind. Through an alcoholic fog, I watched girl after shy girl having her picture taken beneath one of the Amélie posters. I felt condescendingly maternal—though I had, on my way over, entertained similar notions.

Au Chai de L’Abbaye
26, rue de Buci; sixth arrondissement
(01) 43-26-68-26
café crème: €3,50

Au Chai De L'Abbaye is a quiet, unassuming café just off the rue de Seine, where the waiters are surprisingly amiable. I go there not only because it is quieter and cheaper than nearby institutions, Bar du Marché and La Palette, but because with your coffee they give you a little chocolate-covered walnut. It’s the little things. I almost always eat the chocolate-covered walnut too quickly and then my coffee is less interesting to me and I find it difficult to keep still. But occasionally I have managed to brood here for several hours in a picturesque fashion, relatively undisturbed. “Vous êtes une femme magnifique,” a little mole-man to my left once piped up. Beneath a grey wintry sky, I glared him back down into silence and was free once more to watch the afternoon waft by atop gusts of air and people.

La Pagode
57 bis, rue de Babylone; seventh arrondissement
(01) 45-55-48-48
tea: €4,50

A Japanese pagoda built for the lover of the owner of the Bon Marché department store, the building was transformed into a theatre in 1931. I went to see a terrible French film here in which nothing happens other than everyone looks suspiciously at each other over violin-heavy music, but the tea-laced rêveries I consumed on the terrace were nothing short of sublime. Just off the theatre is what I can only describe as a garden grown into a jungle: thick spider webs, dusty statues of dragons and a smattering of rickety chairs and tables—all beneath a mercifully thick tangle of green-leafed trees that nearly blot out the sky above. It looks like the inside of Miss Havisham’s soul. And it’s a café. Tea is the thing to get here, though I suppose you could have coffee—the little piece of chocolate they give you with it is that cheap sugary kind you get in foil dollar coins though, and the coffee itself is thick and tar-like ... so I strongly recommend the tea. There is no voyeurism to be had here, only dreams and contemplation. But then, this is the real reason I go to cafés.

Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) is Maisonneuve’s connoisseur of all things culinary and libidinous. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Veronica Tartley.