Au Revoir, Les Cafes
Prices & Le Stress Are Killing a Paris Tradition
By Deborah Baldwin
Special to The Washington Post, 18 October 1995, p. E1, E8.
There's sad news indeed from the land of buttery croissants,
milky coffee and strong cigarettes: The corner cafe is dying.
The number of cafes in France has fallen by at least a third
since 1960 some say by as much as two-thirds. Not
surprisingly,television, McDonald's and le stress take much of
Well, the French have a word for this sort of thing, and
when it comes to the disappearing cafe, it couldn't express my
sentiments more perfectly.
Other people can go ahead and cry about mom-and-pop
establishments that are struggling in the shadow of economic
monoliths like McDonald's. And granted, there is no greater
symbol of American capitalism gone amok than the golden arches.
But it sometimes seems the quaint French cafe must be
suffering from too little competition rather than too much. How
else to explain a business that keeps acting as if everything
matters except the customer!
At a time when the city's most expensive restaurants have
been forced to spin off cheaper, less Pretentious bistros, and
everywhere you turn you hear the words rapport prix-qualite (or
"what you pay vs. what you get"), cafe owners seem
Let them Eat Cake
oblivious to things that would send '90s-style entrepreneurs into
Little things--like those gasping sounds people make when
they get their check.
"Try to get an orange juice in a cafe," says Alain Paolini,
an admittedly unusual Parisian who doesn't drink coffee or smoke
cigarettes. "It's three times more than a glass of wine."
Paolini remembers being drawn to cafes in his hometown,
about 50 miles west of Paris, when he was in high school. But
that was then. Today he's a 29-year-old management consultant who
doesn't understand the appeal of secondhand smoke or drinking
during lunch. "Some cafes are changing," he says. "They have
food that's not too expensive, and they don't bitch if you order
tap water. Others are probably going to go out of business, and
I don't feel that bad about it."
"We have big worries," acknowledges Jean Biron, president of
the National Federation of Cafes, Brasseries and Discotheques.
If hanging out is no longer a growth industry among French
up-and-comers, Paris's remaining cafe-goers must be the most
docile clientele this side of :a hospital waiting room. And with
something like 60 million tourists jamming the streets of Paris
every year-at least half of whom at any given time are in
desperate need of a bathroom--certain well-placed cafes are
going to be in business for a long time.
What's threatened is the low-brow corner cafe, where
people go to buy their Gauloises and Lotto tickets and to nurse a
draft beer. Once upon a time such cafes were also great
meeting places, where people could swap news and ar~~ about
politics, fundamental French pastimes.
Of course, this is not the case today at all," Paolini
points out. "We have phones. We can communicate with different
means... Now you have 17 different channels to tell you what to
think about everything."
"Paris is so fast-lane," he continues, "and there are too
many cafes that don't offer the necessary level of service."
Everyone has their epiphanies, or moments when the most
jaded among us still must stop and stare in disbelief. Mine came
when a request for some nice hot tea in a clean, well-lighted
place yielded a cup of hot water and a Lipton's tea bag--and a
bill for 22 francs. That's more than $4, and it didn't include
milk or lemon. In French cafes, it turns out, these condiments
are considered side orders and priced accordingly.
One nice thing about France is that cafe owners are
required to post their prices in the window, where you'll
typically find a small poster explaining in itty-bitty print that
the usual demitasse, when taken at the bar, is 6 francs, while
coffee served at a table will cost you 3 francs more. There's a
certain logic here-after all, at this point you aren't drinking
coffee so much as renting real estate-but even so I'm amazed at
what passes for common sense in some places.
At the Arbalete Cafe, located not far from the famed Rue
Mouffetard street market, a small creme--coffee with hot
milk--will cost you 7 francs at the bar. One morning, figuring it
was an opportunity to do the sort of thing that had brought me to
Paris in the first place, I grabbed a newspaper and a table on
the "terrace," a patch of side walk that had attracted the
early-morning sun and maybe four other customers.
Of course, if I'd known a creme sitting down was going to
cost 16 francs, I would have foregone the paper and opened a
copy of "War and Peace." You keep learning the nuances. After
studying the menu at a cafe near the hopelessly trendy Place
Bastille late one evening, my daughter and I finally decided we
could handle a 25-franc ($5) milkshake and 24-franc bottle of
beer. These prices, as always, included tax and tip, and besides
we had a great view of the bustling scene.
Then came the bill--for 57 francs. We bravely hailed the
waiter, who was deep in conversation at the other end of (we now
noticed) an empty establishment, and asked um, uh, how--
It was after 10 p.m., he explained, and special nighttime
rates were in effect.
There's an even screwier policy at Le Select, a popular
place in Hemingway's old stamping grounds near Montparnasse. A
demitasse sipped at 3 p.m. at an outdoor table costs 12 francs.
At 4 p.m. it rises to 15 francs.
Must be those special late-afternoon rates.
In fairness, cafe owners have been feeling persecuted
lately, and not without reason. Real-estate speculation in Paris
is vicious, forcing lots of little guys out. The TVA, or sales
tax, is much higher on food that's sold in restaurants than on
food sold to go, and that includes the increasingly popular
sandwiches sold by bakeries and street vendors. To make matters
worse, the value-added tax on restaurant fare just went
up again--to 20.6 percent. Finally, in a country with high social
security taxes, service doesn't come cheap, which is one reason
cafes charge so much to take the drink to your table.
In response to both tax creep and unfair competition, some
10,000 angry restaurant, hotel and cafe workers tuned out for
demonstrations in virtually every region of France on Sept. 19,
according to the National Hotel Industry Federation: a national
demonstration is scheduled for next Monday at the Eiffel Tower.
Saying they have the feeling they're "not being heard," industry
activists are demanding a cut in the sales tax and "equality
before the law"--what we Americans might call a level playing
field--with the rest of the tourism industry.
Of course, life may not be that simple. Downplaying the
impact of both MacDo (as it is known here) and la television,
Trimta Arbel, owner of the Arbalete Cafe, says the problem runs
deeper. "It's a question of money," he says. "Salaries haven't
gone up" in recent years, "so people don't go out."
Why not fight fire with fire, he's asked, and lower the cost
of that 16-franc creme?
Let's not be ridiculous. "If I lower my prices," he
responds, "that's money out of my pocket."
Deborah Baldwin is a Paris-based writer.