Story by Lily Haight
Paris wouldn’t be Paris if its streets weren’t lined with people enjoying espressos and cigarettes at their local cafés every afternoon. But despite the ubiquity of café culture, its coffee —to be blunt—is not very good. Somehow, a culture so renowned for its enjoyment of good food and wine seems to have neglected the world of quality coffee.
One month into my yearlong stay in the city, I found myself craving a good latte. After my first couple experiences with café au lait—don’t even think about finding drip coffee—my high hopes for phenomenal Parisian coffee were let down by the acidic espresso and watery milk foam. Still new to the city, I could think of only one place to get something close to what I needed: Starbucks.
I reincorporated venti lattes into my caffeine routine, until one day a friend caught me sipping one and reacted almost violently. What was I doing drinking Starbucks in a coffee capital of the world? It sounds dramatic, but I felt ashamed—and determined to put my newfound familiarity with the city to use. Aided by a list of cafés from an expat’s blog, I hopped on the métro with hope and a sense of purpose, and embarked on my coffee quest.
It had just begun to pour when I finally found Café Lomi on the edge of the 18th arrondissement. The glass façade was essentially a portal; upon entering, I was transported back to my hometown, Seattle. All around me sat bobo Parisians (slang for bohemian-bourgeois—essentially French hipsters), sipping caffeinated drinks while listening to music, using free wifi, or chatting quietly with their friends amidst the sound of grinding coffee beans and whistling milk steamers. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was even a lavender soy latte on the chalkboard menu.
Café Lomi opened my eyes to a whole host of Seattle-esque cafes around the city—Le Caféothèque, Café Coutume, Telescope, and Holy Belly—all centered on providing the type of coffee experience we think of as standard in the states.
My next stop was Sugarplum Cake Shop on rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the Latin Quarter, Hemingway’s neighborhood. But this was miles away in style from the “sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together” he speaks of in A Moveable Feast, with golden brown pecan pies and sugary pink cupcakes alongside espressos made from Café Lomi beans. Enjoying my very own moveable feast of cake and a latte, I paused to consider the idea of myself as the millennial version of Hemingway. But I was not in the “cesspool” of the Latin Quarter as he had been—or even in 21st century Paris. Instead, I was still in Seattle. The coffee might have been superb, but the café itself was entirely un-Parisian. With wifi and huge portions of desserts to consume, there was hardly room for the animated conversation so vital to café culture. As evidenced by its unapologetically English name, this café had been Americanized in the name of becoming cool. I started to question my real motivation for this coffee quest. While I didn’t want to replace the essence of the Parisian café, I desperately wanted quality coffee. But was my desire for “good” coffee actually a desire for something that would remind me of home?
One afternoon, I found myself in 10 Belles café near Canal St. Martin with two of my coffee-loving friends. We sat lined up on a bench, looking out the window onto the rainy street as the baristas behind us cranked out coffee after coffee. The door opened and closed with customers, filling the tiny café with the humidity of people who had come in from the rain. “When I’m in this café, I feel like I’m back home in Seattle. So what’s the point of me coming to Paris at all?” I asked.
One of my friends admitted that, as a foreigner in Paris, these cafés that remind her of home are what have helped her adapt to living in a new place. We talked and talked until almost three hours had passed. The barista had taken our cups away—a clear signal in America that it’s time to go—but we continued to sit and chat. Unintentionally, we had participated in the French tradition of sitting and drinking coffee and talking for hours. All around us, Parisians were doing the same thing, some for even longer than us. Yes, 10 Belles was a comforting reminder of home, but to the Parisians talking around me it was just another place to have coffee and talk with friends.
This story appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Baedeker.