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The smoky Paris cafe is dead: Long live the smoky street

June 13th, 2009 · 14 Comments

The last time I was in Paris five years ago, people were still allowed to smoke in bars and restaurants here. That made for quite an experience (and a lot of clothes-washing to get the smell out) for all of us.

But this time, quelle difference. And it’s added even more flavour to the Paris nightlife because now, small herds of people gather on the sidewalks and streets outside every bar and restaurant that doesn’t have outdoor tables so they can smoke. You can look down any street and see where the bar is and how popular it is by how dense the roadway cluster is. We passed by one, the Brasserie La Perle on Rue Vielle du Temple, last night that must have had 60 people partying on the sidewalks on two sides.

This being France and civilised, people are allowed to take their drinks out on the sidewalk. (Don’t think they’ll be trying this on Granville anytime soon.) The cars parked partially on the sidewalk make for handy drinks tables and so it all works out. Bar owners must be ecstatic, because it seems to, in some cases, double their capacity.

The end result is to give the streets even more of a festival-like air than they already had. So when the naked man, wearing only shoes and a hat, walked by last night as we were having a drink at a sidewalk table amongst the smokers, he prompted a round of thunderous applause from the sidewalk crowds.

The next passersby to come through — four men in traditional Jewish dress: black hats, long black coats, beards — got barely a glance.

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  • “drf” and I missed it, but today was Vancouver’s Naked Bike Ride.

    Does that compete with the naked guy on the Paris sidewalk?

    Enjoy hour holiday, fabula . . . .

  • jimmy olson

    Vancouver is sooo provincial in so many ways, in comparison to Paris and other European cities. You mention parking on sidewalks and naked people.. . here you get fined 2mins BEFORE your meter expires and no-fun-city would not know what to do with nakedness. And I dare anyone to find the kind of boorishness on display on Granville street when the bars get out. In Paris and Rome and Milano ? Never! Vancouver can be so hickish. .. no other word for it. Folks in Vancouver can’t handle their drinks and our night-life has been fractured to the point where only young venture out and they have crowded out the rest. Pity.

  • gmgw

    While I vigourously applaud the long-0verdue smoking ban (it’s incredibly difficult to hold your breath and eat at the same time), it is, not surprisingly, getting a lot of blame for the closure of hundreds of small cafes in Paris and throughout France in the past few years. Owners of these small establishments, some of which date back to the 19th century, obviously need a scapegoat. But like any number of social commentators, I would venture to say that shifting patterns of social behaviour are more to blame. The same thing is happening in the UK, with more traditional pubs vanishing every year. It seems that, as with many traditional aspects of French culture, something of a seismic shift away from cafe and pub culture is happening in the two countries, and it’s too early to say what will replace it (probably bloody Starbucks, he said with a profound sense of despair).

    I just hope the Bistrot du Septieme, on the Boulevard de la Tour Marbourg, has survived– lovely little place in the 7th where the staff were friendlier than anywhere else we’ve eaten in Paris. It will never get a Michelin star, but it’s a gem nonetheless.

  • Enjoy your holiday!

  • Josh

    If you’re still in the neighbourhood and like crepes – there is an amazing place at the corner of rue vieille du temple and rue perche — about a block north of La Perle.
    We went there a number of times and it was awesome; we stayed around the corner from there.
    Enjoy your trip… google streetview attached,+rue+vieille+du+temple,+paris&ie=UTF8&ll=48.859922,2.360719&spn=0.000459,0.001207&t=h&z=20&iwloc=A&layer=c&cbll=48.860536,2.361807&panoid=JjqtmHTt3gdrxu8itg9vwQ&cbp=12,338.57,,0,10

  • Blaffergassted

    Does this mean the revolution is over?

  • CV

    Something that I always notice in Paris and other European cities is how fantastic their sidewalk patios are. I love how lines of quality chairs are set up to face outward from the cafes. They allow you to people watch and so the cafes “spill” onto and mesh with the streets.

    This sort of set up is really lacking in Vancouver. I think there’s enough demand to have large sidewalk patios. Just look at the Starbucks on Robson/Thurlow; the outdoor seating is always full as it’s a good place to people watch. Unfortunately there seems to be some regulation in Vancouver that requires barriers that separate patio patrons from the passers by. This should be removed to allow for a more organic, spilling effect of tables and chairs on the streets.

    More patios less parking!

  • gmgw

    One of the more obvious reasons those Parisian patios work as well as they do is that they’re in Paris, which not only codified sidewalk patio culture but also, as a rule, provides a far more interesting and, dare I say it, “romantic” streetscape to look at than anything Vancouver can offer. Unless, of course, you’re one of those curiously paraochial people who would rather shop at the Gap store on Robson than stroll the likes of the Boulevard St. Germain.

  • Larry McLaren

    All the inbreeding that goes on in Alberta and South of the Fraser, is, I suspect, responsible for the boorish morons that compel legislation and bylaws to prevent boorish inbreds from behaving like boorish inbreds.
    Or am I thinking of England? (it’s an island, you know…)

  • Frances Bula

    Kirk, Thanks for the holiday wishes. Josh, thanks for the crepe suggestion. We’ll try to get there when we loop back to Paris at the end of the trip.

    To all re the sidewalk cafes — yes, I, too, read the story about how they’re dying because of the no-smoking laws. But it seems to me there must be something else at work. As I said, the popular ones still seemed to attract heaps of people, except they stood out on the sidewalk to smoke.

    Yes, the chairs facing the street are a significant touch. They underline the idea that everything on the street is a kind of show for you to watch. It works out perfectly for me and my partner, too, because he ALWAYS insists on sitting so he can face out and people watch, usually leaving me to contemplate the kitchen or bathroom or coatrack.

    It does seem to speak to a culture where what’s seen as important is facing the public, not so much the person you’re with — at least for coffee.

  • Frothingham

    ” Yes, the chairs facing the street are a significant touch. They underline the idea that everything on the street is a kind of show for you to watch. ”

    We had a similar mini-experience of this in vancouver on the weekend … three car-free areas on Sunday had a festive street scene. Tables and chairs out to the middle of the street. Lots of great people watching. All kinds of food being prepared outdoors… portends of what can happen when the street is extended to people only. I look forward to many car-free days throughout vancouver during the summer.

  • gmgw

    Frances, the trick is to pick a cafe whose tables are at right angles to the street; you can then rotate your chairs 45 degrees so that you can *both* be facing the street as you dreamily sip your pastis. This only works in cafes with less crowded patios, usually found on quieter streets– which might defeat your purpose if you’re there to see crowds.

  • CV

    It’s interesting to note that the extensive sidewalk patios that are found around continental Europe aren’t really seen in Britain so much. Only the newer areas like Southbank in London provide this kind of experience (St. Christopher’s just of Oxford St. is great also).

    Vancouver has enough people strolling around downtown to provide a similar street show to Paris. In fact I’d argue that due to previous Scandinavian/Eastern European immigration in BC it’s a more visually appealing one (though maybe only if you’re a man). Unfortunately there’s just no where to sit, have a drink and enjoy it.