It seems to be human nature to over-dramatize things. In the United States we blow everything, from a politician’s quote to a little league baseball game, out of proportion. We feed off of drama and often times when none exists we manufacture some. But this certainly isn’t restricted to just Americans. Some of the word’s greatest disagreements came as a result of people making more out of something small than they should. But on a much smaller scale good drama, either real or manufactured, can make for really good conversation. Such is the case with the dueling cafes and the Battle of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Located in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, Saint-Germain-des-Prés rose up around the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, one of the most historic churches on the Left Bank. Today it’s a bustling and energetic spot filled with lots of traffic, fast walkers, good shopping, and trendy cafes – none more well-known than the famous Les Deux Magots and its neighbor Café de Flore. These two famous cafes both have impressive histories going as far back to the late 1800’s and even though today they are known more as a tourist draw, they are both still significant parts of the city of Paris. But what’s even more noted about these cafes is the rivalry between them that’s been going on for decades. While actually based more on perception, preference, politics, and ‘in crowds’, many have blown the rivalry up to the point to where it’s known worldwide.
Les Deux Magots got its name from a popular play of the time and started out as a silk shop. Even today a quick peek inside will get you a glimpse at the two “magots” – mounted mandarin statues that date back to the start of the business. It later became a cafe and a meeting place for some of Paris’ intellectual, artistic, and literary crowds. Intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, artists like Pablo Picasso, and writers like Ernest Hemingway were just some of the young, energetic characters that frequented the place. Café de Flore has an equally rich history and it has had its share of poets, painters, and thinkers who spent time there. In fact, in the 1930’s Café de Flore became THE place to be. Many well-knowns left Les Deux Magots for Café de Flore due to its openness to the literary and artistic world as well as it’s growing attraction to left-wing thinkers. Sartre would later go as far as to call Café de Flore “home”.
But which is the better cafe? Which is the fashionable place to be seen? Parisians are all about fashion. But what’s fashionable for Parisians isn’t restricted to what you wear. For Parisians there are fashionable cars, fashionable friends, fashionable food, and of course fashionable cafe’s. Over the years Café de Flore has drawn more of the “in” crowd and even today it’s viewed by many as the more fashionable cafe of the two. But it’s not as though Les Deux Magots had a terrace full of empty tables. And even though both establishments are basically tourist hotbeds, there are still those in Paris who will judge your societal standing based upon which of these cafes you chose.
As newcomers to Paris, we found ourselves faced with the weighty choice of Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore. According to those better versed in this inflated conflict, this was not something to be taken lightly. It was a decision that could reveal everything from our inherent coolness to our social worth. It would reveal just how connected we were to culture, philosophy, and the arts. Much better writers than I have documented the long-standing battle for the business of the self-proclaimed intelligentsia, and here we were about to make a decision that would either identify us with them or place us among the pseudo-intellectuals and unenlightened. Talk about being burdened with a major choice. Oh, and didn’t I mention that we tend to over-dramatize things?
We walked down Boulevard Saint-Germain until we stumbled upon the lively Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The first cafe we came to was Les Deux Magots. The corner cafe was in a wonderful location with the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in clear site of those eating on the right side of the terrace and the flowing energy of one of Boulevard Saint-Germain’s most energized intersections in view for those on the left side. The perfectly manicured facade of the building was an attention getter. The white awning with green trim and gold lettering along with the wood and glass cafe front exuded class and the small white-top tables and wooden chairs were very inviting. There were sprinkles falling from the light gray overcast sky and because of that the front row of tables were left vacant. But the rows closer to the building were filling up fast and the inside looked to be busy. Waiters in black suits and bow ties with long white aprons whizzed in and out of the stylish revolving front door with trays of food and drinks held high over their heads. Les Deux Magots left quite an impression.
We walked on and right next door was Café de Flore. The two cafes were separated only by a few beautiful tall trees, a newstand, and the small Rue Saint-Benoit. Café de Flore also sat on a corner and it’s facade resembled that of Les Deux Magots. A full white awning with green lettering stretched around the corner cafe. Just above the awning attractive greenery surrounded chic cursive lettering that spelled out Café de Flore in white. A small group was huddled around the few tables near the front door while many others had grabbed the tight-knit tables under the extended awning on the Boulevard Saint-Germain side of the building. The cafe was buzzing with hungry and thirsty patrons, some looking as new as we were to the area while others looked right at home. Café de Flore’s charm and spirit did nothing to make our decision between the two any easier.
We stepped back toward the little newstand to weigh our options. We couldn’t leave something so monumental and crucial to chance. How could we choose between two cafe’s with such history? Both places had left good first impressions and both places were full of people. We meandered towards Café de Flore then we slowly walked back towards Les Deux Magots. I could sense that my typical indecisiveness combined with the ridiculous over-dramatization of this decision was stretching my lovely wife’s patience. So I used an exhaustive and deeply intellectual approach to making the choice. We chose Les Deux Magots for no other reason than our two kids love the way the name sounds. Before we left them for our week-long trip we had told them about some of the places we might visit and eat at. They loved the sound Les Duex Magots made as it rolled off my faux French tongue. So what other influence would I possibly use for such an important decision?
We walked back to Les Duex Magots just in time to grab the last vacant table we saw. Before long our slender (and very French) waiter dressed in black with a long white apron was bringing us our meal – a salad for my wife, a club sandwich for me, and two Cokes. While the food was simple, it was delicious. We sat, talked, and watched the steady parade of people walking by in our fantastic view of Boulevard Saint-Germain. We watched the waiters as they took care of the large number of customers, never letting the revolving front door come to a stop. We watched the people sitting around us. Some were looking at maps and tour guides. Others were reading French newspapers or conversing with friends with their lightning-fast French tongues. It was a lovely mix of tourists and locals. We finished our meal with some of the most amazing hot chocolate – thick and rich to the point of almost feeling sinful. It was the perfect way to end the meal.
As we left I felt great. I had just ate a wonderful meal. I had a great conversation with my wife. We had a wonderful view of the city. I loved the surrounding scene and the local ambiance. But I have to be honest, I didn’t feel smarter. I didn’t feel more fashionable. I didn’t feel my societal worth had went up several notches. Had I made the wrong choice? Is that why I wasn’t feeling that I had connected with the true intellectual side of the culture? Should we have chosen Café de Flore? Or is the whole dueling cafes thing another instance of us blowing things out of proportion? Is it more about “I like Magots club sandwich better than Flores” or ” I prefer Flores’ salad over Magots”? All I know is that I had a great meal and a great experience at a historical cafe in Paris. But what about next time? When we return to Paris one day and we’re faced with the choice between Les Deux Magots or neighbor Café de Flore, will we go to Flore for something new or we will return to Magots for another pitcher a glorious hot chocolate? I don’t know, maybe we’ll just go across the street to Brasserie Lipp.