Secret Notes to Myself: How to Find a Parisian Café
1) Look for the first café that works. Not one that is perfect. We both know you’d buckle under that kind of pressure. Don’t forget the Rue Cler incident of ’09. You were just a kid, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the same mistake again. You can’t tell if a café is perfect until after you’ve left Paris, and it lasts, and it means something to you over the years. I mean you don’t get in line at the Louvre with your mind made as to the work of art you’ll find that will be perfect for you today. You won’t know that until you’re letting it simmer afterward on a stroll through the Tuileries gardens. So the sooner you say a café works, the sooner you can start returning to that café, and getting to know your waiter, and getting to know the kinds of people who are regulars at that café. That’s how you stamp a memory.
2) The café ought to be within walking distance of wherever you are staying in Paris. Keep it to a fifteen-minute walk, within reason, of your hotel. The whole point is to end your evening at a café. Every night. Every single night, Johnny. Coming close to ending your night at a café, but then still catching the metro, or a cab, is like saying, “Time for bed! Let me just lay my head down on this pillow, pull the sheets up to my chin, get out and brush my teeth, then it’s lights out.” Reverse engineer this bad boy. Start at your hotel and work outward.
3) Once you spot a café, don’t even look at it again until you are upon it. Slow down, sure, steal a glance at the specials board, sure, but do not stop and ogle. Remember, too, that sometimes you can’t see the specials board from the street, if it exists at all. It matters not in terms of quality of café, but cafés like to run in herds, and if one of the herd has on special a braised leg of lamb, and you’re hungry, it can narrow the selection.
4) Do not make eye contact with anyone. This is not only one of the rudest things you can do in Europe, but if you want to mark yourself as a tourist, and not the James Bond of travel, this is how to do it. Remember in Ocean’s 11 when Brad Pitt is coaching Matt Damon and telling him about the mark to be funny but don’t make him laugh, that he has to see you and then forget you. Brad might as well have been coaching you, Johnny, on how to approach a Parisian café.
5) Listen for English spoken amongst the low chatter. This isn’t make or break, but somebody has to be the runner-in-a-tie situation, and the café where no English is spoken is the runner. Sweat this one the least, though. Paris is, no matter the hours you wait on the steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont next to Gil from midnight in Paris for a Peugeot to take you to Paris in the twenties, no longer Paris in the twenties. Don’t forget that Americans, outside of the obvious tourist traps where the obvious tourists get trapped, have a reputation as friendly and generous. Some of the coolest people I’ve met in Europe have been Americans. You’re waiter will be a Parisian, or at least someone who lives in Paris, and that’s the thing, in the end, that matters.
6) Don’t forget to look for place mats on the tables. If place mats, you’re expected to order a meal. Parisian bistros are Heaven, but so is ending every evening with an omelet and a quick chat with a waiter over a ginger beer and a writing session in you Midori travel notebook from Goulet Pens. Though, for the record, the chat, nor the ginger beer, are ever quick. It’s Paris.
7) Time for a self-reckoning. Um. I don’t know how to say this to myself so I just will: You’re not French, and you’ve already been pinned as not French. I’m sorry to be the one to say that to you, but it is the truth. The good news is, though, there’s no longer any need for pretenses. It’s important that you know that, because what that means, what that really means, is you get to be a guest in a Parisian living room, which is also known as a café. Though Parisians will not hesitate to sit down at an open table, not breaking conversation, you wouldn’t step into your neighbor’s living room for the first time and flop yourself down onto a bean bag chair. Step into the café, just past the outer rim of tables, and when the waiter glances at you, hold up the number of your party, and when the waiter gestures to a table, kindly sit.
8) Say Bonjour to the waiter. That is the only word you should ever speak in French. Under no circumstances, and I mean under no circumstances, do the words, Parlez vous anglais come out of your mouth. I mean do you walk into a Mexican restaurant in America and say, Habla Ingles? Your waiter speaks three or four languages, so don’t bother. Switch back to English knowing full well the waiter speaks English. If you’ve done everything right so far, the waiter will come with a menu, and if you’ve done everything extremely right, it will be a menu in French. Shoot for that once a trip.
9) Ask your waiter what the fashionable drink of Paris is at the moment. It’s a great conversation starter. A lot of friendships have started with this simple question, which is deeper than you think, if you think about it. In your search for a café that works, and with a waiter who is willing to find the humor and to experience Paris with you, you’ll know after this question if it is going to work.
10) Return to the café and sit in the same spot, if you can. Nothing else in the entirety of the world exists when you return to your seat in a Parisian café with an air of, of course I’m returning to my seat in Parisian café. Save your personal introductions (unless someone else initiates it) for your second time at a café. It seems more real, more genuine, more like we both mean it. The waiter will not only recognize you, but also that you care about doing Paris right, and that goes a long way.