Bohemian Paris

  • Stories
  • 8 September, 2019
Cafes with terraces in Paris.

People wonder why so many writers come to live in Paris. I’ve been living ten years in Paris, and the answer seems simple to me: because it’s the best place to pick ideas. Just like Italy, Spain or Iran are the best places to pick saffron. If you want to pick opium poppies you go to Burma or South-East Asia. And if you want to pick novel ideas, you go to Paris.

Roman Payne, American novelist

Paris has always boasted a unique charm, attracting artists and writers who were in search of inspiration. The 1920s became the real apogee of creative prosperity, when innovative views and new trends in arts started growing from here. Paris developed into a European hub for intellectuals, with its cosy cafés being the usual place to meet and share ideas. Life raged in those cafés. For days on end, it was where some of the greatest artists and writers kept coming back to discuss their future works – at times they nearly seemed to be living there!

We will here introduce seven of such places, tell their stories, mention famous visitors and – of course – reveal what delicious food awaits you behind their doors.

La Rotonde

La Rotonde once belonged to the best galleries in the world, with the sketches of Modigliani and Picasso on its walls.
La Rotonde once belonged to the best galleries in the world, with the sketches of Modigliani and Picasso on its walls.

From its very opening in 1903, Café La Rotonde positioned itself as a cheap place with affordable prices. The owner of La Rotonde foresaw a bright future for his café, saying that the poor artists and poets who were lured into his place, eventually would glorify it. He was very generous to his guests. If they could not pay for their lunch, he asked them to leave him a picture as collateral. When they had money again, they could repurchase it. As such, they say that in those days the walls of his café were covered with a collection of works modern museums can only dream of. The owner also invited models from nearby studios for free dinners, if they brought their artists with them. All this made La Rotonde famous not only among bohemians but also among wealthier Parisians. They got attracted by the idea of buying a new piece of art from this improvised gallery.

The famous Picasso and Modigliani, who lived nearby, often even worked in the café. Modigliani especially loved to draw visitors. According to his daughter Jeanne, he did a sketch of everyone who sat opposite him, saying “I am Modigliani. A Jew. Five francs”. It was this café where Chaim Soutine, the Russian painter, created works that were sold for millions at Christie’s auctions in the 1990s.

Today La Rotonde is still very popular among Parisians and guests of the city but it is no longer as cheap as it used to be. The prices are above average now, but the food is delicious. The place offers fine French cuisine, with specialties like aromatic onion soup and delicious escargots.

Le Dôme Café

Michelin-starred restaurant Le Dôme Café is perfect for fine dining.
Michelin-starred restaurant Le Dôme Café is perfect for fine dining.

This very cosy and respectable café which opened in 1898, has always been considered a meeting place for poets, artists, sculptors, but, above all, English and American writers. Therefore, among the French bohemians, it was often called the American-British café. Among its most famous visitors were Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The magnificent Edith Piaf even sang about “Le Dôme Café” in her song “Paris”. The Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky often visited this place and mentioned its name in his cycle of poems about Paris. Even Lenin and Trotsky regularly spent time here. Who knows, maybe it was here they were discussing the plans for a future revolution in Russia.

Quite often you will find this place without empty seats, so if you want to visit, reserve a table in advance. It is famous for fresh seafood delivered every day from the coast. The Michelin Guide has awarded Le Dôme one star, making it one of the more expensive options for dinner. Le Dôme recommends trying the Sole meunière, a fish fillet in flour, fried in oil with a sauce of oil, lemon and parsley. The café is also famous for its luxurious Bouillabaisse Marseillaise – fish soup with garlic and spices.

Le Polidor

In Le Polidor you can enjoy traditional French food with locals, at long common tables.
In Le Polidor you can enjoy traditional French food with locals, at long common tables.

In the heart of Quartier Latin – among the many cosy cafés – a real treasure is hiding. It is Crémerie-Restaurant Polidor, or simply Le Polidor. The very first restaurant on this site opened in the middle of the 19th century, and Polidor, as we know it today, has been working here since 1890. It hasn’t changed much since that time, so when you enter the place, it feels like going back to the Belle Époque Paris.

In the 1920s, Le Polidor became one of the main meeting places of the Parisian bohemian public. French writers André Gide and Boris Vian, James Joyce, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller and, of course, Ernest Hemingway loved to spend evenings and sometimes even nights here. Although the restaurant is located in central Paris, it can boast of quite reasonable prices. It’s worth noting that you can’t book a table here, so you may have to wait first at the entrance. Inside, everyone sits at long common tables to enjoy traditional French cuisine. The special dishes here include Bœuf à la Bourguignonne, made of stewed, slightly fried pieces of beef in a thick wine sauce on beef broth, seasoned with garlic, onions, carrots and mushrooms. For dessert consider having a delicious French tarte Tatin – a type of apple pie in which the apples are fried in butter and sugar before baking the cake.

Le Procope

Le Procope is a true museum, preserving the original table of Voltaire and the hat of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Le Procope is a true museum, preserving the original table of Voltaire and the hat of Napoleon Bonaparte.

A native of Sicily, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened a café here in the distant 1686, making it the oldest one in Paris. Back in those days, it was possible to taste coffee here, which was quite an innovative thing in Europe at the time. Another absolute novelty of Le Procope was ice cream, or rather its predecessor, whipped cream foam, which was cooled in the basement. Today Procopio is considered being the creator of what we know as “gelato”.

Voltaire loved to drink a cup of coffee here, finding his usual table always free. It still contains a crack that appeared, as people say, when the great writer and philosopher hit it in the heat of the moment. Here, once, Napoleon Bonaparte paid for dinner with his famous bicorne hat. Being still an unknown soldier at the time, he was sent away as he couldn’t pay for his food. In return he arrogantly threw his hat, saying that in time it would cost more than the entire café. It turned out that the future emperor was right, now the hat insurance is estimated at millions of euros, and you can see it inside Le Procope.

The restaurant presents well-known and traditional dishes, based on recipes that have been used for decades. One of them is Ivre de Juliénas. It is a dish made of a young rooster grown in special conditions (there are only about 20 thousand of them in the world), stewed in wine for 7 hours. Another famous recipe is Tête de veau en cocotte comme en 1686, a calf's head in a sauce with herbs, garlic, vinegar and eggs. Waiters say that its preparation method remained the same as in the year when Le Procope opened.

Brasserie Lipp

Unless you are the President of France, it is nearly impossible to reserve a table in Brasserie Lipp these days.
Unless you are the President of France, it is nearly impossible to reserve a table in Brasserie Lipp these days.

One of the main attractions of the Saint-Germain area is undoubtedly the famous Brasserie Lipp, which has been located here since 1880. It is not a typical restaurant or café but rather a fancy bar. Its founder and owner, Léonard Lipp, was a native of Alsace in northeastern France. When he created his place, he was offering not only traditional beers but also typical Alsatian dishes. It was simple but at the same time hearty. Out of the original brasserie, we can still see the mahogany facade and ceramic wall mosaic that have been preserved. Today it has turned into quite a pricey place, with even lots of VIP guests coming here. It is unfortunately also known as being not the most welcoming place for tourists.

Through its 130-year history, Brasserie Lipp has been a favourite spot of fashionable artists, poets and writers, philosophers and politicians. Jean-Paul Sartre, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Michael Proust and Albert Camus – all these famous names were among the regular visitors of the café. It was in here that Ernest Hemingway created his masterpiece “A Farewell to Arms“, whilst mentioning it in another no less famous book, “A moveable feast”. The culinary specialty of Brasserie Lipp is Le Hareng Bismarck, a salted herring with herbs and juniper berries. It was introduced on the menu in 1928 and is still extremely popular. Another special French dish here is Pied de porc farci, a boned grilled pork foot stuffed with lentils and vegetables, served with mashed potatoes.

Café de Flore

In Café de Flore you could well end up sitting next to Frédéric Beigbeder, a modern French writer.
In Café de Flore you could well end up sitting next to Frédéric Beigbeder, a modern French writer.

Café de Flore is one of the most famous cafés of Paris, opened in 1877. It was named after the statue of the goddess Flora, which was located on the opposite side of the Saint-Germain Boulevard. From the moment of its opening, Guillaume Apollinaire was working here and started to invite his fellow poets to join him. Over time, more and more writers and artists began to gather here. Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hemingway, Camus, Verlaine, André Breton, Picasso – these are just a few of the famous café regulars.

It is noteworthy that the café remained undamaged during the WWII bombings of Paris, so what you see inside is the original interior, with bright red shades in the Art Deco style. It is nice to drop by here during lunch breaks – but please note that the prices are slightly above average. On its menu you will find typical French cuisine, and a separate section devoted to egg dishes. This is no accident. In the time of the war, there was a shortage of food in the city and only in this place fresh eggs were always served.

Today Café de Flore is still a place for the literary community of Paris. Annually it hosts the ceremony of the Prix de Flore, as founded in 1994 by the modern French writer Frédéric Beigbeder. The Prix de Flore awards talented French authors for their works.

Les Deux Magots

Have a break in one of Hemingway’s favorites, Les Deux Magots, for a traditional cup of chocolate.
Have a break in one of Hemingway’s favorites, Les Deux Magots, for a traditional cup of chocolate.

The place where one of the most famous cafés of Paris is located, is inextricably linked with China. It originated in 1812 as a store selling lingerie and silk from the Far East, most notably China. The store was known as Les Deux Magots de la Chine (or "The Two Magots from China"), named after a popular play of that time. But what is a magot? A magot is the name of a grotesque seated figure, as inspired by traditional images of Buddhist deities. Two of such figures were installed inside the café from its opening in 1885, and remained there – seating – up to today.

From the end of the 19th century, Les Deux Magots became a centre of attraction and a meeting place of many famous intellectuals. Here the surrealists Louis Aragon and Guillaume Apollinaire created many of their works, sometimes even reading them out to the public. The existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre often staged political debates here. Other regular visitors included James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Jacques Préver and André Gide.

Many people love to drop by Les Deux Magots, only for a cup of coffee and a taste of the atmosphere – although the café offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Among its specialties are beef tartare with salad and potatoes, duck breast with potatoes and berries, and the famous foie gras – the liver of a fattened goose or duck cooked in a special way. As an alternative to coffee, the hot chocolate of Les Deux Magots is also worth noting. The method of its preparation has not changed for more than a century. Waiters traditionally break the bars of chocolate and melt them in pots of milk and coffee right in front of the customer.

Today, all these places have become truly cult, and it is already difficult to call them a place of solitude or a source of inspiration – it is almost always quite noisy there. However, Paris has been and will always be a place where generations of new artists, writers and poets will be inspired. As in Paris, inspiration can be found at nearly every step: in parks and museums, walking along its streets and bridges, day and night. As Audrey Hepburn once said: "Paris is always a good idea".

For inspiration about which places to visit in Paris, consider taking a look at our travel guide of Paris. There you will find the best museums, parks, shopping areas and more!

  • #PARIS
  • #LA ROTONDE
  • #LE DÔME CAFÉ
  • #LE POLIDOR
  • #LE PROCOPE
  • #BRASSERIE LIPP
  • #CAFÉ DE FLORE
  • #LES DEUX MAGOTS

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