What It's Like To Sit at Mega-Famous Café de Flore
A dispatch from one of the most iconic terraces in Paris.
August 10, 2017
By Olivia Terenzio | Image iStock
At a table just outside the front doors of the Café de Flore, a middle-aged man takes a photo with his iPhone.
Or maybe it’s a video, judging by the way he raises the phone and holds it there for four, five, six seconds until either his arms are tired or the moment has passed. He sets it down, sits back, and watches in silence.
In front of him, on Paris’s storied Boulevard Saint-Germain, passersby flow up and down the sidewalks, matching the lazy rhythm of the day’s rainfall. They carry shopping bags and roller bags and tote bags and span every age and color. Inevitably, they will watch him, too. It is impossible not to watch the people at the Café de Flore.
If ever a Parisian café earned the designation of “institution,” it’s the Flore. Since opening in 1887, the café boasted regulars like Robert Desnos and Pablo Picasso; it was the birthplace of the Dadaist movement, thanks to the patronage of André Breton. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre claimed it as their headquarters in the early days of existentialism. In the ‘60s, the giants of New Wave cinema – Jane Seberg, Roman Polanski, Brigitte Bardot – mingled here with the rich and famous.
It is a quarter before 4 p.m. on this cloudy day, and you can imagine that guests wish it were sunnier, but at the Flore it doesn’t matter much either way: The terrace will always be full. Tourists huddle in small groups and recap their trip to Cheverny, while hipsters pass a cigarette back and forth. Many come alone, like the man who sits by the window and quickly pops in his earbuds.
Almost no one is eating at this hour, but the ones who are have particular tastes. One late luncher dips her spoon into the last strings of melted cheese at the bottom of her crock, vestiges of what has to be French onion soup. A man reads a print newspaper, his table set with a beer and tiny jar of mustard to accompany the ham sandwich and cornichons that will follow.
When a woman asks about dessert, the server by her table gestures to an older server near the door, and they flash hand signals – two! three! – to show how many servings of each fruit tart is left in the cold case near the door.
Most people, though, drink wine or coffee or the Flore’s famous hot chocolate, which awes the family of tourists: “This is the most chocolatey thing I’ve ever tasted.” Or just sparkling water, like the sleek older woman in heels with a small dog on her lap. An espresso at the Flore costs 4.80 euros, compared to about 1.50 at a typical café in Paris. Still, it comes with a little square of chocolate that is impossibly silky and fruity, and which you can tell yourself is complimentary.
The servers move in a calculated, intricate dance. They wear black vests and bowties, with aprons that reach to their ankles. Most keep a wine key tucked into their vest pockets or a white towel draped over their left forearms. Their steps are brisk but deliberate, buoyed by a subtle lilt that lets them weave between tables without brushing against a single guest. They wad up paper tablecloths and stack dirty espresso cups on expertly balanced trays, and set tables again for the next round that will certainly come. They expedite and take orders and check in with each table: Ça va?
About the tablecloths. They’re decorated with a sketch of the Flore’s exterior, including the tree that spreads its branches towards the entrance and separates the café from the Louis Vuitton store next door; one of the many ways the Flore perpetuates its own myth.
Inside, away from the trees and the tiny tables and the cigarettes, the Flore tells a different story. Only a handful of people sit downstairs in the dining room and even fewer upstairs. Here, the traffic noises are muffled and the hum of voices dims to a whisper. The overhead lights burn too brightly, and people tend not to look up from their tables.
This – the red leather booths and beige carpets, the glass case of Café de Flore souvenirs – is not what brings people to the Flore. The magic is in the blurring between restaurant and terrace, terrace and boulevard, boulevard and City of Lights. Like the people facing the sidewalk, like the philosophers and the starlets, we all want to be a part of something bigger.