I worry when I hear people say that they can’t find good coffee in Paris, since I’ve never had a problem in that respect. After all, Paris has a café (and coffee) culture that in many ways long predates that of the UK or the US. What I suspect I’m hearing is “I can’t find coffee that I like” or “I can’t find the coffee that I’m used to”. The simple fact is “coffee I like/am used to” isn’t necessarily synonymous with “good coffee”.
So, I’m going to use this Saturday Supplement to try something new for the Coffee Spot, a discussion piece, looking at the coffee scene in Paris as a matter of taste and perspective. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that while you can get good coffee in Paris, you can also get bad coffee, often shockingly bad coffee. However, Paris has a wide and varied coffee scene, from the little bars with an espresso machine, through the bistros and pavement cafés all the way to the grand cafés of the Left Bank and the upmarket Salons de Thé. And, recently added to the mix, third-wave coffee.
You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.
I’ve been going to Paris for over 20 years. One of the great pleasures, especially in the early days, when good coffee was genuinely hard to find in the UK, was knowing that I would get good coffee in congenial surroundings pretty much wherever I went. Even my hotel served awesome coffee at breakfast. Obviously, over the past 20 years, my palette and appreciation of good coffee has evolved. I wonder if all of what I thought of as good back then would pass as good now.
It is also the case that any experience is enhanced by the thrill of being elsewhere, particularly so in this case, since I’m a sucker for the Parisian pavement café and the (still fairly) novel experience, in the UK at least, of waiter service at a café. Drinking average coffee is a non-descript Parisian café beats drinking average coffee in a non-descript British café any day.
For me, part of the thrill of travelling is to experience new and different things. Long before I started the Coffee Spot, a big part of any holiday was working out which cafés I would go to and planning my day partly around when and where I would have coffee. So it worries me when I read the claim, as I often did when researching my recent trip to Paris, that Paris is full of bad coffee. That’s simply not true and I fear that people are coming to Paris (and, by extension, other cities) with closed minds, looking for a narrow definition of “good coffee” and dismissing, or worse still, not trying, anything that doesn’t fit into this mould.
Now, I want to make it clear that I’m not defending bad coffee. While I’ll argue that coffee that’s not to your taste isn’t necessarily bad coffee, bad coffee is just plain bad coffee. Like, for example, the poor excuse for an espresso that I had in a restaurant on my recent trip, which was thin, had no crema and tasted foul. Trust me when I say that, like any city, there’s plenty of bad coffee in Paris. I just don’t think that there’s as much as people make out.
I also want to make it clear that I’m not attacking the handful of what I’ll call third-wave coffee shops that have recently opened in Paris. I had the pleasure of visiting three of them: Ten Belles, Black Market and Coutume. Each does its own thing and each adds to the rich diversity that is the Parisian coffee scene. All are to be welcomed.
However, if you went to Paris and those (and those like them) were the only cafés you went to, I think you’d be missing out. It would be like going to Vietnam and not trying Vietnamese coffee (been there, done that and it was surprisingly good) or going to Istanbul and not trying Turkish coffee. I use Turkey as an example partly because I’m no fan of Turkish coffee. I’ve yet to have one that I’ve even come close to liking. But if I went to Istanbul, I’d still try it, because I was in Istanbul. And if I still didn’t like it, I wouldn’t then write that there was no good coffee in Istanbul.
I offer two further, contrasting (Parisian) examples. The first is from Ten Belles, a coffee shop that would be at home in the heart of London or New York, but which is very unlike the typical Parisian café. Now, Ten Belles, in my book, unequivocally serves good coffee. I just don’t happen to like it (as an espresso).
In contrast, I offer my experience of a little café/bar called Le Metro in Belleville, which I visited for an espresso (un café) earlier that day. I’d been there once before, a couple of years ago and remember liking it. It’s just an average neighbourhood place, the sort you can find anywhere in Paris (or France for that matter). My espresso was a little over-extracted, a little bitter, but infinitely more to my taste than the one I had at Ten Belles.
Now, does this mean that Ten Belles serves bad coffee? Of course not. Does it mean that Le Metro will be featuring in the Coffee Spot? Unlikely, largely because while I like it, it’s nothing special, just typical of the sort of (good) coffee you can get in Paris. I wouldn’t recommend going out to Belleville just to go to Le Metro, although if you are in the neighbourhood, do give it a go (it’s on the junction of Rue de Belleville, Avenue Simon Bolivar and Rue des Pyrénées, opposite the Pyrénées metro stop).
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I think I want to be there. Now. If I didn’t want to go already (and I did) reading this would have made me want to go (and I do).
I need to think up a jolly good wheeze that gets me there.
I liked this bit….. “The simple fact is “coffee I like/am used to” isn’t necessarily synonymous with “good coffee”.” True isnt it.
Like any city you have to know where go, and that simply involves doing a little google research. Not hard to do. I’ve seen many times on twitter folks turn up to the city i live and moan on twitter when they are leaving because they had crap coffee and wanted to know where the good places are? Bit late now isnt it.
Good coffee exists in every city.
It’s a really interesting discussion piece, Brian. As a great traveller AND coffee / tea drinker, it’s an issue close to my heart and one I should blog about too one day, inspired by your thoughts!
You’re right it’s important to try how the locals do things, and terms like ‘best coffee’ are always going to be subjective and based on criteria from your own experience. On top of this, for me it’s as important what the atmosphere is like and how the baristas approach both the coffee-making and the welcome…
I agree with ‘bobby’ that you have to know where to go when visiting a city you don’t know. But google search sadly doesn’t always come up with the goods. This weekend in Netherlands I found great coffee in one town by stopping people in the street and asking, because the google search wasn’t giving me much; and then in The Hague I found a great place by looking at blog posts like yours because, again, google wasn’t giving me what I was looking for.
One of the reasons I set up the Coffee Spot was because just googling for coffee in a town doesn’t tend to give you anything approaching satisfactory results. Trip Advisor and now, Google Local, are starting to get there, but you have to read between the lines sometimes and also remember that they are general review sites, not geared towards coffee.
When travelling in the past I relied heavily on Rough Guides which generally had good cafe recommendations (or at least, by reading what was said, I could tell if I would like a place or not!). I also rely a lot on my nose, which is great when you have time to explore and wander, but not so great if you are in a hurry! And it’s always frustrating to discover that there was a great place just around the corner that you missed because you turned left and not right.
However, this particular article was inspired as much by (my perception of) people’s attitudes. I perceive a cultural bias in coffee towards doing things a certain way and dismissing everything else as “bad coffee”. Perhaps I’m over-reacting. It was prompted by going to Ten Belles (and there is no implied criticism of Ten Belles in this) on my first day in Paris. It was a place that lots of people had recommended and it’s very good. However, I sat there thinking that I could have just as well gone to Soho and sat in a cafe just like Ten Belles, the only difference being that I might have heard fewer American accents!
I like Paris, I like Parisian coffee (when done well) and it gets my hackles up when people suggest (or so it seems to me) that the only way of doing coffee is how it’s being done in the third-wave places in the UK and North America. It’s one way, it’s a great way and I love the diversity that it brings to the coffee scene, but it’s not the only way.
I’m keen to test out the hypothesis! What other places would you recommend for really good Paris-style coffee?
I’d suggest you go to Black Market (27, rue Ramey, 75018 Paris), which is a third-wave cafe, but feels very French (at least to me) and also to Cafe de Flore (172 Boulevard Saint-Germain 75006 Paris) for the experience of a Grand Cafe, very much at the other end of the scale. Both will be on the Coffee Spot in due course.
Then, to round it off, wander around the back streets anywhere in the centre and, if you see a place you like, pop in and take a chance on the coffee 🙂
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A very interesting read. I usually check out the blog when I am visiting somewhere new to get my coffee recommendations, but I’m actually moving to Paris soon so will definitely be trying some of these places out :). (I was actually checking whether there were any Paris Coffee shops on your map so I could check the proximity to where I will be living ;))
Yes, Paris has got lots of interesting places these days. Give me a shout with where you are living and I’ll let you know if there’s anything new in the area (it’s been two years since I’ve been to Paris!).
I was most excited to read about this place – a traditional coffee bar taken over by one of the original third wave places in Paris.
This is the sort of thing I’ve been waiting for. Yes its nice to be able to visit third wave places when you want to drink coffee one is ‘used to’, but on the other hand its nice to have the traditional atmosphere, as the comments above sort of suggest. So combining the two looks like a winning formula.
Sadly I no longer live in Europe so can’t check it out, but if any of you do visit, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this place.
Thanks for sharing that one. La Fontaine de Belleville is a new one for me, but looks fantastic. I’ll check it out when I (eventually) get back to Paris!
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