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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