It’s lunchtime at a busy neighbourhood bistro in Paris’ 11th arrondissement. A pair of young male servers are gliding through the restaurant, juggling plates groaning with roast chicken and frites, duck confit and beef tartare, and sliding them across the tables to their customers in swift but graceful movements.
Sitting in the corner of the bar, a lone man has ordered a cheese plate, a green salad and a glass of red wine, and is consumed by his newspaper. It’s not long before a tall, middle-aged man enters the restaurant, calls out ‘Georges’, shakes his hand with a hearty one-two pump and takes the seat next to him. It’s immediately apparent that Georges’ friend is the kind of bar fixture who has the gift of banter.
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“When are you going to take my order?” he teases the bartender in an accusatory tone.
“Huh la la la la,” she replies, her four “las” uttered in quick succession. “Always the same. You haven’t changed.”
She would know. Marie-Claude Lainey has been serving Serge Jovanovic his lunch for the last 15 years.
Jovanovic and Georges Cano have also been eating their lunches together over the last 15 years. In the same bistro. At the same time. Nearly every day.
At Le Bistrot du Peintre, while every customer who crosses the threshold is greeted with a bright and cheerful ‘bonjour’, the regulars are welcomed by name and outstretched hands for quick, firm handshakes or customary French cheek-to-cheek kisses.
It’s this uniquely Parisian culture that Alain Fontaine wants to preserve and protect. The chef and restaurateur has launched a high-profile campaign seeking Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage status for the ‘art de vivre’ (art of living) found in bistros and cafe terraces throughout Paris.
Because over the past few decades, this social institution has come under threat, Fontaine laments, displaced by what he describes as an increasingly connected – and disconnected – world.
Around 30 years ago, bistros represented about half of all restaurants in Paris, says Fontaine, whose initiative has the support of trade unions, city hall, journalists and artists.
The bistro bar is a place of exchange, of conversation, a way of life
Today, he says that figure has dropped to 14%.
By Fontaine’s definition, an authentic bistro is an eatery that’s open continuously morning to night, serves French comfort foods at moderate prices, and houses an active bar where locals can gather for a drink and some lively conversation.
“The bistro bar is a place of exchange, of conversation, a way of life,” he explained at his own Paris bistro Le Mesturet. “You can have a blue-collar worker elbow-to-elbow with a CEO and an office worker, sharing a coffee, a glass of wine, discussing everything and nothing. Anyone can afford bistro prices, erasing all socio-economic lines.”
Jovanovic and Cano illustrate Fontaine’s point perfectly. They met as fellow diners at Le Bistrot du Peintre 15 years ago. But they come from very different walks of life: Jovanovic works in digital marketing and is gregarious and good-humoured. Cano, an artisan bronzesmith, is more soft-spoken, a little reserved.
Were it not for the bistro, it’s unlikely they would have socialised in the same circles.
The bistro culture has long been part of Parisian mythology, popularised by literary and philosophical greats like Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who made bistros and cafes their second homes and offices.
But a closer look at its history reveals that the classic Parisian bistro wasn’t started by enterprising Parisians, but by their compatriots from the Auvergne region of south-central France, who uprooted en masse to the French capital during the industrial revolution looking for work.
In Paris, they would occupy the lowest tiers of society, doing the jobs no-one else wanted: water carriers for public baths, coal delivery and the scrubbing of floors.
Eventually, the more entrepreneurial among them would open ‘coal cafes’ that pulled double duty: the husband would deliver coal, while the wife would sell coffee, wine and beer to her fellow working-class locals. The concept would later evolve to include modest, home-cooked meals at prices the labourers could afford.
It’s this spirit of congregation that Fontaine is desperate to preserve.
Over the years, he says, the iconic institution has become lost to changing dining habits, foreign influences and new technology.
Multinational fast-food chains like Starbucks, Chipotle, Pret A Manger and most recently Five Guys have planted their flags in the French capital, seducing young people with their trendy, Anglo-Saxon brands. Food delivery services like UberEats and Deliveroo are keeping people at home, and out of restaurants. Sky-high rents have squeezed bistros out almost completely in some parts of Paris.
And despite the #tousaubistro (everyonetothebistro) movement after the 2015 terror attacks, businesses were hit hard in the months that followed, according to Fontaine.
“What we want to defend is this art de vivre in the bistro that allows us to live together, exchange together, this cultural melting pot.”
He also rails against the growing ‘Anglo-Saxon’ influence of desk lunches in French workplaces, part of a larger epidemic in which people are disconnecting from friends and colleagues to eat alone in front of a screen.
For his part, Jovanovic still believes in observing the sanctity of the French lunch hour.
“The bistro is my oxygen bubble where I can breathe. I have a job where there’s a lot of pressure, and can be stressful. I come here to clear my head and change my environment.”
According to Fontaine, the mark of a true, authentic bistro is the existence of a working bar that invites people to gather together and socialise.
At the counter, everyone is equal
For Jovanovic, the bistro’s zinc bar is his preferred dining spot, a place where he can condense a meal and lively conversation into the space of an hour.
“This is also how I met Georges, at the counter, over the special of the day,” he said.
Hervé Bonal, owner of Le Bistrot du Peintre, shares Fontaine’s interpretation of the bar’s role in the community, after having worked behind his for 27 years.
“At the counter, everyone is equal,” he said. “Often, strangers will end up talking to each other, about everything from the president of the United States, the president of France, the financial crisis, to the latest car that just came out. Everyone has the right to give their opinion. That’s why we call it the people’s parliament.”
Alongside the bistro, the application for Unesco status will also underscore the importance of Paris’ outdoor terraces, where rows of rattan chairs are placed strategically to face out onto the street, turning pavements into open-air theatres.
Here, the show has no beginning and no end, and the cast of characters is constantly changing, be it a woman cradling a bouquet of flowers exiting left or a father holding the hand of his young daughter entering the stage, scene right.
In French, the spectator sport of people-watching on an outdoor terrace has its own expression: flâner en terrasse. There is an art to it, requiring the practitioner to slow down, sit still and permit themselves the luxury of being idle.
It’s perhaps the one Parisian experience visitors to the city are quickest to nail down, perhaps because they are quick to understand how diverting and restorative it can be.
Over in the 3rd arrondissement, Sylvia Krouheim has snagged prime real estate on the outdoor terrace of Le Barbouille bistro. It’s a Parisian pastime the German native has happily adopted as a regular weekend ritual while in Paris. The retiree splits her time between Cologne and the French capital.
“I come to have a drink and people-watch,” she said. “We have cafes in Germany but not this culture of sitting idle and people-watching. I enjoy it.”
Meanwhile, to be clear, a bistro is not to be confused with its fancier cousin, the brasserie, Fontaine adds. The brasserie is characterised by ornate, Art Nouveau architecture and decor, linen tablecloths, buttoned up waiters, upscale service – and the prices to match.
Likewise, the mark of a real neighbourhood bistro is one that is open from morning until night (from 07:00 to 22:00, for example) with continuous service.
Traditional bistro fare is rib-sticking comfort food from the collective French childhood – beef bourguignon, veal stew, chocolate mousse, crème caramel – and priced modestly to make it accessible to everyone.
The cuisine also differs from ‘bistronomie’, which Fontaine describes as gussied-up bistro food at haute gastronomy prices.
He emphasises that in the Unesco dossier, food will play little more than a supporting role. Instead, bistros and cafe terraces will be presented as the heart of neighbourhood communities in Paris – literally, in some cases.
The bistro is also a common setting for the cinematic ‘meet cute’. Bonal himself met his wife at the bistro when she was a diner. That was 23 years ago. But it can also serve as the secretive meeting place for illicit lovers. Bonal recounts the time an adulterous couple got caught at his bistro. There were tears, screams and slammed doors, he remembers.
Meanwhile, Fontaine faces some stiff competition for Unesco World Heritage status. Similar campaigns have been mounted for Paris’s iconic grey rooftops and open-air booksellers. Groups have until this autumn to submit their dossier to the Ministry of Culture, which will then choose which cause to present to Unesco in March 2019.
For bistrotiers, securing Unesco recognition would help restore pride and officialise the bistro’s role in the neighbourhood, says Fontaine.
The ultimate goal is for younger generations to continue the tradition and for new bistrotiers to keep the art de vivre and original spirit of the bistro alive.
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