The Quartier Latin's Bar Central

On the terrace of La Palette
The terrace gets sun before noon; shade after.

La Palette May Be 'The' Paris Bar

Paris:- Friday, 6. June 1997:- I think it took me about three hours of being in Europe to discover the Bar Central. This civilized institution was unknown in the colony I came from, so at first, the importance of the Bar Central was not obvious to me.

If I think hard about it, I can say that some small communities in the colonies have Bar Centrals, but they are seldom as fully developed as their European forerunners. Larger communities have no Bar Centrals because they usually have no centres; which is a terrible thing when you think of it. No wonder people in the colonies are so dazed and unfocused.

Once I learned about the Bar Central, I learned to look for them wherever I go. When you are in a new town, they are the best starting point, and if you want to begin learning about your new town, the Bar Central always has the basic information you need.

Now if you think I am going to tell you the name of Paris' 'Bar Central' the answer is no. Paris is a collection of '100 villages,' so it has many Bar Centrals and since there are many sub-villages, they also have their Bar Centrals too. The sheer number of them gives you an idea of their fundamental importance.

On a European scale of importance, the Bar Central is probably in your personal number two spot, right after wherever it is you take most of your meals. If you don't Interior of bar currently have a Bar Central, you are probably either in prison or a booby-hatch - that's how fundamental a Bar Central is.

The painting over the mirror beyond the bar, is of a place with a warmer climate.

The oldest part of Paris is called the Quartier Latin. This is because when the first visitors came in 53 BC, it was called Lucotetia and it was inhabited by 'Parisii.' The visitors, having sharper swords and their own proper language, changed the name to Lutetia, and since they had no intention of living the swamps on the right bank, they started up the Rive Gauche, now as then known locally as the 'Quartier Latin.'

There seems to be no trace left of the Roman's first Bar Central, although they left plenty of other souvenirs behind - such as the baths of Cluny. The Roman's stayed longer than most visitors - about 500 years - and when they left barbarians came and wrecked everything, including the first Bar Central.

Actually, the barbarians came in 276, long before the Romans left. Before this, Lutetia had 200 years of golden prosperity - never since equalled - during the reigns of Vespasian, Trajan, Adrian, and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, to name but a few of the more illustrious emperors. Around 360, everybody started calling Lutetia 'Paris' - except Julian who was still calling the place Lutetia in 368.

In 508, Clovis, chief of the Francs, showed up and made Paris his capital. The '100 villages' were started and with them, their Bar Centrals.

One of these, in the Quartier Latin, is La Palette at number 43, rue de Seine. This part of the street dates to the mid-13th century when it was called the Chemin du Pré-aux-Clercs or 'road tending View to terrace towards the Buci Gate' - but it has been just plain rue de Seine since 1489. On a map dated 1551, the rue de Seine is shown outside the city walls and to the west of it are fields - probably belonging to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés parish.

The Tower of Wood was directly across the Seine from where the street met the river - and has since been replaced by the Louvre.

If the weather is good, the doors never close.

The first time I was at La Palette, it was night and I had come down from Buci. At the time, I hadn't even seen the Louvre and had no idea it was just down the street and across the river - nor had I any idea that the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was only 180 metres away and the architecture school was not far off.

Since I was going there to meet some people I didn't do a lot of sightseeing going down from Buci and didn't particularly notice the art galleries, bookshops and publishers which I passed. It probably wasn't cold but it might have been raining and it was late in March or early in April, so it was dark. The sidewalks on the rue de Seine are so narrow that two people can hardly pass and you have to look where you're going if you're in a hurry or you'll break a hip on a rear-view mirror.

La Palette first opened in 1903. Its doors are not wide and the bar is in a small area just inside them. After work and just before everybody leaves for dinner elsewhere, the bar is crowded and there are two tables there too. There is a larger room that was once used for billiards behind the bar and everybody going there has to pass through the crowd at the bar.

The single toilet is in the bar area, opposite the door to the billiard room, and people coming out of it often trip on the extra step down. A minuscule kitchen is beside this and between its door and the billiard room there used to be two tables that were good for watching the scene in the bar, yet being out of the way of the constant traffic. It didn't matter if you sat with your back to the bar, because there was and is a large mirror on the wall.

The billiard room is larger in area, but in winter it is crowded and it has its traffic too because the telephone is in one corner; and it is not so long ago people that did not carry them around and most public telephones were in bars.

I do not know if this bar was named La Palette in 1903 when it opened, but the Beaux-Arts was there then, so it might have been. There are some painter's palettes up Awning mechanism high on the walls and these seem about as appropriate as fish-net in sailor's bars; but there are some paintings too and I have a couple of favorites.

The mechanism of the awning is not only classé; it works too.

The one I like best is on the wall, high up, between the kitchen and the billiard-room entrance. It is a big painting, probably of the countryside in Provence, but it looks enough like places I've seen in Spain, so I choose to think that is what it depicts. On a rainy night, standing at the bar, it is good to look at it if you feel like being somewhere else.

In the billiard room there are some decorated tiles too, and if you've seen photographs of Paris bars, you've most likely seen these. There are many mirrors in the billiard room too, which make it seem at lot bigger than it is, and a lot more crowded. In summer, it is very quiet and dim, and it is a good place to do serious reading if you have to do some.

La Palette, with its period decor, located in the Quartier Latin near the artists and writers, seems like a parody of the artists' bar; its 'palettes' being a touch of kitsch. All it lacks are obviously 'starving artists.'

However, it is the real thing. It is a 'site classé,' which means that the owner cannot change the way it looks, cannot change the 1920's awning mechanism because it is original - and it functions perfectly.

Real artists, if they are any good, are seldom starving - as you may guess from all the galleries which are in the area of the bar - and they come to La Palette with their dealers to discuss business over a drink, just as writers meet their editors here for the same reason. Picasso and Braque met their dealers here.

The 'bar central' of this area is La Palette. If it, and the bars up the block at the Marazin corner, were not here, all the galleries and book shops, the editorial offices - and maybe even the Beaux-Arts itself, would wither and die. If the bar-café-tabac in my village closed, it would be the end of the village.

La Palette is not merely a museum, open to the public for long hours. If it were possible to declare people as 'sites classés,' then the owner and the people who work - do they 'work' or do they live here? - would be official monuments too.

The first owner ran the bar for 20 years; the owner before the present one had it for as long. Jean-François worked as waiter in the bar for more than a decade before buying it around 1985, and he still works in it as a waiter. Most of the people working Jean-Francois in the bar today were in it the first time I entered it in 1976.

At a certain period, I went to La Palette often. The people I knew then moved away and I went to other parts of Paris, to other bar centrals. There were five-year periods when I never saw La Palette. When I am in the area, I try and drop in for a café at least, and if Jean-François sees me he asks me how I'm doing as if I had been there the Friday night before.

In this 'Bar Central,' the waiter is the boss. Meet Jean-François.

Talking to him today, I am struck by his awareness of being not only at the centre of this, his, 'quartier,' but also by his awareness of La Palette's location in Paris, in the world - and Paris' unique ability to be a small town within each of its parts.

The decorators doing a gallery down the street come in for a mid-morning jolt of café and Calva; last week Harrison Ford spent parts of several afternoons on the Terrace. This is what it is like: even if La Palette is 'classé' it is still the neighborhood's bar central. Even if you are not an artist and you are not famous, you can take a seat and be served with whatever you want just as if you were.

On top of everything else, La Palette is in a freak location. The surrounding buildings provide shade at the right times of day; but they also reflect light - the famous Paris' grays and ochers - and this makes sitting on the terrace a non-stop 'impressionist' light-show. The light can double the effect of a glass of cool Sancerre, or triple it. It is nearly impossible not to order another glass.

Located where it is, this Bar Central - La Palette - is the essential Parisian model of the genre. What makes it different, is that the sum of its parts is greater than its total; which is greater than the totals of any other Bar Central - in Paris.

La Palette is closed Sundays and throughout August, and closes for a week in February. Otherwise, it is open forever.

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