'My' Corner Café Re-Opens

photo: new bouquet bar

Since last Monday, this view of the new Le Bouquet
greets entering customers.

Too 'Spiffy' To Be True?

Paris:- Friday, 18. February 2000:- Dimitri thinks he is on a spending spree and he is worried about it. He's wearing a new wool coat he got for nearly nothing on a flea market, and he thinks having one might be degenerate. It is a warm and good-looking coat though.

The other thing he saw recently - an unused and boxed speedometer for a 2CV for 300 francs - he didn't buy. Now he is in a dither about going back to get it, and fears it will be gone. It would match his 2CV, but he thinks it would look better displayed on a shelf.

As long as he is in this frame of mind, there are also several things wrong with the café's renovation. It looks too new for one thing. It ought to, after looking like a simple neighborhood café for 20 years.

Another thing Dimitri notices are the useless spring-things on the suspended lamp shades. Thephoto: bar before architect had to put in some one thing totally silly - like an extra dot on the 'i' and these bed-springs are it.

The ceiling-decor's plaster ripples have streaky-brown paint applied to them - which destroys their ripple effect with light because the paint is too dark. And this contrasts too much with the base-color cream paint.

Dimitri's corner of the bar - as it was.

Finally - as Dimitri rubs the elbow-molding on the bar's edge - he says they did a sloppy job on it; they didn't fill it first before the varnish. The varnish feels sticky in fact - like it's already got dried, spilled beer on it.

We are in our reopened 'corner' café, running it down after its six-weeks of renovation. Dimitri restores Louis XV household goods for a living, so he knows about finishing off wood - as well as adding gilding to it.

He also knows how to rub an elbow on a bar's edge molding. After another 20 years this new version will be smooth.

He tried to talk Le Bouquet's 'patron' into 23-carat gold leaf for the rippled ceiling moldings, but, he said, they didn't want to know about it. Dimitri told them he'd put it on for nothing.

Some people think Paris is made up of 100 'villages' instead of its official 20 arrondissements. Other people say Paris has 'quartiers,' as in Latin Quarter, Châtelet or the Marais.

But most people who live in Paris really have their 'coins' - corners - which are sub-villages within quartiers, which are subsections of arrondissements.

Usually this 'coin' is referred to as 'my little corner.' In this corner you have everything that can meet your daily needs within a few hundred metres distance - such as the corner café.

The corner café is vitally important to life in Paris. It can be a simple one - or a combination café, bar,photo: bar after restaurant, off-track betting parlor, tabac, and lottery sales point. If it is both of the latter two, it will have postage stamps, administrative stamps for paying parking tickets, and some gift items to take home when you are in the soup.

Et voilà! The all-new, 'spiffy' Le Bouquet.

Corner cafés cater to everybody; all ages from babies to grandparents, and their pets. These cafés are often used as living rooms, because the one you might have in your apartment is too small to be anything but your own personal cave.

Around my 'corner' in Paris I have a choice of about 10 cafés. I have tested them all and the one I've chosen is Le Bouquet. It is a simple place, with hot meals up until mid-afternoon. It opens early and it closes between eight and nine and it is closed on Sunday.

I tested all the other places when I moved here last summer. One or two others come in a close second; these are handy for Sundays when 'my' number one is closed.

The people who live around my 'corner' have just come through a difficult time. On the last Friday of last year, Le Bouquet closed for renovations - probably for the first time since the '50's.

This has meant that for the past six weeks everybody who used the café as their living roomphoto: new blackboard menu had none. And everybody's 'second choice' was a different one - one or two of the other nine. One whole café community was impossibly scattered.

For the first couple of couple of weeks I did rounds of the other nine 'corner' cafés. Of Le Bouquet's 20 to 40 regulars, I never found more than four or five in any one of the others.

The patron of the patron, chalking up the day's fare. This is a new feature too.

Catastrophe! Le Bouquet, as it was, was a seedy dump. It was lived in with gusto; and its crumminess suited everybody - especially fanciers of the old like Dimitri, who knows how to make new stuff look 250 years old.

Anybody who didn't like Le Bouquet like it was could be in any of the nine other places, and this was fine with Le Bouquet's regulars.

Le Bouquet had little-chip mirror pieces on its two metal pillars, and its lumpy tile floor was also made up of little chips. In some ancient expansion of its terrace, a street-name sign got left on an outside pillar when the café extended its terrace to put the pillar inside.

In this perfect-photocopy world, Le Bouquet was unique. Of the thousands of cafés in Paris, no other was identical to it.

When unique places in Paris are 'renovated' they tend to lose some of their character, so we were pretty worried about this because architects all go to one school. Most of them learn the latest in mall design, or slightly more downmarket, warehouse-like hypermarché design.

Café architects know how to wreck good cafés; probably because they spend their school years in dreary cantines or the pre-fab slums that usually house the average architectural schools.

They can take a comfortable and moldy old place and turn it into an oppressive cavern lit with blinding spotlights, whichphoto: old nut vendor reflect off the chromed drip panels and brass bar tops. I won't mention the other stupid things they can do with cafés.

This old nut machine probably fetched a recent high price at 'Les Puces.'

When Le Bouquet closed, all we knew was that the 'patron' intended to keep the wooden bar itself. This was a vital ray of hope to keep in mind while circulating around the nearby corners to the nine other not-quite-so-good-places week after miserable week.

For six weeks, every time I passed the place it was possible to see a dust-covered crew in it, working like beavers. I looked in once and saw that the unusual ceiling molding was still intact and there was a big safety-packaged bundle that I assumed was the bar.

After the second or third week, I quit touring the nine 'other' cafés and fell back on my 'Sunday' café. Some of Le Bouquet people were in it, but at different times. There was some recognition, but no handshakes in this temporary bus-station of a place.

Last weekend Le Bouquet looked nearly finished and its 'patron,' his son - the junior patron - and wife, kids, dogs, and the two waiters, were getting it ready for the reopening, while the workmen applied the last finishing touches. The window frames looked like they were painted with undercoating.

On Monday, I took a few minutes off to give the café its first road-test. The paint still seemed to be wet, but all of the café's essential elements seemed intact.

Considering that the place was totally gutted, putting its main elements back together the same way seemed amazingly daring. The bar is still in a 'L' and all the cabinets behind the bar seem to be perfectly identical replacements for the ones that were there.

Dimitri says the new wooden doors of the cabinets aren't as good as the old - which he admits were pretty worn-out.

The small-chip mirrors behind the bar are gone and the small-tile '50's-style floor has been replacedphoto: rue boulard sign with large stone tiles. Last night, Dimitri said the floor is not lumpy any more. I guess drinkers might notice this.

This 'inside' street sign is no longer part of the café.

Now Dimitri is grumbling about the replacing of the primitive toilet with a real one. He says the old one should have been enshrined. Some of the regulars are trying out the new one. Coming out, they look like they've had a touch of culture shock.

Even the over-large bouquet is back in its jug on its pedestal at the 'L' bend of the bar. Dimitri says the customers over on the other leg of the 'L' laugh too heartily. For him, 'over there' is like another neighborhood as far as Dimitri is concerned.

I stand 'over there' sometimes to get a different perspective on things; I figure having two distinct bar halves is like having two bars in one. I never stand near the huge bouquet unless I'm feeling like having a tropical jungle for a companion.

The only thing that looks like it is left over from the original bar is a cruddy dark blue box behind and below the bar near the beer taps. I wonder if it isn't an ice-maker, but Dimitri doesn't know - he is not even sure he's ever seen it before.

I point out that the genuine red nut-vending machine is no longer in place on the bar in front of the beer taps. That does it for Dimitri - the place has gone to the dogs - now only fit for ex-Minitel, now Internet, millionaires.

It is too clean he says. It is too tidy. The dark brown muddle on the ceiling's ripples is really getting him down.

Just the same, all the regulars seem to have come back - there are more than on a regular evening in the old version. We are two deep on both angles of the bar. Maybe they - we - are making up for lost time.

Dimitri is annoyed because the clock has been moved from where he could see it, to behind him. Personally, I don't think clocks belong in cafés.

If it keeps up, the café's new decor should acquire its necessary patina of smoke and steam and whatever else is loose in the air, in about ten years. If it keeps up.

When I leave my apartment I only have to walk 20 metres to the cross-street. If I turn left there, a 'corner' café is one long block away. I think it has changed owners because it isn't quite as snappy as it used to be, although it has the same sleepy waiters.

If I turn right, the new version of Le Bouquet is only two short blocks away. If I need to play the Loto or buy a stamp, I'll turn left.

But if I need 'my' corner café, I'll turn right. Tonight it's got more people in it than my living room. There has been sort of a 'gala' going on in it all week, after the big opening 'fête' which I missed last Tuesday.

After a week's trial, Le Bouquet certainly has pulled up its socks. It has sort of left its neighbors behind; thephoto: bar before, cafe side boulangerie across the way, the used bookshop and the wine restaurant are still comfortably original.

But the café's owner and his wife and his son and his son's wife are the same too. The two waiters and the cook are the same. The dogs are the same. The customers seem to be the same. Need I worry?

Oh! How sweet and crummy it was!

Le Bouquet is a very spiffy place now. It fits in with the rest of the 'spiffy' part of Rue Daguerre. The price of my habitual double-express has risen to match this 'spiffiness' too.

If the café's new 'clean' look attracts too much spiffy custom from the up-market end of Daguerre, I suspect some of Le Bouquet's regulars will drift further west up Daguerre to where the other 'corner' bars are unaffected by new paint.

While I make up my mind, I think I'll stand on the side of the bar where the laughter is louder. Like Dimitri I don't know what the laughter is about, but I think it is a bit too loud to be spiffy.

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