The Nearly 'Best' Café

photo: bistrot de peintre

Is the Bistrot du Peintre Paris' 'best' café?

Maybe You've Seen It Somewhere

Paris:- Wednesday, 7. March 2001:- This town has about 3500 cafés, buvettes, drinking joints, saloons, pubs, plain and fancy bars, restaurants with bars, roofs with bars, barges with bars, bars with wine, nightclubs with bars, theme bars, cafés with terraces, bars in warehouses, and even cafeterias have some drinks.

Finding Paris' best one isn't going to be easy.

The 'best' restaurants are a handful, according to Michelin's 'red' guide. There are a lot of other guides and some of them disagree with Michelin's choices, but, basically, they all pretty much agree on the top ten, if not the order.

These ten top restaurants outnumber Paris' best café by ten to one, and there's no 'red' guide for cafés. Every lifestyle magazine, and there are getting to be a lot of these, promote their 'cafés of the month' or week. If it is by week, then they are four a month, multiplied by the number of magazines.

This is sheer volume and has nothing to do with 'best.' This is churning the accounts. This is putting life on a speedy merry-go-round and to hell with the consequences. The unknown Pierre's café is 'discovered' one week, copied by 15 other magazines the next week, enjoys three weeks of over-stressed fame, and then its 'out.' Boom. Gone. Fini.

Some Parisians are fickle. They'll go to anything certain magazines say is 'best' this week. When the next issue comes out, they are reading it in the métro, on their wayphoto: bar, bistrot de peintre to the newest 'best' place. They spend so much time doing this that they don't even have time to drink much unless they drink in the métro.

The café's original zinc-topped bar goes almost to the windows behind.

The 'best' café or bar in Paris is one that has been around for a long time without getting on anybody's 'best' list at any time within the past five years. Since it was 'best' before being discovered, it can get through its fleeting 'discovered' phase and then return to being a 'best' café without any spilt milk during the fuss.

Getting a good cup of café, always tiny, in Paris is hard too. As far as I'm concerned, it is impossible. Some places I know, ones that are nearly 'best' cafés, don't have good café.

You front up for a thimble-sized jolt of it, bolt it down, and off you go. This happens so fast nobody cares if it's any good. You might as well go too - there's no reason to stay around for seconds. Especially not at nearly a buck a pop.

Since café is the only thing I drink between 27. August and 16. July, I am certainly not looking for the 'best' café based on it. No, all I want is the best bar or café - the completely 'best' place even if some of its minor details like its café, are lousy.

Since I only decided to do this search this morning, and have only gotten around to actually doing it this afternoon, I have not had time to draw up a list of checkpoints. What the hell is the 'best' café anyway?

If I get started on this the search will never begin, so I'll just skip it. I'm going to trust my 'feeling' for it. If I 'feel' I've found this 'best' place, then I probably have.

There's a place in the lower end of the 11th arrondissement I've been past several times and I 'feel' thatphoto: resto section, bistrot peintre it's a good candidate for best. I have to start somewhere with this. The place is near the métro Ledru-Rollin. Just being near a name like this is a positive sign.

The former restaurant section, is now simply part of the café.

My métro map says what I feared. To get to Ledru-Rollin, I have to go all the way over to Daumesnil and change to another line there. Or, if I go the regular way, I have to change twice, and the second time only to go one stop.

The rule in Paris is - if it's only one stop, don't bother taking the métro. By the time you walk through the tunnels and go up and down all the stairs in them, you might just as well walk on the surface.

There is interesting stuff to see in métro tunnels, if you like advertising posters and lots of white tiles, but there's more interesting stuff on the street, and hardly any white tiles at all.

For this reason I quit the métro at Bastille. This is a good métro stop, the south part, because it has a view of the snazzy cabin cruisers in the Arsenal yacht basin. It must be one of the few métro stops with a view like this. All the other métro stops above ground are in barns, and not many overlook water.

The big deal at Bastille is the 'new' Opéra. It has things hanging off its sides, to catch the pieces falling off it. Architects come from all over the world to admire the spectacle of it.

The 52 metre-high column in the middle of Bastille is perfectly safe because it's made of bronze instead of clipped-on marble tiles. You can't get close to it anyway on account of the traffic.

After imparting this bit of colorful local lore, I head east on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine. This is where the attackers of the Bastille, before it was a bronze column, came from. Inphoto: tables, bistrot peintre the old days, the king's advisors used to say everything east of Bastille was 'Red,' but the Bastille wasn't especially defended against this menace.

Looking for a place to write your next novel in Paris?

The street is still full of fake-Louis furniture makers and their showrooms, some of which are in alleys branching off the street. There are few cafés, but I knew this. There is the Sanz Sans, but it is an awful-looking place, even if it is okay.

On my side, across from the Sanz Sans, there is the Barrio Latino - which I've never seen before. It's in a perfectly over-lookable old warehouse, so it is not any sort of 'best' café either.

But I can't be too single-minded about this, so I give its inside a once-over. The main bar is in a huge area with a few sofas scattered around. The restaurant areas are on upper floors, reached by elaborate stairways. These surround a hole in the middle with a big skylight over it.

In mid-afternoon, there are still diners upstairs. The downstairs bar area, and there's another one in back tastefully decorated with beer bottle caps, is full of nothing but elbow-room. I try to imagine it with elbows in it, or monkeys. They could be climbing up the iron pillars.

The rest of Saint-Antoine only has a few fourth-class cafés. These are not just dumps, they look dumpy. At the beginning of the Rue de Charonne, there is a funky-looking place, but it is right beside a red light where cars idle and give off deadly gases. Scratch it.

Ledru-Rollin comes up. With its McDo's on the corner, it is easy to spot. Turning into its avenue makes the McDo disappear. For a long block nothing happens in the Avenue Ledru-Rollin except its name.

At the corner of the Rue de Charonne - if you are wondering how this got here, the answer is simple. It took a bend to the right, before scooting out east towards Bagnolet's way. Aren't the names neat? 'I can't get no Bag-no-let.' 'Ledru-Sonny-Rollins.'

Yes. Well, on this corner is the Bistrot du Peintre, which is the place I've been past in the past, several times, and the place I've come back to - to check it out for its 'best' possibilities.

It has a terrace, one that goes around the corner with the Rue de Charonne. On the bend, the wicker terrace chair makes the curve too, making it a custom four-seater. The awning overhead must be a classified monument. The terrace also has wind baffles at either end, which means on two different streets, for two different wind sets.

The terrace has enough of a view, and enough people go down the avenue to keep it interesting. The wooden windowphoto: terrace, bistrot peintre frames of the café are kind of art nouveau whirley, with lots of glass of different sizes. Good lights are built into them, so it is an evening terrace too.

The bar part of the inside is narrow and irregularly-shaped. The bar is wood with a well-used zinc top. There is a wider, square room at one end, with a stairway going upstairs to the billiard room, which is the restaurant part. Just inside the main doors, there is a stairway going downstairs to the waterworks.

The café's terrace on the Ledru-Rollin side.

The divider between the two ground-floor areas is a bit of beautiful glass, with a bowl of grapes and the word 'restaurant' etched in it. The place, with its wooden window frames, stairways with metal uprights, the ceiling with its molding - all of it is old, café-grimed, and built-in to fit.

It is a café full of details. You could stand in it or sit in it and not see the same thing twice for years. Then, it has windows on two sides, so there is the terrace to look at too. After some time of this, there is the terrace's view as well.

I could go on all day about this, but I can't just appoint the first or second place I come to, as 'best' café. The place's café is only medium, but I'm not holding this against it. The Bistrot du Peintre may eventually get the prize, but I have to be fair and get going.

Back to Bastille along Charonne I go. This is a street where things come and go rapidly. This week's 'new' thing is the Bar à Soupes. I don't remember what it was the last time I came this way, but 'Bar à Soupes' is original. It's probably some new brand of so-so beer.

While I've been traipsing around, the whole world has gathered on the terraces of the cafés on the north side of the Place de la Bastille. None of these places will ever get near being 'best.'

But they are pretty good at being great beach-like terraces, on this nearly great afternoon in early March in Paris.

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