On Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés, sitting a short block away from each other, are rival cafés Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots. They became rivals in the early decades of the twentieth century, when the intellectuals, writers, and artists of the period became loyal to one or the other.
On one of my trips to Paris, I made it a mission to choose my own personal favorite of the two.
Parisian cafés are more than a place to have a quick coffee in the morning. They are a gathering place for friends, a meeting place for colleagues, and a home away from home for locals to sit and mull over the newspaper or a good book.
The outside tables are usually filled with patrons that sit facing the boulevard, drinking espresso or sipping wine (depending on the time of day), smoking Galoises, greeting the passers by, and discussing the news of the day.
Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots first opened in the late 19th century. Both were venues where proponents of various political movements of the time could congregate for passionate discussions.
Historically, Café de Flore was associated with the right wing, and Deux Magots with the left. The literati of Paris held court at the Café de Flore, while Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso preferred Les Deux Magots for their artistic dialogues. The now-famous patrons of each café were steadfastly loyal to their respective haunts, creating an unspoken rivalry.
Café de Flore is located on the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and rue Saint-Benoit. It was named for the sculpture of Flore, the goddess of Spring, that once stood across from the café. The art deco interior, complete with red leather banquettes and polished mahogany, has changed very little over the years.
One block away, Les Deux Magots faces the church of St-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris.
In the early nineteenth century, the building housed a shop that sold precious goods from the Far East. The past life of the site, along with a popular play of the era called “Les Deux Magots de la Chine” or “The Two Figurines from China,” inspired the name of the café.
That would explain the wooden statues that flank either side of a large column, presiding over the room.
So, to my test.
On alternate mornings, I had breakfast at Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots. I made my judgement based not so much on the cuisine, because both are exceptional in that respect, but on where I felt more comfortable.
I soon found myself wanting to return to Les Deux Magots. The sun streaming through the tall windows, and the kind white-aproned waiters, so patient with my badly-accented French, won me over.
Each morning I would have a café au lait, which was brought to me as a small brown ceramic pitcher of coffee and a separate white pitcher of steamed milk, a tall glass of jus d’orange pressé, and either a piece of baguette with butter and jam, or, on one very late morning, fried eggs and jambon.
(I noticed that the woman next to me had ordered thick slices of toasted brioche one day. If you’re a regular, you know to order things like that. I ordered it the next morning.)
One morning I sat next to an elderly man reading a hefty history book. I could see him giving my streamlined Kindle a sidelong glance, so I showed him how I could electronically turn over the corner of a page to bookmark it, just as he folded over the corner of his paper pages. We bonded, and, in companionable silence, went back to reading our respective books.
At that moment, I felt I belonged there.
So my vote is in, and it goes to Les Deux Magots.
Join the tradition, and choose a side on your next trip to Paris!