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Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots live up to exquisite reputations

Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots are famous because of who used to consume food and drink there. Long-gone waiters at these cafes served up libations to Breton, Hemingway, Picasso, Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir. The cafes now attract lots of tourists and many philosophy and English majors. I even saw an editor soliciting work outside Deux Magots with manuscripts spread out on a blanket.

Recently I had a perfect meal at Cafe de Flore (“caw-fay duh florr”). (“La flore” refers to the profuse flora–ebullient flowers and plants–sprouting from the windows over the cafe.) The waiter was efficient and kind, and he spoke lovely French even when he heard my American bumbling. He was patient with the difficult man next to me, baby-talked a dog in the arms of a passerby, and served a British family with two squirmy little boys their sandwiches and hot chocolates like they were royalty. This was a man who loved his job.



My omelette au jambon et fromage (with ham and cheese) was hot and creamy. The fresh salad must have had, gosh, two entire tomatoes sliced into it. With the basket of bread, this made a meal too big for one sitting, so I slid half the omelette and some tomato slices into my plastic container from Monoprix, saving all for a lunch-to-be-announced at my apartment. The sun poured down on the St. Germain sidewalk as I ate my food in small bites and sipped the Perrier, communing with Andre, Ernest, Pablo, Albert, Jean-Paul, and Simone.

My lunch was served on a circular paper table mat. The paper mat was decorated with a cartoon of a crowd of people and a line of cars along Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The cartoon was drawn by Jean-Jacques Sempe (b. 1934, shown below), a cartoonist from Bordeaux known for drawing the French Everyman, and whose art has decorated many New Yorker covers. Sempe first gained fame illustrating the cartoon strip Le Petit Nicholas (Little Nicholas). Except for the glops of omelette and cheese, the cartoon was beautiful enough to bring home.

As a hungry cartoonist visiting France, I felt I’d hit the trifecta. After finishing my omelette, I went around the corner to the Cafe de Flore gift shop and bought a little pitcher to add to my collection.

Locking Cafe de Flore’s literary reputation, the Prix (Prize) de Flore was started in 1994, recognizing young authors writing in French. The prize is awarded every fall at the cafe. In addition to getting prize money and Pouilly (a delicate white wine) served in a glass with the winner’s name etched into it, each winning author has to write a short story centered around the cafe’s prize party. The last prize winner (2006) was Christine Angot for her novel Rendez-vous.

I have also had two wonderful meals at Les Deux Magots (“lay doo mah-goh”–images of which are shown below), the rival cafe on St. Germain just to the east across Rue Saint-Benoit. Even with an overflow eating section east of the terrace, the cafe retains the magic ambience its name infers to so many.


Les Deux Magots means “the two Chinese commercial agents” and refers to two figures carved out of wood mounted on a pillar inside the cafe (see image below). These two fellows may have come from the import-export establishment on top of which this cafe was built.


Approaching these famous cafes can be a little intimidating given their intellectual history and very busy appearance. My experience has been, however, that the best waiters work here, the food is fresh, and you get to share your meal with some ghosts of art, philosophy, and literature. You might even ask a waiter for a clean Sempe cartoon table mat to take home.