Ah, the Lost Generation. Many American writers are inspired by them, and many are inspired to be them. But the dream of a 1920s Montparnasse—even more than a 1960s Greenwich Village—is just that: a dream, and one nearly a century from the reality of modern Paris. Luminaries like Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre may have tromped the oily Boulevard Saint-Germain between World Wars, but their spirits have moved on from these places.
Les Deux Magots
6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés
With a full view of a massive intersection and all the foot traffic that carries through it, Les Deux Magots was a favorite of French intellectuals, Surrealist artists, and American expatriates alike. Hemingway drank there, although a more select list could be made of places Papa didn’t drink. Les Deux Magots was favored by Sartre and Albert Camus, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, and occasionally Pablo Picasso. But aside from the duo of Chinese statues affixed to adjacent walls, the café’s interior could easily be mistaken for the Odeon in New York; it’s the outdoor space—the space that takes its character from the street itself and not the long-departed ghosts of its famous regulars—that makes Les Deux Magots special.
But then, there’s no shortage of cafés set on streets worth watching, so you should consider that un café will cost you 4,40€, a Coca-Cola Zéro runs 6,50€, and a pint of Heineken or 1664 will make your wallet 11,60€ lighter.
Open 7:30am-1:30am daily
Café de Flore
172 Boulevard Saint-Germain
If Adam Gopnik is to be believed—and if not him, who?—the Café de Flore overtook Les Deux Magots in popularity in the waning decades of the 20th century, not in spite of its slightly less ideal position down the block from Deux Magots but because of it. Not that it was anything less than popular with the Lost Generation: Georges Bataille and Pablo Picasso frequented the joint, as well as the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (not that he was known for his poetry). There’s an upstairs at Flore—things get seedier the higher and further away from the street you get—and their coffee is slightly cheaper than the Deux Magots, but the drinks are still pricey and their wine list runs into the mid-three figures. Like Deux Magots, Café de Flore suffers from a crush of tourists, a victim of its own legacy and legend.
Open 7:30am-1:30am daily
108 Boulevard du Montparnasse
Not to be confused with Café Le Dôme in the 7th, Le Dôme du Marais in the 4th, or Le Dôme de Villiers in the 17th, Le Dôme in Montparnasse was once known guilelessly as the “Anglo-American café.” Hemingway and Picasso drank there, surprising absolutely no one, but so did Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, who wrote about the café in Tropic Of Cancer and Delta Of Venus, respectively. Le Dôme also attracted famed occultist (and lyrical subject of Ozzy Osbourne) Aleister Crowley and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, artists Man Ray and Max Ernst, and a even little sparrow named Edith Piaf sang about the café.
Slightly younger than its Saint-Germain brothers, Le Dôme has the distinction of being a one-star Michelin restaurant with a Zagat rating of 22 for its seafood fare. A bouillabaise Marseillaise will serve two for 120€, a king scallop risotto is slightly cheaper at 58€, and a glass of rosé will cost the same as roughly two bottles of wine at the Marche Franprix down the street. Despite the popularity of Le Dôme, it’s still conceivable to go there for the food—but not in pursuit of les temps perdu.
Open 12pm-11pm daily
105 Boulevard du Montparnasse
Encore, do not mistake La Rotonde with the cafés of the same name in the 14th, 9th, or 19th arrondissements, nor Les Rotondes des Tuileries or Bastille, nor the Bar Tabac la Rotonde, and, at the very least, if you’re going to end up in the wrong place, don’t let it be the Pharmacie de la Rotonde, which not only has awful hours but a troubling drink menu. La Rotonde of Montparnasse is a serviceable French bistro, and in the “interwar years,” as the owners put it, you might be surprised to find Picasso enjoying a drink there—or more likely, you wouldn’t be surprised. Pablo was joined by the likes of Chagill, Modigliani, and Diego Rivera. The café became the epicenter of the painters who had forsaken Montmartre for Montparnasse, who brought the Parisian intelligentsia along with them, and, reportedly, even Leon Trotsky (much like cigar stores and Native American statues, all French cafés in the 20s were required, by law, to have at least one member of the Politburo).
The prices verge on passable—as these places go, anyway—although a demi of 1664 is only slightly cheaper than 12oz. Coke and infinitely less refreshing.
Open 6am-2am daily
La Closerie des Lilas
171 Boulevard du Montparnasse
Another endroit where one might find Hemingway sitting (a plaque marks his favorite spot at the piano bar), but as one of his favorite cafés in the city, Papa not only haunted the place—he wrote most of The Sun Also Rises there. André Breton and Tristan Tzara ended the Dada movement at the Lilas in a donnybrook. Fitzgerald, Miller, legendary horseracing writer Evan Shipman, Gertrude Stein, and Henry James all drank there, making La Closerie, in effect, une colonie Américaine. At their current prices, La Closerie’s menu invites those who have already made their bones to dine there—struggling writers would be hard-pressed to pay their tab in the waning years of the Saturday Evening Post—and while you can put a filet de boeuf Hemingway on your credit and pay for it later, certainly his ghost has moved on.
Open 12pm-12:30am daily
Harry’s New York Bar
5 Rue Daunou
You will never find a more resolutely American bar in Paris until someone else gets the idea to ship an entire bar across the Atlantic, and even then, Harry’s will still have the honor of being the first. That’s not the only first for which Harry’s claims ownership, either: the eponymous bartender, Harry MacElhone, is said to be the inventor of cocktails like the Bloody Mary, Side Car, and French 75, among others. The profile of Harry’s skews slightly broader than its French-born compatriots, attracting the likes of Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine in Casablanca was a fan of the champagne cocktail), boxer Jack Dempsey, and fashion icon Coco Chanel. It did attract its fair share of existentialists, like Sartre, and, as with any bar that was open in the 1920s, Hemingway was known to drink there.
These days, a French 75—well-crafted though it may be—will set you back a few metaphorical francs, and the bar is awash in tourists, but for those more interested in the mixological history of Harry’s than its literary backstory, the place is still a must.
Open Sun-Thu: 12pm-2am, Fri-Sat: 12pm-3pm
Of course, the cadre of expatriate writers living in Paris has not diminished in the century since the Lost Generation held sway over the boulevards of Montparnasse, and we will visit some of the most choice endroits for modern writers looking for a place to drink one day, but probably not until we’ve already moved on to other haunts.