“French coffee is undrinkable.”
“There is no coffee culture in Paris.”
“They like Starbucks!”
These were the refrains I heard over and over in the week leading up to a recent trip to Paris. Not surprisingly, they mostly came from Italians. I was skeptical – how can an entire city be ‘bad’ at coffee? Plus, my Instagram feed of chic cafes in chicer neighborhoods was telling me otherwise. Then again, Italians know their espresso, and their skepticism started to sink in. Testing their theory over four days, I concluded they’re both right and wrong.
French coffee is, in fact, not very good, but what they lack in taste, they make up for in ambience. The coffee in general was bitter and fruity, inferior to Italian coffee’s rich, deep flavors. (Some people like fruity coffee, and I’m not one of them, so this is partially a taste preference). Overall, the cappuccinos were thin, and paled in comparison to the full, frothy cups that wake me up each morning in Rome. And let’s talk about price. Buying someone coffee in Italy is fun, because it costs you 80 cents and you come across as a great friend. Buying someone coffee in Paris is a sacrifice and will bankrupt you before you know it. The cheapest espresso we found was €3, while cappuccinos and other specialty coffees were around €4.50. No, we were not going to touristy places — that’s just how much it costs. I never think of Italy as particularly cheap, but now I’m sure I could buy an entire café in Rome with the amount of money I would spend just drinking coffee for a year in Paris. Even by US specialty coffee house standards the price was excessive.
However, taste aside, it’s worth spending your life savings on coffee to get the atmosphere of the cafes in Paris. Comfy chairs, wifi, good music, great décor, creative and collaborative vibes, and did I mention comfy chairs and wifi? Why is this concept, so normal in every other big city, so foreign in Rome? I’ve grown accustomed to ordering and slamming espresso at the bar, but how amazing would it be if I could find a place to sit, relax, work, and read? Tradition is good when it comes to roasting coffee beans, but detrimental when it comes to customer comfort. The excitement on our faces as we stepped into each new cafe in Paris – ‘look they have tables and outlets!’ or ‘wait, we can sit here as long as we want!’ – was embarrassing and a sign that we’ve been living in café culture dark ages for the past year. Despite bitter beans, I left enamored with Paris’ more trendy café locations. Here, a roundup:
Pros – You pay by the hour, making it by far the cheapest place on the list. You get a card that tracks your time, and you pay €4 an hour or €12 for the entire day. That €4 comes with all-you-can-eat cereals, cookies, cakes, and coffee. Baristas are on hand to make more complicated coffee drinks and fresh squeezed orange juice. The café itself is bright and spacious, with a mix of armchairs, couches, and long tables for those who don’t mind communal space. It has an energetic vibe, and seemed like the perfect place to hone your startup idea with fellow entrepreneurs. The friendly staff and central location are added bonuses.
Cons – Thin cappuccino. (Don’t worry, I ate another free pastry and was over it).
Pros – Poached eggs and filter coffee. Do I even need to go on? You American readers will not understand the fuss, but Italian-living expats are gripping their computers in excitement and envy right now. Italians don’t do brunch, and poached eggs are a phantom food that exists only in our dreams and on our vacations. These were especially delicious, and so were the sides – hash browns, bacon, toast, and baked beans. The café was full of happy, cozy vibes, enhanced by the communal tables and yellow dishware. It reminded me of something you would find in DC’s Eastern Market, and since the French owners opened it after a trip to Melbourne, I’m guessing it’s a good resemblance of the café scene there too. I sucked down a steaming mug of filter coffee and Micaela ordered a flat white, which I had never heard of but apparently is a big deal in Australia. Either way it made her extremely happy so I think they did it justice.
Cons – Price. It wasn’t outlandish for brunch – €13 a plate or somewhere in that range and €3 or €4 for coffee drinks, but I wouldn’t call it cheap.
Pros – You can tell they take their coffee seriously here. They roast beans from around the world and it smells incredible when you walk inside. We saw the staff talking with customers about the bean varieties, and it was obvious the entire operation is done in-house. David Lebovitz goes into much greater detail about his La Caféothèque experience here, and you should definitely check it out for his comparisons between American, French, and Italian cafes. In my experience, the fact that my coffee was iced but still flavorful, giving me reprieve from the intense outdoor heat while satisfying my addiction to both the taste of coffee and its caffeine, made my day.
Cons – The service was (very) slow, and you might feel like you’re not cool enough to be here.
This might be my favorite café we sampled. The owner, Channa Galhenage, moved to Paris from London, and is clearly passionate about his work. He talked with us about how the US, Australia, and England have had café culture down for awhile (um, yeah, we know), but more importantly how Paris is going places with coffee. He talked about the vibrance of the French roasting style, the complexities of the fruitier flavor, and the plethora of specialty drinks. “Italians invented the stuff, but they’re stuck,” he said. “They have no imagination when it comes to coffee.” He has a point, and I have to say his coffee was one of the best, flavor-wise, that I had in Paris. He uses beans that come from a Belgian roaster called Caffe Nation, and he swears by his Florentine Marzocco machine, (or at least that’s what a profile about him told me later as I was online stalking). The café was cool as well and typical of what you would find in any civilized city — wicker chairs, tables, exposed brick walls, full length mirrors, artsy wallpaper, and indie music. Bonus points for the lecture hall style desks that line the couch in front. I would work here every day if I could.
Cons – That it doesn’t exist in Rome.
I’m always looking for new coffee shops around the world, and I never had a great way to organize them. Then I discovered Tripnary, which lets you create bucket lists and filter by country or city. Such a great tool for keeping my caffeine addiction in check! Check out my Paris coffeeshop bucket list here.