Au Revoir, Les Cafes

Prices & Le Stress Are Killing a Paris Tradition

By Deborah Baldwin Special to The Washington Post, 18 October 1995, p. E1, E8.
   There's sad news indeed from the land of buttery croissants, milky
coffee and strong cigarettes: The corner cafe is dying.

The number of cafes in France has fallen by at least a third since 1960 some say by as much as two-thirds. Not surprisingly,television, McDonald's and le stress take much of the blame.

Well, the French have a word for this sort of thing, and when it comes to the disappearing cafe, it couldn't express my sentiments more perfectly.

"Bye-bye." Other people can go ahead and cry about mom-and-pop establishments that are struggling in the shadow of economic monoliths like McDonald's. And granted, there is no greater symbol of American capitalism gone amok than the golden arches.

But it sometimes seems the quaint French cafe must be suffering from too little competition rather than too much. How else to explain a business that keeps acting as if everything matters except the customer! At a time when the city's most expensive restaurants have been forced to spin off cheaper, less Pretentious bistros, and everywhere you turn you hear the words rapport prix-qualite (or "what you pay vs. what you get"), cafe owners seem

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Let them Eat Cake

oblivious to things that would send '90s-style entrepreneurs into a tailspin.

Little things--like those gasping sounds people make when they get their check.

"Try to get an orange juice in a cafe," says Alain Paolini, an admittedly unusual Parisian who doesn't drink coffee or smoke cigarettes. "It's three times more than a glass of wine."

Paolini remembers being drawn to cafes in his hometown, about 50 miles west of Paris, when he was in high school. But that was then. Today he's a 29-year-old management consultant who doesn't understand the appeal of secondhand smoke or drinking during lunch. "Some cafes are changing," he says. "They have food that's not too expensive, and they don't bitch if you order tap water. Others are probably going to go out of business, and I don't feel that bad about it."

"We have big worries," acknowledges Jean Biron, president of the National Federation of Cafes, Brasseries and Discotheques.

If hanging out is no longer a growth industry among French up-and-comers, Paris's remaining cafe-goers must be the most docile clientele this side of :a hospital waiting room. And with something like 60 million tourists jamming the streets of Paris every year-at least half of whom at any given time are in desperate need of a bathroom--certain well-placed cafes are going to be in business for a long time.

What's threatened is the low-brow corner cafe, where people go to buy their Gauloises and Lotto tickets and to nurse a draft beer. Once upon a time such cafes were also great meeting places, where people could swap news and argue about politics, fundamental French pastimes.

Of course, this is not the case today at all," Paolini points out. "We have phones. We can communicate with different means... Now you have 17 different channels to tell you what to think about everything."

"Paris is so fast-lane," he continues, "and there are too many cafes that don't offer the necessary level of service."

Everyone has their epiphanies, or moments when the most jaded among us still must stop and stare in disbelief. Mine came when a request for some nice hot tea in a clean, well-lighted place yielded a cup of hot water and a Lipton's tea bag--and a bill for 22 francs. That's more than $4, and it didn't include milk or lemon. In French cafes, it turns out, these condiments are considered side orders and priced accordingly. One nice thing about France is that cafe owners are required to post their prices in the window, where you'll typically find a small poster explaining in itty-bitty print that the usual demitasse, when taken at the bar, is 6 francs, while coffee served at a table will cost you 3 francs more. There's a certain logic here-after all, at this point you aren't drinking coffee so much as renting real estate-but even so I'm amazed at what passes for common sense in some places.

At the Arbalete Cafe, located not far from the famed Rue Mouffetard street market, a small creme--coffee with hot milk--will cost you 7 francs at the bar. One morning, figuring it was an opportunity to do the sort of thing that had brought me to Paris in the first place, I grabbed a newspaper and a table on the "terrace," a patch of side walk that had attracted the early-morning sun and maybe four other customers.

Of course, if I'd known a creme sitting down was going to cost 16 francs, I would have foregone the paper and opened a copy of "War and Peace." You keep learning the nuances. After studying the menu at a cafe near the hopelessly trendy Place Bastille late one evening, my daughter and I finally decided we could handle a 25-franc ($5) milkshake and 24-franc bottle of beer. These prices, as always, included tax and tip, and besides we had a great view of the bustling scene.

Then came the bill--for 57 francs. We bravely hailed the waiter, who was deep in conversation at the other end of (we now noticed) an empty establishment, and asked um, uh, how--

It was after 10 p.m., he explained, and special nighttime rates were in effect.

Oh. Okay.

There's an even screwier policy at Le Select, a popular place in Hemingway's old stamping grounds near Montparnasse. A demitasse sipped at 3 p.m. at an outdoor table costs 12 francs. At 4 p.m. it rises to 15 francs.

Must be those special late-afternoon rates.

In fairness, cafe owners have been feeling persecuted lately, and not without reason. Real-estate speculation in Paris is vicious, forcing lots of little guys out. The TVA, or sales tax, is much higher on food that's sold in restaurants than on food sold to go, and that includes the increasingly popular sandwiches sold by bakeries and street vendors. To make matters worse, the value-added tax on restaurant fare just went up again--to 20.6 percent. Finally, in a country with high social security taxes, service doesn't come cheap, which is one reason cafes charge so much to take the drink to your table.

In response to both tax creep and unfair competition, some 10,000 angry restaurant, hotel and cafe workers tuned out for demonstrations in virtually every region of France on Sept. 19, according to the National Hotel Industry Federation: a national demonstration is scheduled for next Monday at the Eiffel Tower. Saying they have the feeling they're "not being heard," industry activists are demanding a cut in the sales tax and "equality before the law"--what we Americans might call a level playing field--with the rest of the tourism industry.

Of course, life may not be that simple. Downplaying the impact of both MacDo (as it is known here) and la television, Trimta Arbel, owner of the Arbalete Cafe, says the problem runs deeper. "It's a question of money," he says. "Salaries haven't gone up" in recent years, "so people don't go out."

Why not fight fire with fire, he's asked, and lower the cost of that 16-franc creme?

Let's not be ridiculous. "If I lower my prices," he responds, "that's money out of my pocket."

-------------------------------------- Deborah Baldwin is a Paris-based writer.