With the upcoming anniversary of the introduction of the Corona measures and the consequent closure of all gastronomies across France approaching, today I’d like to talk about one of the most iconic features of the cityscape and ambience in Paris – the terrace.
80% of all French people said in a 2020 survey that they missed the terraces in Confinement (Lockdown) the most. That’s not exactly a surprising fact. The café terraces in Paris are not just for drinking coffee, they are indispensable places for social exchange. People meet friends, discuss the news and socialize. Not to forget the aspect of „seeing and being seen“.
The tradition of French cafés and their terraces is rather unique in the world.
A Short History of the Parisian Terrace
The first Parisian cafés were founded under Louis XIV. The Café Procope, reputedly the oldest café in Paris, opened in 1686 in the 6th arrondissement and became a meeting place for many philosophers, musicians, writers and – thanks to its proximity to the Comédie-Française – actors. Among its guests were Rousseau, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander von Humboldt and many more. (English Wikipedia: Café Procope)
The idea of the terrace arose at about the same time. In the course of some restructuring, Louis XIV had the city walls (along what is now metro line 2) demolished and established extensive allées. Along these, some of the residents now began to rent out tables and chairs for passers-by.
When Haussmann completely restructured the city in the 19th century and today’s boulevards were created, the terraces in front of the cafés spread out thanks to the newly gained space.
Here are some beautiful pictures from the time around 1900: À la terrasse des cafés parisiens en 1900 (As a former Munich resident, I particularly like the second one…)
The terraces experienced a heyday in the period between the wars, when people had a particularly great need for distraction and entertainment. At that time, there were an incredible 320,000 cafés (many with terraces) in Paris.
Incidentally, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two of the most famous guests of Café Flore on Boulevard St Germain, hardly ever sat on the terrace. Their regular place was inside the café on the first floor.
Not without my Terrace…
In short, Paris is unimaginable without its terraces. In 2018, there were even efforts to have Parisian bistros and terraces recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (French cuisine already made it in 2010). On every corner – even in quiet residential areas – there are tables and chairs in front of the bars, bistros and restaurants. And most of the time they are well occupied.
The terraces even find their way into children’s books…. „There are two kinds of people in Paris: People who are in a hurry and people who sit on the café terraces.“ (Quote: Le Loup qui voulait faire le tour du monde von Orianne Lallemand und Éléonore Thuillier – Auzou)
The fact that smoking has been strictly prohibited indoors in cafés, restaurants, bistros and bars since 2008, certainly contributes to the success of the terraces, because there it is allowed. And since there are still relatively many smokers among French people of all classes and ages*, it is not surprising that the (still heated) terraces are also used in winter when it is cold or raining.
I know, from an environmental point of view this is an outrage and will certainly change in the near future. However, I’m sure that Parisians – as with so much else – will adapt. (Beheizte Terrassen in Paris – Französische Lebensart prallt auf Ökologie)
For me, Parisian terraces are an indispensable part of the city. And that was already the case when I came to Paris „merely“ as a visitor. My first port of call was always one of the city’s terraces to drink a completely overpriced Coke for about 6-8 euros.
I don’t do that (drink overpriced Coke) anymore (so often). Nevertheless, the terraces have remained an important part of my „outdoor“ life. I read a book, work over coffee or meet friends for a pint or a glass of wine.
And here might be another reason for the success of the terraces: Paris is not necessarily a „green“ city. It is – also thanks to the development restrictions of the Péripherique (city motorway ring) – densely populated. There are few green spaces that invite you to linger. In addition, the smaller district parks usually close as dusk falls. And nobody really wants to be out at night in the Bois de Boulogne… Apart from that, the French like to drink their coffee (or beer) „sur place“, and in proper cups.
So the buildings are narrow and the population dense. Most Parisians also have less living space available compared to the inhabitants of say large German cities. The average living space here is 52sqm. (In contrast to Berlin: 70 sqm – as of 2008) Life therefore takes place largely outside of one’s own four walls.
If you want to spend time outdoors, the terraces are the only place to go. For coffee in the morning before you go to work, for lunch or an apéro that often leads to dinner. Basically, you can spend the whole day on your favorite terrace.
And then there was Covid
In March 2020 everything changed.
At around 8pm on Saturday 14 March 2020, it was announced that all catering establishments across France would close indefinitely due to the development of the pandemic. At that time of the announcement, we were in our regular bistro – on the terrace.
I never thought that such a measure would be possible in Paris without causing riots. But due to the situation, the prevailing fear and uncertainty, it remained surprisingly calm.
The next two months (on 17 March, the nationwide strict confinement for everyone with exit restrictions etc. began) felt a bit like Sundays in a German pedestrian zone: dreary. From one day to the next, I was no longer living in one of Europe’s most famous nightlife districts, where the party feeling reigns from Thursday evening to Sunday morning, but in a deserted neighborhood reminiscent of quiet suburbs.
Everything was on pause. Fini les Terrassen, bonjour Apéro dans la Fenêtre ouverte…
Les Terrasses Éphémères
However, on 2 June, after the confinement was lifted, all restaurants with outdoor areas were finally allowed to reopen. What a relief! Finally, a bit of normal life. But since Paris is densely built-up (as mentioned before) and not all restaurants, bars etc. have outdoor spaces, a completely new cityscape emerged.
The so-called Terrasses éphémères (short-term terraces) came into being – with the approval and support of the Paris city administration. Everywhere – in parking lots, open spaces, wider pavements, etc. – wild outdoor areas were created. These areas, which were only set up very provisionally, became more and more professional over the summer. I suppose the sales of pallets and wood hadn’t been better in a long time.
All of Paris turned into a gigantic terrace (L’Auvergnat de Paris : Anne Hidalgo libère les terrasses – French) (Der Spiegel: Ganz Paris ist eine Terrasse – German) And with the terraces came back a feeling of freedom (until the next lockdown…).
The gastronomy was closed again in November. The terraces remained standing.
Les Terrasses Éphémères… vides.
At the moment, everything – apart from take-away offers – is still closed. (Plus a curfew that starts at 6 p.m.). The terraces that had been set up everywhere are still here. In a kind of Sleeping Beauty slumber, they are waiting to be revived. And we can be curious to see whether they will remain short-lived or whether they will establish themselves in the longer term and become part of the cityscape… Perhaps in a few years they will be the legacy of this pandemic.
Here are some of my views on Les Terrasses Ephemeres… vides
A little Terrace Etiquette
- Say „Bonjour!“ when you arrive.
- If there are more than four of you (who can fit at one table), ask a waiter or waitress to help you push the tables together. Doing it yourself is like lese majesty, doing it even without asking could get you thrown straight out….
- No separate bill. The bill is normally brought to the table by the staff. If there are several of you, either one person pays for everything (usually by card) or the bill is divided by the number of guests and everyone throws their share into the pot. The waiter or waitress is never part of this business.
- Tipping: There is no rounding up while paying (or only very rarely). An amount is usually left on the small plastic plate or table after paying. Often less than the 10 % customary in Germany.
- If there are two of you, there is no reason why you should not sit next to each other instead of opposite each other. You’ll see much more of what is going on in the street in front of you.
*(According to a 2017 study, France was ranked third in Europe – after Greece and Bulgaria – with a rate of 36% smokers, while Germany found itself in 11th place with 25% smokers. Available in German: Tabakkonsum in Europa or also Deutschland drücken die Zigarette aus, Frankreich raucht weiter)