Since 1910 guys like Picasso and Debussy have hung out here. Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on their novels. George Gershwin composed part of his well-known “An American in Paris” over cups of coffee. But I didn’t know any of this trivia two days ago, I was just in it for the snacks.
I’d been at Café de la Rotonde once before with a friend and noticed my glass of wine didn’t arrive alone: three small ceramic bowls of peanuts, potato chips, and olives marinated in herbs-de-Provence came free of charge. This is rare even in the café capital of the world, and it was duly noted at the time. So when I found myself back in the Montparnasse neighborhood during a Goonie map expedition, I was all too happy to warm up with a pit stop. My visit this time prompted me to jot down some things about Parisian café culture.
For starters the customer/waiter relationship is a unique one here, and has surely been the cause of frustration for more than a few tourists. The lack of traditional tipping in France has far-reaching effects in the land of customer service. The wait staff is either on a salary or a set hourly wage, regardless of how many customers come or how happy they are when they leave. For this reason I wasn’t surprised when I sat at my table virtually ignored for the first 15 minutes. The server knows you’re there – these guys have an uncanny spidey sense for it – but they have stuff to do, stuff that may not include taking your order just yet. And it’s not just for foreigners; I noticed all the regulars sat in isolation much the same way after entering. It’s assumed you’re a laid back European expecting to spend some quality time in that seat, and it’d almost be offensive to be waited on immediately.
When my guy finally appeared there was no “Hi, I’m François and I’ll be your waiter this evening”. And he most definitely wasn’t wearing any pieces of flare. He instead took my order by forgoing all eye contact, mumbling Monsieur? while cleaning someone else’s dirty table nearby. I don’t think he even noticed my gender. As I ordered my glass of Bordeaux his body language alone showed he’d already moved on in his mind. It’s not that he was rude, just incredibly efficient, which is the thing: if you choose to embrace this cliché rather than scoff at it, you’ll see that the lack of pleasantries comes from years of honing the craft of service in its most basic sense. They’ve seen every type of customer, heard every dish ordered with all possible substitutions, they know that café down to the last bus pan. That kind of repetition culminates in an expertise bordering on surgical precision. The idea of a professional waiter exists here due to the steady income and benefits it provides, and sometimes you feel you’ve been served a helping of the tough love that only a pro could give you.
The check often arrives along with your order but it’s not to hurry you, rather the opposite. As mentioned before, once you sit down it’s implied that your table is your own unalienable piece of the globe for as long as you want it. In fact after that first less-than-memorable exchange with my waiter, that was the end of the evening’s communication – verbal or otherwise. But this freedom to linger as if you’re chez toi is a luxury we don’t always enjoy in the states, especially in a bustling restaurant with a line outside. They haven’t lost their respect for the smelling of roses around here, and as we speak there’s probably a Parisian in New York confused and offended by his waiter clearing empty plates before he’s left. In these parts once the order’s taken, even the wait staff respect your table as private property.
Finally, I noticed how common it was for people to be sitting alone in this café. Two men across from me, one carefully chilling his carafe of rosé in a bucket of ice, another nursing a mixed drink with lemon and staring out the window at bundled Parisians rolling suitcases to the nearby train station. A kind-faced woman in her 40′s was sat to my right and ate a meal + dessert, seeming content to quietly watch the theatrics of the café play out in front of her. Observation, philosophy, and intellectualism were always synonymous with the cafés here and I wonder if that still pervades a little bit. Whatever it is, my new favorite watering hole has a lot going for it, enough so that Picasso was inspired to paint it in his Café de la Rotonde.
For other, more modern customers, it makes you wanna…I don’t know, write a blog.