The Parisian cafes in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast become characters in his story, each offering a distinctive personality – including the Select and the Dome, “big principal cafes where people were lost in them, and no one noticed them, and they could be alone and in them and be together.” The nearest good café when Hemingway lived above the sawmill with Hadley and baby Bumby after they returned to Paris from Canada, was the Closerie de Lilas, the lilac arbor, where he liked to write with the sunlight streaming over his shoulders. The annual Left Bank Writers Retreat, held each June in Paris, France, visits many of the famous author’s favorite cafes as part of its combined program of writing workshop and literary sightseeing. To help writers get the most out of a Paris visit, Left Bank Writers Retreat has assembled this guide to six cafes most associated with Hemingway’s time in Paris.
Cafes are as important to a Parisian’s life as boulangeries, bouchers and wine merchants. “In Hemingway’s day, cafes were the social hub for the Left Bank Writers – providing an inspirational mix of food and wine, companionship and all-day office space,” says Left Bank Writers Retreat founder and host Darla Worden. In the 1920s, editors of little magazines held court at cafes looking for manuscripts, and writers were free to work for hours at a café table – fortified by the occasional eau de vie or Alsatian beer.
Despite the popularity of the cafes with artists and intellectuals, Gertrude Stein disdained cafes, and Hemingway once branded writers who worked in cafes as phonies, although eventually he sought refuge from his crowded apartment at Closerie des Lilas where he worked on Big Two Hearted River and The Sun Also Rises. Today, there is still something thrilling about sipping an espresso with journal in hand at one of Hemingway’s favorite cafés – still in business nearly 100 years later:
Here is a list of six favorite Hemingway cafés from Left Bank Writers Retreat:
La Closerie des Lilas, 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse. Although this “lilac arbor” café receives mixed reviews about its food, with some guests saying it’s a rip-off and others crediting it as the best meal in Paris, La Closerie des Lilas is one of the favorites during The Left Bank Writers Retreat. Hemingway once lived just down the block and made the cafe his unofficial office, writing in a red leather booth and drinking with fellow writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Madox Ford. “The café’s connection to Paris is seductive to a writer with a bronze plaque at the bar commemorating Hemingway, and it feels like an oasis, even though you’re sitting on one of the city’s busiest boulevards,” says Worden, who adds, “I’ve brought writers here for six years and the service has been perfect, the food delicious, and the atmosphere without equal.”
Les Deux Magots, 6 place Saint-Germain-des-Pres. One of the oldest cafés in Paris, originally built in 1812 as a novelty silk shop and turned into a café in 1885, Les Deux Magots still boasts the two Chinese mandarin statures that gave the shop its name. In the 1920s Hemingway met here with intellectuals such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Other notable regulars included Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Bertolt Brecht. The café terrace overlooks the church Saint-Germain des Pres and provides fabulous people watching in this charming district.
Brasserie Lipp, 151 Boulevard Saint-Germain. As recorded in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway sopped up bread with olive oil, ate potato salad and drank large beers at this German café he referred to as “Lipps,” a Left Bank institution that has maintained its integrity since opening 131 years ago. Its original art deco interior dates to 1926 and contributes to the enduring charisma of the cafe, where Hemingway wrote his pre-war dispatches. Additional café regulars included Chagall, Camus and others in the 1950s, and the Lipp remains a gathering place for artists, intellectuals and politicians.
Café de Flore, 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain. A neighbor and rival to Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore became a stomping ground for such writers and intellectuals as Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as artist Pablo Picasso. The café is notable for its storied history, classic Art Deco interior, broad menu of Euro-comfort foods and its sunny sidewalk terrace, and in 1994, Cafe de Flore began handing out an annual literary prize — the Prix de Flore — to promising young authors of French-language literature. Besides a cash prize, the winner gets to drink a glass of the white Pouilly-Fume wine at the cafe every day for a year.
Le Select, 99 Boulevard du Montparnasse. As well as rating a mention in A Moveable Feast as a writing hangout for Hemingway, Le Select – which opened in 1925 and quickly gained popularity due to its 24-hour availability to its avant-garde patrons – also is visited by the characters of Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. American writer Henry Miller and his idol, anarchist Emma Goldman, were also regulars. The café, with its elegant Franco-colonial décor, remains a treasured gathering place for people in the art world.
Le Dome, 108 Boulevard du Montparnasse. The first major Montparnasse café to attract ex-pats and intellectuals, Le Dome spawned the term “Domiers” to describe the international group of visual, and literary artists who congregated there, including Man Ray, Henry Miller, Khalil Gibran, Picasso, and of course Hemingway. Today Le Dome is better known for its well-reviewed seafood cuisine, but photographs of its many famous artist patrons grace its walls.