Welcome to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the chic and trendy district of the Parisian left bank. Located straight on the boulevard Saint Germain, the café “Les Deux Magots” formerly moved in by famous people of the time, has built the reputation of the area.
Well-known for being an artistic and bobo area, contrary to the right bank considered as more sophisticated and conservative, from 1945 onwards, Saint Germain has become the centre of the Parisian cultural life. “Les Deux Magots”, represented by the two Asian statues that adorn the central pillar of this famous Parisian café, are watching over the two terraces of the place Saint-Germain-des-Prés as they have been doing for over a century. Just imagine the incredible view it offers on the lively boulevard.
If in the old days there was a majority of small shops and bookshops, now the café is located in front of Emporio Armani and Cartier’s stores. Vuitton and Dior’s shops are also facing the square.
Nevertheless the café-restaurant remains tradition-bound. Thus, the waiters are dressed in a black log and a white apron, and the service is presented on a plate. As for the menu, it suggests Croque-Monsieur, sandwiches and toasts made out from Poilane bread. You could also enjoy the famous sweets from Pierre Hermé such as the chocolate and toffee macaroon, the Ispahan macaroon perfumed with rose or the praline flavoured “2000 feuilles”. At dinner time, the gourmets will let themselves be tempted by the French caviar on creamy toasts, the semi-cooked duck foie gras or foie gras just browned in red wine, or even Bourgogne escargots in their shells. Other refined main courses may follow: fried scallops with its ciprus risotto or roasted duck magret with its spicy pears and its home mashed potatoes.
Sitting on red leather benches, we just enjoy our meal under the haughty gaze of wooden statues representing 2two Chinese figurines.
From a luxury shop to a café
Beyond its gastronomic assets, the famous café can pride itself on its one hundred years of history which have given him the opportunity to watch come and go personalities of French culture and arts. At “Les Deux Magots » Elsa Triolet, André Gide, Picasso, Prévert, Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir and Gérard Philipe mixed.
It is no accident that the brand name refers to a successful play of the 19th century’s beginning: “The Two Magots of China”…
However, a few years would be necessary for the change of “Les Deux Magots” warehouse in a wine merchant first, and then in the literary café that has seen, from the 20’s to the 40’s, come and go the mentors of surrealism and then existentialism.
Indeed, in 1813, “Les Deux Magots” were dedicated to another kind of business. A certain Monsieur Desabie opened one of the first fashion shops in the capital. You could find textile fabrics, silks and luxury objects. It was considered as an example (the store was sold to the owner of the department store “Le Printemps” in 1881), though, “Les Deux Magots” will truly set itself up as a Parisian place that cannot be ignored when it will be relocated to another street and, especially, when it will choose another sector. Thus, it moved from the corner of Rue de Seine and Rue de Buci to the one of the boulevard Saint Germain and the Street of Rennes.
All of this thanks to a visionary, André Boulay, an ancestor of the present owners, who has been able to realize the potential of this building’s location in 1914. In the heart of this area undergoing radical transformation, the café became the place to see and be seen. Here Verlaine met Mallarme, Goncourt academicians got together, Oscar Wilde and Alfred Jarry patronized it.
“Les Deux Magots” Prize
The café’s literary legend will become apparent especially from 1933 onwards. In the tense pre-war atmosphere, the café “Les Deux Magots” became a place where policy is discussed. Gide, Jean Guéhenno, Malraux ended up in discussions on the café terrace regularly. Here, Paul Eluard introduced Dora Maar to Picasso, Francoise Giroud drunk coffee with Saint Exupéry while Paul Morand, regular customer, came to listen to his friend Jean Giroudoux.
At the same period, in the terrace’s café, a small group of surrealist friends learnt that the Goncourt Prize has been given to André Malraux for his book “Mans Fate”. They considered that the prize was too academic, so they concluded to create their own literary prize: “Les Deux Magots Prize”.
A prize that still kick off the literary year every January. That is how it calls attention to writers such as Raymond Queneau in 1933 (“Le Chiendent”), Jean-Claude Pirotte in 2006 (“Une adolescente en Gueldre”), Olivier Séchan, Antoine Blondin, Fernand Pouillon…
Another facet of the famous café-restaurant’s history: its underground period. In May 1940 while the German army invaded France, documents have being exchanged and passed on via secret rendezvous in the toilets of the café.
At the time of the Liberation, Saint-Germain-des-Prés and its mythical café lived again, and the existentialists, with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the lead, took up residence here.
Each one had his own table and they came here to write relentlessly every day. Soon Boris Vian and Albert Camus joined them. The “Mythical Saint-Germain” was born. Writers and foreign artists such as James Joyce, Bertold Brecht or even Stefan Sweig, Picasso and Hemingway … also gathered here.
Avant-gardism, mirror of the trends and periods, sensor of various personalities, “Les Deux Magots” combines cleverly tradition with modernity. And without any doubt, it is what attracts its eclectic and international clientele. There are plans to open similar cafés in the world. A twin café is yet set up in the heart of Tokyo, in the cultural centre of Bunkamura since 1989. Another has also opened during the summer of 2010 in one of the most prestigious areas in Quatar, The Pearl, close to Doha. It offers an exceptional view onto the main marina and a chic and relaxed atmosphere. And the French Touch of “Les Deux Magots” could soon gain a foothold in cities as different as Shangaï; Montréal or Dubaï.
Julia Champagnac et Chloé Buu-Hoï, Juillet 2012
Translation : Julia Champagnac
Photo credits : ParisLeLuxe