04 March 2012

The Cafes of Montparnasse: La Rotonde, La Coupole and Le Select

Just at the junction of the Sixth and Fourteenth Arrondissements in Paris, at the crossroads of the Boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse, you are confronted by a group of cafés and restaurants that show up in most all the guidebooks. The problem is, how are you supposed to know which to pick?

I'm here to tell you - because there is both an art and a science to selecting your café of choice.

For this post, we'll start with the three closest to the intersection that aren't fish joints.  (We'll save those for a later post.)

So, there you are, looking up Montparnasse. The Observatoire is to your back and the Eiffel Tower is hiding just ahead and around a curve. (We'll deal with how the Eiffel Tower plays peekaboo in a later post, too.)

On your right, just at the corner is La Rotonde.  Beyond it - a block away, just past the movie theatre and steak joint (stick with me - we'll be talking about that place, too) is Le Select.  On the other side of the street is La Coupole.

One could argue that La Rotonde and La Coupole are sort of the same thing. Big, a bit more formal. Fancier, more expensive menus.  Le Select, on the other hand, is a classic Paris cafe - very much in the Left Bank style of the Sixth Arrondissement, where we specialize in wearing black and being highly literate.

Existential, when we're at our best.

But all these places are known for their literary forebears and have the street cred of every imaginable French and American writer who has made Paris his or her home over the decades.  So that can't be your decision-making criterion.

On the menu front, La Rotonde goes more classic French with La Coupole providing a combination of classic and nouvelleLa Coupole is also part of the Brasserie Flo organization which owns multiple cafés and brasseries around town - all of them big and, to a certain extent, operating like the chain that they are.  Different food in each, but it's the feel of the place.  You know what I mean.

Le Select offers café fare - including the ubiquitous Croque Monsieur (basically, a grilled open-faced ham and cheese sandwich) and a really excellent Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinée (the French onion soup that we all love over in the States).  They've got cheap and cheerful sandwiches, too - on baguette, of course.

So, there are your menu choices - which still isn't the decision-making criterion you want to use.

How do you choose?  I'll give you my decision-making criteria - which, depending on how I'm feeling makes choosing easy each time.

La Rotonde, for me, is comforting.  That's because, when I first took the apartment here and things didn't happen (like having no heat and a stove that couldn't be hooked up - all of this in the winter), La Rotonde was the place I took myself to recover from everything that was going wrong in a foreign language.

The staff and the food were exactly what I needed to get me through. 

Yes, it's more formal, but the food is always good, well-prepared and the menu gives choices that range from fresh oysters to (also delicious) onion soup to great steaks and truly excellent duck (magret de canard).  Truly excellent.  (Duck, in France, is not fatty at all. Just delicious.)

Beyond the food, the service is simultaneously discreet yet engaging.  The waiters all seem to want to discuss what you're thinking about having, the options available, answer questions - never intrusively and not at all pushy.  Just there.

They also have menus in English as well as French and the waiters are all bi-lingual.  It's a comfort.

Le Select is where I go when I want the 'café experience.'  The service is fast and impatient and the waiters range from being arrogant and uncompromising (I once wanted to change an order and the waiter scolded me as he said no) to being helpful and charming.  It's rather the luck of the draw.

So, when I don't much care about my cholesterol and want that Croque Monsieur, I'll go over to Le Select and hope that I get one of the waiters who kibbitz.  They're fun.

And that leaves us with La Coupole.  Frankly, I don't eat meals there - at least not beyond breakfast (which is both delicious and a seriously great deal) and that rarely.  But I do go to La Coupole for two other reasons - one food and the other experiential.

On the food front, La Coupole serves hot chocolate made from Valrhona chocolate.  Even better, they serve it in a pitcher with some creme on the side.  Sugar, too.  So when I want a hot chocolate (a mainstay in Paris) and I don't want to leave the 'hood, I'm at La Coupole.

The other thing that endears La Coupole to me is that they are one of the few places left that pass the "two pitcher test" when I order a Grande Crème.  A Crème is kind of like a capuccino - but French.  The problem is, when I first came here, pretty much everyplace gave you two pitchers - one of coffee and one of steamed, slightly foamy milk - when you ordered a Crème (small or large). 

Now, not so much. You more often just get a cup of coffee with foamy milk on top.  It's not the same thing at all.

At La Coupole, they still give you two pitchers - and that means, for the same price you're paying for a coffee at either of the other two restaurants (or even Starbucks which is further along on Montparnasse) - you get about 3 cups of coffee. That's a serious deal in a country that doesn't refill your coffee cup.

All of which leads us to the experience.  It turns out that La Coupole is a pick-up joint for men and women of a certain age.

I didn't know this when I first started going there.  I would meet a friend (she loves their hot chocolate) and would sometimes find myself sitting and waiting for her to arrive.  (Like most Parisians, 15 minutes late is considered on time, if not a bit early.  I operate on what they call "Swiss Time" - which is close to an insult.)

So there I was, sitting and watching men walk by, then walk back, then walk by again. I also noticed that the women of a certain age in the café were all sitting alone, seriously duded (every one of which had too-dark colored hair and lipstick) and were actively avoiding looking out the window...until they did.

Then I noticed that some of the men would come in and sit down at the tables with these women.  I - naive soul that I am - thought they knew each other.  My friend disabused me of that notion very quickly.  She explained that the reason the men were walking back and forth was to see what was on offer among the women - and the women were there for the same reason.

Evidently, there is some kind of ocular code that occurs when the men are walking by and the women don't look...then look...but do so in a very specific way that remains a mystery to me - but is clearly the key to when the men join them.  It's very discreet.

So there you have it.  The decision-making criteria you, too, can use as you choose your Paris cafe at the crossroads of Montparnasse.

Just be discreet. This is Paris, after all.


  1. HOW i enjoyed those three cafés . . . restaurants!! I remember you told me, when we went there, about the pick-up place. Discreet is an accurate term! Thanks for reminding me . . .

  2. What a pleasure,Leslie, to read your unpretentious and oh so "right on" descriptions of Montparnasse. It does bring back tons of memories of when we weren't, either you or I, of "a certain age"? I arrived in Paris from the SFBA in '65, stayed three weeks, came back after a year in Germany to stay another week and have been in France ever since (10 years in Paris and the rest in Burgundy. After completing a degree in French at the U of Paris, I ended up as a (now retired) secondary school teacher in the Berry and now in the Yonne near Auxerre.

    The Select was right around the corner from Alliance Française in the Blvd Raspail. In '66 they were filming "Paris Brule-t-il?" and the actors were all hanging out at the Select between shoots. The Coupole was full of those who sat around waiting to catch eye of Sartre feasting on raw oysters and, as for the Rotonde, it wasn't one of my hangouts. I will definitely pass your web page on via my Facebook pageand subscribe for my own personal pleasure.