Saturday, June 2, 2018

Cocktail Couture in Paris

A perfect Manhattan at La Closerie.
Those forward-thinking cities that were early adopters of cocktail culture often boast classic and historic bars. Of course, some spots are tourist traps and others serve cocktails that don’t match their reputation. In the case of Paris, though, the city has been mixing drinks for more than a century and boasts several bars worth a visit—or two.

La Closerie des Lilas

Montparnasse is a bit removed from the main sites of Paris, so plenty of tourists don’t bother to visit. And that’s their loss.

During a recent trip to the historic La Closerie Des Lilas in Montparnasse, we lucked out as the garden lilacs, the restaurant’s namesake, were blooming and filling the courtyard, bar, dining room and brasserie with their sweet scent. And, while they weren’t fragrant, camellias, azaleas, tulips, and daffodils in the entrance garden lent an air of enchantment to the spot.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's spot at La Closerie.
Though charming, the courtyard garden—where Lenin played checkers and Hemingway probably pontificated—aren’t the main attraction. No, many come for the bar, a haunt of literary luminaries including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Simone de Beauvoir and artists such as Picasso (look for brass nameplates on bar tables to see where your favorites sat). All this history comes with a side of expertly-prepared cocktails.

From April through August, the last golden rays of daylight shine all the way into the bar, casting the whole place in a timeless, ethereal glow.

Warning: Bowlfuls of old school, house-made potato chips and green olives accompany drink orders, but may prove addictive.

Café Deux Magots

Most people think of this historic spot for breakfast or a café au lait with a shot of serious café culture. But Deux Magots also serves cocktails and offers one of the best seats in the city for watching a parade of Left Bankers stroll past.
Waiters at Deux Magot dress for work.

On a recent trip, we visited at cocktail hour and the place was packed with regulars, office workers, and tourists. Comfortably seated in classic café chairs just off busy Boulevard Saint Germain, we ordered Old Fashioneds which were poured tableside with a flourish by a poised, black suit-clad waiter. On a mild April night, we people watched, sipped our perfect cocktails and enjoyed a storybook view of the medieval, stone-clad Saint Germain church across the square.

Hemingway Bar at the Ritz

It’s said that when Paris was liberated from the Nazis, Hemingway celebrated with a drink at the old bar at the Ritz on historic Place Vendôme. To Hemingway, Paris was back to normal when cocktails were once again being shaken and stirred in the marble-clad rooms of the old hotel.

Well, the combination of Hemingway, the liberation of Paris, history, and the bar’s pedigree meant the place ranked high on my list of institutions to check out. I’d tried to visit during previous trips, but the stars were never aligned (once I was wearing jeans, once I was too early, and once I was too late and the small two-room bar was at capacity). Well, my fourth visit was the charm. (And I was charmed.)

At cocktail hour, a waiter ceremoniously opened large doors, revealing two intimate rooms with a handful of low, petite tables, a half dozen bar stools, and a smaller room up a few stairs. Memorabilia and ephemera—in some cases seemingly and in others obviously—associated with the Oak Park, Illinois writer fill the walls.

What the place lacks in space it makes up for in ambiance—well, and prices (most cocktails are 30 euro and higher.) Despite a wait for entry and elevated prices, I’m glad I went, though I’m not sure I need to return.

(Note: If you plan to visit, a line begins to form 30 minutes prior to the 6:00 p.m. opening.)

Le Bar's well-equipped, well, bar. 

Tucked into a sleepy backstreet in the Latin Quarter, the storied L’Hotel and its intimate, posh bar offer a welcome retreat from the hurly burly world outside. More luxe and discreet than the Ritz, L’Hotel’s bar offers cocktails that are nearly half the price of those at the Right Bank Hemingway haunt, but every bit as tasty.

If you can swing the adjacent Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Restaurant, book a table well in advance. If you’re doing drinks and dinner, you may as well consider staying the night. The 20-room L’Hotel is the smallest five star hotel in Paris. Having provided rooms for Oscar Wilde, Princess Grace and Elizabeth Taylor, the hotel might be the perfect spot to rest your head after exploring Paris’ cocktail couture.


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