As a result of their long history and architectural character, a number of cafés and brasseries (some of which are listed Historic Monuments) are now national institutions teeming with character and atmosphere. Great artists and intellectuals have often frequented particular cafés, leaving their indelible mark on these establishments.
For example, sitting at a table in the Café des Arts in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence until recently evoked the joyful atmosphere of the 1930s, when Jean Cocteau or Picasso used the café as a stopover on the Alpilles mountains road, mingling with the locals at the old wooden bar. Unfortunately, the bistro in question has lost some of its old ambience. Its best memories are preserved by the old men of the village, or perhaps in an invaluable guestbook kept discreetly by the former owner. However, there are still many other legendary addresses throughout France that can still evoke the heady life of the artists and stars.
The Auberge de la Colombe d'Or is located in an old picturesque village in the Nice region. A haunt of the painter Chagall in the 1970s, it resembles a small museum with sketches painted by its famous guests, such as Matisse, Calder, César, Picasso, etc, on its walls. Thirty years ago, the village, which is not far from Cannes, was also a lively meeting place for film stars such as Sophia Loren, Lino Ventura and Yves Montand.
Place Graslin, Nantes
There are at least two famous addresses around the beautiful Place Graslin, in the heart of the capital of the Loire region. Built right up against the opera house, the Café de Molière was once frequented by the writer Stendhal. Nearby is the "trendy" Brasserie de la Cigale which opened in 1895. André Breton and Jacques Prévert used to meet in this Art Deco-style café, which also features in the film "Lola" by Jacques Demy.
Founded in 1792 by two waiters (hence the name), this cafe is known as "les 2 G" by its regulars. Decorated in Empire style with gilded decor, mirrors and sculpted ceilings, the interior was destroyed by a fire but has recently been refurbished in its original style. The magnificent dining room is extended by a terrace overlooking the majestic Cours Mirabeau, an avenue lined with a collection of sumptuous mansions dating from the 16th century. A mecca for cultural life in Aix, here you can rub shoulders with top lawyers, academics and international stars taking part in the opera festival held in July. In the past the café has been frequented by Edith Piaf, Marcel Pagnol, Albert Camus and many other famous names. But it is particularly remembered for the lively conversations held here between two friends around the year 1857: these two young geniuses were the painter Paul Cézanne, a native of Aix, and the writer Emile Zola (whose father was an engineer in the city).
Le Café Van Gogh, Arles
Painted in 1888, two emblematic paintings by Van Gogh are indicative of his troubled time in Provence and the Camargue. Entitled "The Café at Night" they recreate an interior scene and an exterior ambience. The bistro still exists and has managed to retain its original colours. It overlooks the pretty Place du Forum in the heart of the old town, between its Roman ruins and medieval buildings.
La Table Ronde, Grenoble
Opened in 1739, this bistro is located on Place Saint-André, opposite the ancient Palais du Dauphin and the Parliament (16th century). In this Alpine capital known for its recent expansion, youthful character and large student population, La Table Ronde retains its traditional atmosphere, offering regional cuisine in simple surroundings. Stendhal was born nearby, and the restaurant was frequented at different times by Gambetta, Léon Blum and Sarah Bernard.
Legendary adresses in Paris
Like Les Deux Garçons in Aix, it was a waiter - Maxime Gaillard - who gave his name to this working class bistro which opened in 1893. However, it was his successor, Eugène Cornuché, who made Maxim's fashionable, attracting the city's smart set who came here to mingle with "chic" courtesans to a backdrop of music by Offenbach. The Art Nouveau decor, created for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, remained unchanged for years and the restaurant has been frequented by Mistinguett and Proust (1915-1920), then in the years 1950-1960 by various crowned heads of Europe and the diva Maria Callas. Now owned by the couturier Pierre Cardin, Maxim's has become a recognised brand name offering a cabaret and a museum, with branches in many of the main cities around the world.
Opened in 1880 by a trader from Alsace, this restaurant in the Opera district was once frequented by two famous artists who shared the same Christian name - the painter Auguste Renoir and the sculptor Auguste Rodin! In 1903, a prestigious reading panel began to meet here regularly. This panel later became the jury of the Goncourt literary prize (named after its founders, two brothers who were members of the Parisian intelligentsia), which still meets in the restaurant. The prize is awarded in November, after lengthy discussions and a good meal!
Originally a simple shop in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the Latin quarter, by the end of the 19th century this café had become a popular haunt of Romantic poets such as Arthur Rimbaud. Fifty years later, it became the meeting-place of writers and philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre.
Le Café de Flore
Like its neighbour, this Saint-Germain café remains an important focal point for literary culture. In the 1950s, the gifted, rebellious writer Boris Vian discussed his existentialist ideas here; he was followed in the 1960s by the bold and innovative filmmakers of the "New Wave" movement.
Surrounded by a small garden of lilac trees, this dance-hall café in Montparnasse opened in 1847. Towards the end of the 19th century, it became popular with poets such as Verlaine; it was also frequented by Lenin, who was in exile in Paris and who came here to play chess! The brasserie was later the haunt of Hemingway, Aragon, Picasso and many other famous names.
Situated on the Champs-Elysées, this mainstay of Parisian nightlife has maintained its "luxury brasserie" style for over a century. Listed as a "Historic Monument", Le Fouquet's attracts the jet set, film stars and politicians.
Other fashionable addresses in Paris
- Brasserie Lipp , Saint-Germain district (founded in 1880)
- Le Café de la Paix , on the corner of the Place de l'Opéra Garnier
The oldest restaurants and bistros
Founded in 1686, this restaurant can claim the title of the oldest "bistro-restaurant" in the city.
This restaurant, opened in 1766, has maintained its original decor.
Built between 1427 and 1589, opposite Strasbourg's magnificent Gothic cathedral, this building is famous for its over-elaborate architecture dating from various periods. The building housed an inn from 1904 onwards, and is now home to a chic restaurant.