Simon Kuper in Paris: where to find the best coffee
- La Caféothèque, 4th arr.
- Coutume, 7th arr.
- La Fontaine de Belleville, 10th arr.
- Fringe, 3rd arr.
- Télescope, 1st arr.
- Grand Café Tortoni, 3rd arr.
There was always one thing wrong with Parisian cafés: the coffee. For centuries, people in the world’s gastronomic capital drank cheap harsh stuff made from Robusta beans, grown in the French colonies. (Most of the world prefers smoother, aromatic Arabica beans.)
Traditionally, the French socialised around wine. So when it came to coffee, most Parisian brasseries and restaurants opted for mediocrity: they accepted espresso machines (and everything else from spoons to parasols) free from a big coffee brand, in exchange for serving said brand’s produce. Coffee became a commodity, almost like tap water. It was typically taken black with oodles of sugar to disguise the taste of the actual coffee — “a terrible ending to a fantastic meal,” recalls the self-published book Paris Coffee Revolution, by Anna Brones and Jeff Hargrove, himself proprietor of the excellent Fringe café.
The “revolution” in the book’s title began about a decade ago, when independent coffee roasters and cafés began popping up around Paris. Many of the pioneers were immigrants, who had discovered good coffee in their native Australia or the US. French media labelled the new wave “la tendance Australienne” — the Australian trend.
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The locus of the revolution was in the younger, hipper, Brooklynesque eastern side of town, broadly from Belleville through the Marais. These new caffeine hotspots found an audience in an increasingly international, hardworking city that needed a more capitalism-appropriate drink than wine.
Today, the city of the sommelier has been invaded by baristas. Everything from the flat white to the iced mochaccino has landed in Paris, with oat milk if you want it.
Where to go
The list below isn’t the result of some scientific study to identify Paris’s best coffee bars. I have omitted many exemplary purveyors, such as Radiodays, Zouzou, Dose, Holybelly, and even the coffee outlets at Station F, the tech start-up hub in the 13th arrondissement. New places open every month. This is just a personal selection of six coffee houses to which I’d send a visiting coffee snob.
1. La Caféothèque
52 Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, Paris 75004
- Good for: worshipping at the fountainhead of the Parisian coffee revolution
- Not so good for: decor
In 2005 a former Guatemalan ambassador to France, Gloria Montenegro, opened a coffee house with grand ambitions. She invented what she calls “caféologie”, which she defines as “a method of tasting coffees that is inspired by oenology”. She has worked with oenologists on the concept of “grands crus of coffee”. She intended La Caféothèque to be “the house that hosted my utopia”.
Insiders regard Montenegro as the mother of the Parisian coffee revolution, the person who brought speciality coffee here. Many of the future revolutionaries got at least some of their training at La Caféothèque; it runs a “school” of coffee for both amateurs and pros.
The café itself is spread across several rooms. There is a small terrasse, where you can inhale car fumes with your latte. But the massive artisanal roaster churning away at the front of the shop is a statement: La Caféothèque is serious about coffee.
47 Rue de Babylone, Paris 75007
- Good for: weekend brunches and increasingly, weekday lunches with seasonal produce, under head chef Cyril Bermond
- Not so good for: working — it’s not the point of the place
In 2010 the Frenchman Antoine Nétien and Australian Tom Clark founded the Coutume coffee company. Their bet was that Paris was ready for good coffee. After all, the French were already attuned to tasting notes, artisanal excellence and terroir in almost every other ingestible substance.
French bureaucracy wouldn’t give the duo a licence for a mobile coffee cart, so they opened a shop instead. French bankers weren’t keen to lend to an outlandish coffee venture, until they saw, in the appendix to Coutume’s business plan, photographs of gorgeous coffee shops with latte art from around the anglophone world. The gamble has worked. The company now has six outlets in Paris, one in Geneva and its own wholesale wing.
For all its Australian roots, and the owners’ travels to coffee-growers around the world, Coutume’s flagship café in the Rue de Babylone offers a distinctly Parisian experience: table service, French pastry chefs, hot lunches and a discouraging attitude to laptops. This is meant to be a “place for living”, not a “workplace”, says Tom.
The baristas arrive at 7am to start calibrating the espresso, and Coutume has forked out for a €200,000 Loring “Smart Roaster machine”. Coutume also runs its own coffee roastery. About half of its sales are wholesale, to restaurants, so the brand has a disproportionate impact on Parisian coffee culture.
Gradually, the local public is becoming more discerning: Clark looks forward to the day when French customers will routinely send back a bad coffee, as they do with overdone steaks.
3. La Fontaine de Belleville
31-33 Rue Juliette Dodu, Paris 75010
- Good for: a neighbourhood place to watch the world go by
- Not so good for: sometimes serves the odd dud cup
Almost uniquely in the city’s speciality coffee universe, the Franco-American-owned Fontaine de Belleville operates out of a classically Parisian setting: a converted traditional café with horseshoe bar, mirrored walls and tiled floors. The Fontaine is part of a small but growing coffee chain whose headquarters are at the nearby Brûlerie de Belleville, a roastery-cum boutique in this multi-ethnic, hipsterising, formerly working-class neighbourhood of eastern Paris.
The café specialises in filter coffee, which it jokingly refers to by the traditional, derogative French term for the stuff: “jus de chaussette”, or “sock juice”. (The term supposedly comes from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, when French soldiers would filter their coffee through their socks.)
The Fontaine has good beans, a young clientele, a calm terrace, well-chosen music and jazz concerts on Saturday afternoons. On the downside, not all the baristas are coffee nerds, and it sometimes shows.
106 Rue de Turenne, Paris 75003
- Good for: ultra-precise brews, cookies, cardamom rolls and kindness
- Not so good for: big groups
Jeff Hargrove was an American advertising photographer who knew nothing about coffee until one day in 2013 he wandered into Paris’s Broken Arm café. He was the only customer, so the barista took the time to give him a series of different extractions of the same coffee.
Hargrove saw the light. It sent him back part of the way to a dream he’d had when he first discovered Paris as an exchange student from the US: to open a tea salon here that served his mother’s American cakes. He retrained as a barista at La Caféothèque (above) and in 2016, opened his little shop in the northern Marais, Fringe.
The walls of the café are hung with photographs by Hargrove and others, an aesthetic that works in a neighbourhood full of photographers, film people and Paris’s highest concentration of galleries.
But the main point of Fringe is the coffee. Hargrove is a gentle character who has become a fanatic about coffee extraction. His ideal is consistency: every single cup must be good. So he stocks just two carefully selected coffees (one Kenyan, one Ethiopian) and he has written a precise recipe for each for his staff. For instance, the extraction time — the period of dissolving the ground coffee in water to awaken all its oils and potential — must be within one second of the target. If the deviation is any bigger, the barista has to make the cup again. A friend of mine (who likes his coffee at 27 seconds) recently forwarded an apologetic text message he received from Hargrove, who had just found out a staffer had served a cup with too short an extraction time. The friend hadn’t even complained.
Perfection doesn’t come cheap: a café latte costs around €5. Hargrove works all hours and pays fortunes in social security for his staff, but says the joy of the customers (many of them anglophone expats and tourists) makes it worthwhile. One woman returned at the end of the day to say: “Your coffee was so good that hours later I was still tasting it in my mouth.”
Fringe’s cakes are a tribute to Hargrove’s mother. He has brought her recipe for a black pepper espresso brownie to Paris. Independently of her, Fringe has developed two trademark foods: the cookies (which some Americans have asked to order even after returning to the US) and the cardamom rolls.
5 Rue Villedo, Paris 75001
- Good for: tranquillity
- Not so good for: buzz and people-watching
In 2010 The New York Times Magazine ran an article headlined, “Why is Coffee in Paris so Bad?” The photographer on the story was Frenchman Nicolas Clerc. The gig got him interested in coffee, so he went to New York to learn more. In 2012 he converted a ground-floor flat in central Paris into a coffee shop.
Télescope serves coffee from many different countries and roasters. The food is Franco-American, including everything from croissants to banana bread, and Clerc bakes his own sourdough bread downstairs.
He used to photograph watches, with their intricate mechanisms blown up into wall-sized advertising posters. Now he applies his obsession for detail to coffee. His definition of a good cup: “When you smile.” The taste should develop over 15 seconds, he says, and it’s crucial to avoid the risk of a bitter “second taste”, the tell-tale sign of an extraction gone wrong.
Télescope’s decor is minimalist: cream beams, wooden tables and a single photograph that changes monthly. Probably the most noticeable item in the little place is the massive Uber boiler on the counter, on which Clerc prepares smooth, fruity filter coffees — almost like herbal teas, he says. He has succeeded in shifting many of his customers from cappuccino to filter coffee.
Like most Parisian coffeehouses, Télescope has a Franco-international clientele. Daybreak is mostly for local parents, then come the expats and later the tourists. This quiet pretty street offers a respite from Europe’s most densely populated city, where hell is other people.
6. Grand Café Tortoni
45 Rue de Saintonge, Paris 75003
- Good for: a good, quick, cheap cup that transports you 150 years back in time
- Not so good for: loitering for hours — the place is too small
The Café Tortoni was a 19th-century Parisian landmark patronised by “le tout Paris”, from Flaubert to Talleyrand, written about by Balzac, Proust and Poe, and painted by Manet. It closed in 1893, but in 2017 a tribute version opened in the Marais, in a former electrician’s workshop a minute’s walk from Fringe.
In fact, the coffee here is just an afterthought: the space is mostly occupied by a perfume shop, L’Officine Universelle Buly 1803, a brand with a “19th-century aesthetic”. But in the space that was left over, the owners installed a marble-and-wood coffee counter with a couple of stools. Behind the bar hangs the original Café Tortoni’s 19th-century menu, with prices in centimes. It doesn’t cost all that much more today: around €1.50 for an excellent espresso at the counter, with the chirping of a real caged bird to heighten the experience. Have a madeleine on a silver platter, too. I’ve never seen a café like it.
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