Essential Eating: Devastating Impact of Pandemic on Paris Cafés and Restaurants

Essential Eating: Devastating Impact of Pandemic on Paris Cafés and Restaurants

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paris cafés and restaurants
Photo courtesy of author.

When I moved to Paris ten years ago, I started to read in earnest memoirs about the city and nearly all mention the cafés and bistros that were the central focus of social, literary, and cultural life.

In the 1940s, writer James Baldwin noted that the moment he began living in French hotels, he understood “the necessity of French cafés.” Simone de Beauvoir preferred the rear booth at Le Dôme to work, grateful for the noise and movement and to find that “people still existed when she looked up from a blank page.” And with just a few francs to spend on drinks, a young, impoverished George Orwell “could take part in the social life of the quarter” in the tiny bistro near the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux.

© Pauliine Lemasson

In reading their accounts about life and work in Paris, I felt that the city’s beating heart could be found in the warmth of a café or the busy din of a restaurant. And I did find a sense of belonging in the many hours spent in cafés reading alone, sipping coffee with a close friend, and sharing plates in large celebratory groups. It seemed that this heart of Parisian life would continue thriving as it had for centuries.

All this would change. The pandemic has taken away lives and livelihoods, shutting down major metropolitan cities in nearly every country. On Saturday March 14 at 7:30pm, the French government abruptly ordered all cafés, restaurants, and bars to be closed at midnight, indefinitely. It was a prelude to the confinement of the country a couple of days later. By Sunday morning, the sidewalk cafés were gone, chairs were stacked inside shuttered bistros, and sobering signs reading “hope to see you soon” and “exceptional closure due to coronavirus” were taped on brass-trimmed doors.

“There’s nothing quite as sad as an empty restaurant,” says Laurel Sanderson, owner of Treize au Jardin, “these places are meant to be filled and lively with people and conversation.”

Photo courtesy of author.

I’ve spent many an early morning at Treize armed with the instruments to linger – book, notepad, and pen – while watching the staff go through the opening hour rituals. I know that they make lots of their own jams and syrups, which Sanderson says, can keep for a month, but not two or three. When the news of closure was announced, she gathered all her staff to witness the shutting off of the espresso machine, the telltale sign that Treize would be closed for a long time.

Nico Alary, owner of two perennially packed Holybelly restaurants, definitely felt something was going to happen with the virus making its way through Europe. He just expected to have more time to shut down: “It’s a tremendous effort to close a restaurant running at full speed, logistically and also mentally.” French restaurants had just a few hours to close their doors, so Alary and co-owner Sarah Mouchot took to Instagram to distribute 10,000 euros worth of fresh food. Alary confirms that “it’s a strange time, we’ve been closed now nine weeks. And Holybelly never closes, we’re open all the time. We’ve received messages from our regulars about how much they miss us. I can say that we absolutely miss them too.”

© Holybelly

There’s much to miss, with nearly 95% of French restaurants, bars, and cafés closed.

Lindsey Tramuta, journalist and author of The New Paris, yearns for the social foundation of dining out. “The idea that some of the city’s most storied culinary institutions and hard-working food entrepreneurs may not be able to bounce back from this is tremendously upsetting,” she says.

“Restaurants are the backdrop of our lives, I came of age in them,” says Alexander Lobrano, author of Hungry for Paris. “There’s nothing quite like the fascinating ballet of a restaurant in full swing, the sounds, the smells, the faces, the swinging doors. Now that they’re all closed, I realize just how essential they are in our lives.”

It’s precisely the “chatter, chaos, and community” of eating out that is hard to replicate in the confines of our homes, no matter how great our dining sets and mood lighting.

© Cafe de Mars

Pierre Marfaing, owner of Café de Mars, says eating at restaurants is about trust, “you’re going to trust that the food we make will be good, the music we choose will be great, and the waitstaff will have personality, it’s the whole thing.”

“We’re in the restauration business, not the takeout or delivery business,” explains Sanderson of her decision to not pursue these options for Treize au Jardin, “it’s an experience that we offer with the food, the chance to wind down and feel human again.”

This sentiment goes back to the original meaning of restaurant, derived from the French verb restaurer, to restore. Ann Mah, author of Mastering the Art of French Eating, found that a majority of the French use the lunch hour to actually eat, preferably with others and at a restaurant. It’s “a chance not only to satisfy hunger but also to refresh the mind.”

Paris cafe scene
© Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE. All rights reserved.

However, the economic fallout of the prolonged closure is real and daunting. Nearly 25% of cafés and bistros in France may never reopen even after the lockdown is lifted. Chef Jean-François Piège and Hélène Darroze told Paris Match that “France without restaurants is not France,” and the situation is critical with many restaurants on razor-thin margins and facing huge debts.

The pandemic is forcing us to look at a new world order. We’re all thinking about how this will change the way we approach eating out when restaurants eventually reopen. A large majority of restaurants in France are independently operated, small enterprises. Their intimate size is what endears many of them to a fiercely loyal clientele, who come back as much for the ambiance – the convivial feel of the place – as the food and drink. However, this will be the challenge for operating in a changed world where social distancing and fear of confined spaces are the norm.

Chefs decry that France without restaurants is not France. © Pauline Lemasson

Tramuta says that the economic considerations are formidable: “If commercial rent does not lower and restaurant owners can’t bring in enough money from a reduced dining pool to allow social distancing, I think we will see that many places close because it won’t be cost-effective to stay open.” She knows that many Parisian chefs have been vocal about their plight, including Stéphane Jego of L’Ami Jean who used his platform to “lobby support from insurance companies, rent forgiveness, and waiving social and employer charges.”

It’s hard to predict how things will turn out with so many factors still unknown: the timeline to reopen, the strict hygiene measures, the opening of borders for tourism, and perhaps most importantly, whether people will feel comfortable to eat out again. The “epidemic of fear” is just as potent as the “epidemic of illness” when one looks back at the history of how pandemics end.

Mah admits that the thought of going to a restaurant right now is worrisome. She feels we have to accept that things will be different for a long time – or maybe forever. However, she remains confident that we’ll adapt and be more resilient. “It’s human nature to want to gather, share, and eat. I look forward to seeing the clever ways restaurant owners will address the challenge,” she confides.

PlexEat bubble design for restaurants created by Christophe Gergnigon Studio.

That’s one thing we can all count on: things will change. Restaurants can’t go back to exactly how they used to do things, at least for a time. Some states in the U.S. and other European countries are slowly reopening their eating establishments. There’s “no real scientific study” on the best way of doing this, although there are some practical precautions that can help answer whether it’s safe to go out to eat.

“I think we’re going to see lots of outdoor terrace dining. More of them will go to delivery and takeout out of necessity. Even Alain Ducassse is doing gastronomie to go,” says Lobrano. “We’ll likely see simpler menus with lots of attention on healthy seasonal produce.”

Marfaing says that plastics companies have recently approached him about outfitting Café de Mars with plastic dividers to create little “dining bubbles.” He would prefer that the City of Paris allocate sidewalks and streets to be open for outdoor dining done at a safe distance, an idea that Mayor Anne Hidalgo seems to support.

Quintessential Parisian dining about to change. © Cafe de Mars

With so many lost jobs and people on partial unemployment, price and quality will be top of mind. Tramuta suspects that “locals will think twice about getting a bite to eat if it is expensive and if they aren’t sure the quality will match the price. In some ways that means it puts more responsibility on the restaurant and café owners to do a better job or else they won’t survive. Quality is going to be paramount.”

France started to lift the strict measures of confinement on 11 May, allowing schools and many non-essential businesses to reopen. For now, bars, cafés, and restaurants remain closed. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will announce plans in late May on their reopening, likely progressively and not all at once. Meanwhile, the French government just unveiled on 14 May a rescue package for the entire tourism industry.

“It’s going to take time to come back, and I hope we will get there. It’s a game of patience. We’re so thankful for so many things. We want to keep everyone safe, and we can’t wait to reopen again when the time is right,” – Nico Allary, Holybelly

We’ll be hungry and waiting.

For more reading:

With the closing of their restaurants, many chefs have joined in solidarity with health workers by providing meals through Les Chefs Avec Les Soignants.

The global organization Parabere has launched a petition to help small businesses primarily owned by female entrepreneurs during the pandemic.

Pauline Lemasson
Pauline Lemasson moved to Paris with her family in 2011 after having spent 11 years in Los Angeles. Before coming to France, Pauline was the executive director of the Chinese American Museum where she advanced the history and stories of the Chinese American experience in Southern California. She's been featured on KCET Departure Stories and written for other blogs including Untapped Paris and the American Library in Paris. She recently left her position as Strategic Partnerships Manager at the American Library to pursue long-overdue personal projects in writing and teaching, along with copious amounts of reading and idle strolling.

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