Café society

A table in the sun, a moment shared with friends... French café life in the traditional style.
A table in the sun, a moment shared with friends… French café life in the traditional style.

Think of your last holiday in France, and it’ll probably include memories of a morning coffee and croissant in a cosy little bar, or of relaxing and people-watching with an evening pastis, sitting outside a café in some pretty sunlit square.   Hang on to those memories.

In 1960, France had 200,000 cafés and bars. Now there are fewer than 40,000.  Those characterful smoky rooms with dark wooden furnishings, and solitary men sitting at the bar nursing an early morning brandy are an endangered species.  All over France, cafés are closing at the rate of about 10 a week.  Blame TV, blame the smoking ban, , blame ‘la crise’, blame readily available alcohol in the supermarket.  Whatever the reason, many cafés can no longer make a go of it.

Take Laroque.  Our town of 2000 or so used to support more than half a dozen bars.  Now there are three, and they struggle.  Obé – that’s what everyone calls our Obelix look-alike – can’t make a living from half a dozen elderly men who come in most afternoons to nurse a single beer while they watch the afternoon’s horse racing.  But he can cook, so he’s reinvented the bar as Table d’Angèle, a successful lunch-time restaurant serving home-cooking, mainly to tradesmen looking for a once-a-week treat to break up a day’s plumbing, building or electrical work.

There we are.  That's Table d’Angèle.  And there's Obé's van.  He needs to offer outside catering too to bring home the bacon.
There we are. That’s Table d’Angèle. And there’s Obé’s van. He needs to offer outside catering too to bring home the bacon.

Down at Le Lounge, the owners have had to have a different strategy: food didn’t work for them.  They tried a traditional menu.  No good.  Then they had a go at offering an eat-all-you-can buffet.  When that failed, they tried Italian food.  Now there’s no lunch-time menu at all.  They make do with weekend trade, when sparkly lights and disco music attract the young people of the area before they head off for the Orient Express, the out-of-town nightclub at the once-upon-a-time station.

The Jingo’s still looking just about OK.  It’s on the main road and seems to get a steady enough stream of customers.  It may outlive the rest.

But bars can rise as well as fall.  When le Rendez-Vous in Léran, the village next door, came up for sale a few years back it was a hopeless case: dingy, unpopular and seemingly beyond rescue.  But an English couple who’d never run a bar in their lives bought it and made it the hub of village life.  Shirley cooks with imagination and flair – she even has that unknown round here menu item, the vegetarian dish.  Marek’s a cheerful and extremely hard-working host who’s always pleased to see you.  Quiz nights, open mic nights, a big screen to watch the rugby, a cosy corner with books to read and exchange….  It’s a winning formula, and both French and English from the village and beyond ensure the bar’s kept busy late into the evening, especially in the summer.

Le Rendez-Vous one busy evening in mid-summer.  There's an evening market in town too.
Le Rendez-Vous one busy evening in mid-summer. There’s an evening market in town too.

And over in Mirepoix, there’s another new café.  The Mad Hatter isn’t just another bar.  It’s hoping to cash in on the French love affair with things ‘so British’.  A nice cup of tea with a scone or slice of ginger cake might not be traditional French fare.  But it’s a welcome addition to café society, and yet another way in which the traditional French bar has to change, or sink without trace.

A welcome moment of calm, gazing out of the window over a cup of Earl Grey at The Mad Hatter, Mirepoix.
A welcome moment of calm, gazing out of the window over a cup of Earl Grey at The Mad Hatter, Mirepoix.

16 thoughts on “Café society”

  1. Ooooh! That looks so lovely! It makes me want to come to France right now. The weather looks lovely. I hadn’t known that Fance was losing its café culture, and I’ll always think of outdoor cafés when I think of Paris.

    I hope the French café isn’t totally lost. I imagine just as it looks like it’s about to be lost forever, it will be revived. Isn’t that the way it goes?

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  2. How long before you start providing some of your wonderful vegetarian dishes Margaret for Le Rendez-Vous or even famed coffee and walnut creation for The Mad Hatter I wonder?

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  3. ……………that is a good idea of you Margaret, I’ll have a check to a café here called “café de l’art” ………….see how they keep the “art” going……..love, AnnA

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  4. Ou se trouve le Mad Hatter?

    Kathryn

    ps. Not even my tame techie can find accents (in any language) on this lap top!

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    1. Right. It’s under the Couverts near the Tourist Office, and under previous management used to be calles Les Les Fenêtriers. Accents? Two ways. Write in email and spell check. Gmail selects French automatically. Likewise, write in Word and spell check. Idem. Neither is reliable, but once I have something on the page I can cut and paste from the accents I DO have. Laborious, but who said life had to be easy? 😉

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  5. There is a new cafe in Laroque, ‘Le Spyke’ recently opened, opposite Johnson Controls on the road to Lavelanet. The theme is 1950’s Americana, lots of chrome, photos of old cars and bikes and beach boys music. Rather different to the traditional French cafe / bar. Trying to attract car and motorcycle enthusiasts (that’s me). No food yet, but hopefully there will be by summer. Maybe this will take some custom from existing bars, but probably not, It’s more likely to attract people from further afield who fancy a run / ride out.
    Hopefully when I can spend some free time there I’ll be able to explore all the local haunts.

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    1. Yes, I couldn’t decide whether to include ‘Spyke’s’ or not. I’ve never managed to catch it open. Friends enjoy the Friday night bands but say it’s otherwise deserted. I wish it well, though neither Mal nor I fit the client profile. No, I don’t think it’s a threat to local bars – possibly le Lounge, which seems on its last legs anyway.

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  6. My first port of call on a trip to France is always a cafe, it’s the quickest way to feel that you really are in France. It’s sad that so many of these village institutions are closing but heartening that there are still people willing to take up a new venture.

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    1. It’s not just in the villages either, Sharon. There are plenty of closed bars in towns too. Odd that it’s just at the moment when they’ve become so popular in the UK

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  7. Europe without cafes? That’s just unimaginable. It would be like the sky with no stars or the ocean with no fish. It’s just…wrong. I hope the cafes that are left in Laroque really make a go of it. If I ever get there, I’ll drop as much tourist money there as I can! (Unfortunately, that sounds more impressive than it will be. I’ll nurse two beers instead of one. And maybe a couple of coffees. But I’d try to do what I could!)

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  8. Oh no, it sounds like the French cafes are having the same trouble as the English pub. I do feel very sad when I see so many pubs boarded up and the land for sale for housing. These places make a community and once they are gone, they rarely come back.

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