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Paris: Zinc Cafés

Ditte Isager Paris Cafe

Photo: Ditte Isager

The french lavish the same tender, proprietary feelings on Paris zincs as they do on the Pont du Gard, Mont St.-Michel, and certain provincial Romanesque churches. Zincs may be humble, but they’re monuments.

A subset of cafés and bistros, zincs are named for a piece of furniture: the bars that are also their nerve centers. Technically the bar should be of galvanized steel, but they also show up in Formica, stainless steel, stone, copper, brass, and wood. Imperious and clannish, zincs are those places whose windows you’ve peered through a million times without, despite desperately wanting to, ever quite making it through the door. Hesitations usually have to do with the patrons looking too scary, the proprietor too crabby, the cigarette smoke too thick, the housekeeping too marginal. But be brave. Take a seat. No one can pretend to know and love Paris and not its zincs.

Zincs are the keys to their neighborhoods. (Apparently they’re a lot like pubs, but I can’t bear pubs and refuse the comparison.) Habitués treat them like home, coming and going, reading and slandering, daydreaming and grumbling. Zincs were originally defined by their limitations, serving coffee, wine, and beer. Hard-boiled eggs, dried sausage, cheese, and ham on a buttered baguette were an afterthought. All the following places uphold the spirit, if not the letter, of this model.

The first published reference to zinc in this context appears in Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, the third, 1873 volume in his epic Rougon-Macquart series, set in the 21 acres of food halls built by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the 1850’s. Zola describes a zinc as a "counter for serving customers, in bars, cafés." By 1880 the term was also being used to designate the bars and cafés themselves. Both meanings stuck. Zincs in Paris today are terrifically laissez-faire. If all you want to do is prop yourself up and tug on a sandwich mixte, fine. If you want to live dangerously and rendezvous with your mistress and see if anyone catches you, that’s fine too.

Zincs are not just the place for a ballon of rosé, oeuf mayonnaise, and staring into space. They’re a state of mind. Or, as the French would have it, an art de vivre.

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