In Paris, Christopher Petkanas forgoes the Michelin stars for a tour of workingman’s zinc cafés—and affordable, delicious meals, the way locals have liked them for decades.
Ditte Isager Paris Cafe
| Credit: 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.

Mélac, 11th Arrondissement

When Jacques Mélac’s father opened Le Palais du Bon Vin here in 1938, it was a clamorous quarter of typesetters, printers, and smithies. Before and after work and during breaks they fueled up on vin de pays and handed their empties over the zinc to be filled for home consumption. In emulation, perhaps, of Molière, who expired on stage, Mélac père died in 1977 following a fall down the stairs of the Palais’s cellar, a bottle of Chablis in hand (he was about to fix his wife a Kir). As the new proprietor, Jacques Mélac changed the name but not the décor. The pulley lights with doily-draped shades and banged-together cubbyholes for stacking wine bottles are d’origine, and you still have to walk through the kitchen to get to the main dining room. Mélac also added food, including products (ham, fresh and cured sausages, bread, trout, beef, cheeses like Cantal and Fourme d’Ambert) and prepared dishes (pâtés, terrines, confit of pig’s liver, the veal-tripe bundles known as tripous) brought up from his native Aveyron, a département within the Auvergne where the approach to eating goes beyond the normal French levels of fetishization and partisanship. You could spend a lot of time, as I have, driving around the Auvergne trying to uncover rare regional specialties, or you could just go see Jacques. A poêlon aveyronnais turns out to be an individual cast-iron casserole of weirdly compatible chicken livers and fried eggs in a roux-thickened red wine–and-shallot sauce tasting marvelously of meat and smoke. Farçou—onions, lardons, and Swiss chard bound in crêpe batter—is a revelation. Marrying easily with these dishes are the appellations—Cairanne, Côtes du Ventoux—which Mélac has helped rehabilitate. He himself makes a Corbières, Domaine des Trois Filles, as well as a dozen or so liters of "Château Charonne" from a vine that climbs in front of his establishment on the Rue de Charonne. Every September it is blocked off for a street fête where, amid music and dancing, the grapes are harvested and pressed, the juice bottled, and the bottles raffled off, with the proceeds going to a neighborhood fund. The vine was transplanted from Mélac’s father’s garden in Aveyron. 42 Rue Léon Frot; 33-1/43-70-59-27; dinner for two $76.

Le Pure Café, 11th Arrondissement

The "heep-ster" atmosphere at lunch is abso-lutely intolerable (unless you happen to be one, in which case turn on your laptop and start smoking your brains out), but the freestanding, monumental horseshoe of a zinc at Le Pure Café has got to be seen. (Au Petit Fer à Cheval on the Rue Vieille du Temple is always singled out for its U-shaped zinc, but this is merely a rarity. A freestanding U-shaped zinc is the Golden Fleece.) Le Pure Café is cruddy, which, some would argue, is intrinsic to the zinc experience, but it’s cruddy-stylish rather than the cruddy-neglectful you get elsewhere. So many products and decorative painting techniques have been developed to imitate the look of grimy, yellowed bistro walls that it’s impossible to know if Le Pure Café’s, which bottom out in handsome pistachio wainscoting, are the real thing. Based on the façade of ancient stripped wood and windows etched with urns and garlands, you enter expecting to have a nice, vintage time. But inside, the glass amphorae hanging from the ceiling are by a contemporary lighting designer whose name you are supposed to know, and instead of andouillette, the menu trumpets grilled cuttlefish with sesame seeds, rhubarb compote, and spiced bulgur. (A "tatin" of goat cheese and tomatoes is the closest Le Pure Café gets to engaging with tradition—not very close.) Around teatime the crowd becomes mercifully mixed—young couples with babies and, this being a zinc, the local drunks. 14 Rue Jean Macé; 33-1/43-71-47-22; dinner for two $100.

Bihan Café, 12th Arrondissement

In a freak flood in 1910, the Seine reached the second floor of 4 Rue de Bercy. Three years later a café opened. In response to the flood, the buildings on either side were jacked up a couple of meters, but not No. 4. Nobody knows why. As a result, Bihan Café has an entrance you step down to and a smart little below-grade terrace with, in good weather, a handful of very desirable tables. As the address indicates, this is Bercy, until the seventies the great gateway through which wine entered Paris, the complex where numberless liters of gros rouge were warehoused to slake the thirst of ordinary French people—the taxi drivers and coal merchants, street-sweepers and streetwalkers. Bercy was on a downward spiral for many years but is no longer, thanks to a very attractive new park and (never underestimate the rallying powers of a good zinc) Bihan Guillaume, who acquired the failing café in 2000. Now a stone pig is enthroned on the bar, and late at night Guillaume tangos with his waiters to "Hernando’s Hideaway." The food is considerably above the average zinc’s, just as it is considerably below Mélac’s. The entrecôte is thin, crusty, bloody, fatty, a tad greasy, and finished with a knob of butter and chopped chervil, all just as it should be. Herring fillets in oil may be the meatiest in Paris. Pork fritons are poised at the garlicky crossroads where rillettes meet pâté. A charcuterie board is a good fallback. But for a zinc that is so much about cheese, the ones here can be not worth eating. The tortellini is irrelevant. 4 Rue de Bercy; 33-1/40-19-09-95; dinner for two $59.

Le Temps Des Cerises, Fourth Arrondissement

If the adorably modest little bar didn’t tell you you were in a zinc, the conversation would ("L’OM a bien joué hier soir, eh?"). Soccer talk is as central to zinc culture as the crocheted curtains, indestructible Duralex tumblers, and gratinéed pork chops here. The pork is not the most beautiful dish you’ve ever seen, but then, whoever said coarse and crude can’t be delicious?I ask for nothing more of a zinc, except maybe Le Temps des Cerises’ salmon with sorrel, mosaic streetfront, and dormers with window boxes. 31 Rue de la Cerisaie; 33-1/42-72-08-63; lunch for two $42.

Le Laffitte, Ninth Arrondissement

With their belts cinched depressingly below their stomachs, sagging jacket linings, and gaping pants pockets, the functionaries and low-level businessmen in whom this district seems to specialize are not lovely to look at, but they do know their food, and they recognize value. Work for them is something that passes the time on either side of a long lunch at Le Laffitte, which is uproarious even by Paris standards. Paper tablecloths over red-and-white checked cotton ones, blackboards announcing the plats du jour, fruit tarts with charred crusts cooling on the zinc: you know the look. Le Laffitte fills up at 12:30 on the nose with a constituency on the trail of national-identity dishes their mothers have forgotten how to make and their wives never bothered to learn (this is not the place to explode the myth of the French housewife, but she will always find a reason—fortified yogurt drinks, sushi from the corner asiatique—not to cook). Le Laffitte’s menu is encouragingly familiar: duck breast with green peppercorn sauce, pork shoulder with lentils, chocolate mousse, rice pudding. Given the zinc’s dedication to unfashionable classics, it seems almost quibbling to note that the roast chicken and mashed potatoes (made with real potatoes, never a given in France) are okay, not better. In another ten minutes Le Laffitte will be the only place serving roast chicken and mashed potatoes in Paris. 43 Rue Laffitte; 33-1/42-80-07-66; lunch for two $57.

Chez Gladines, 13th Arrondissement

As a type, the wispy Paris student with holes in his soles is alive and hungry, and you will find him here, tucking into mountain-man portions of chicken, tripe, snails, tuna, and baby squid—all à la basquaise (with onions, tomatoes, and green and red peppers). Apart from the plasticized tablecloths, patterned cement floor-tiles, and salads delivered in stainless-steel mixing bowls, the real tip-off that you’re not at the Ritz is the potatoes. They’re offered as a main course, fried with cured ham and Cantal cheese. Or is it the escalope of veal hanging over the sides of the plate in buckets of caramel-colored cream that says it all?It would be peevish to point out that the food is leaden. So let’s just split the difference and call it "gripping." 30 Rue des Cinq Diamants; 33-1/45-80-70-10; lunch for two $43.

Le Béarn, First Arrondissement

I walked past le béarn, a butcher’s shop that became a zinc right after World War II, at least once a week for more than 15 years while living in Paris in the eighties and nineties. I never went in. The worst of it is that I consciously never went in. It took moving to the culinary wasteland that is Manhattan’s far West Village (a contrary opinion, but one I’m sticking to) to give me a taste for the kind of scruffy, gritty zincs in whose kitchens it is perhaps best not to look, and of which Le Béarn may well be the acme. Even allowing for the nostalgia and sense of missed opportunity that I’m obviously feeling, it’s a wonderful, atmospheric place. Flowery Art Nouveau wall tiles dialogue quietly with Guimard’s sensational verdigris entrance to the Châtelet Métro station, seen through windows daubed with leaves and clusters of grapes. Black-and-white photographs of turnip-nosed Brassaï types—Le Béarn regulars—hang above Formica tables squeezed against banquettes in burgundy leatherette. According to the fabricator’s stamp, the beautifully pitted, crescent- shaped zinc is from the workshops of a certain Gateau & Keisser in the Paris suburb of St.-Denis. Le Béarn is one of the last places in the city that supports the blue-collar custom, so dear to boiler-suited sanitation workers, of the (one-euro) hard-boiled egg you pick off a wire stand at the bar. For everyone else there are leeks vinaigrette, which look rather like a revolting tangle but are actually nice and sweet; perfectly respectable house-made crêpes with Nutella or chestnut cream; and above-average coffee for this level of zinc. Fish soufflé seems a bit ambitious to me for a place with knives whose plastic handles grow tiny hairs. "Little" Gamays and Bordeaux like Château Guillot are decanted into those immemorial mottled-brown pottery pitchers with the foamy spouts. When I am home on Bank Street and can’t face another meal at the gastropub downstairs, I dream about ordering the pan-cooked hanger steak with shallots. 2 Place Ste.-Opportune; 33-1/42-36-93-35; lunch for two $45.

Café Des Deux Moulins, 18th Arrondissement

In Amélie, a fairy tale of a film set in modern-day Paris, love sneaks up on a pixieish, charmingly naïve café waitress, matchmaker, and self-assigned guardian angel with a fecund imagination. Les Deux Moulins plays itself in the movie, which, based on the zinc’s popularity with Japanese tourists, every person in Japan seems to have seen. Taking home-movies of the place has become a ritual, along with re-enacting Amélie’s famous habit of breaking the crust of her crème brûlée with her spoon. The dessert appears on the menu as "crème brûlée d’Amélie Poulain" and is served warm, torched to order. It’s probably wise not to start with anything more elaborate than a croque-monsieur, which has Poilâne bread going for it but, alas, no béchamel sauce. Despite the sometimes annoying attentions brought on by the film, Les Deux Moulins still aligns itself firmly with the shopkeepers, retirees, vegetable-stand owners, jeunesse dorée, fishwives, concierges, and do-nothings of this lovely pocket of Montmartre. The zinc’s real value lies in its languor and effortless proto-zinc look. Outlining a stepped ceiling, a snaking tube of yellow neon endows patrons with a jaundiced glow. Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who happens to live across the street, understood that no amount of money and set dressing could re-create Les Deux Moulins on a soundstage. 15 Rue Lepic; 33-1/42-54-90-50; lunch for two $50.

Christopher Petkanas is a T+L special correspondent.