After six years in California and ingesting absurd quantities of triple-triples at In-N-Out, my interest in French gastronomy had become nonexistent. I had, on the whole, embraced the American way of living and developed its two accompanying phobias: meals that drag on forever and overly chic restaurants.
For this reason, when I moved to Paris, I still didn't know much about legendary restaurant Les Deux Magots. In fact, the only image I had of the place was a scene from Jean Eustache's film The Mother and the Whore, in which the Alexandre character (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) meets Veronika on the café's terrasse. Yet this brasserie is undoubtedly much more than just the backdrop for a black-and-white scene in a three-hour movie—it is a historical icon in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. Paris, and the souls of the poets that used to sit at its tables, continue to live and breathe here.
In 1884, the establishment was a café-bar with the aromas of absinthe and every kind of liquor perfuming the air, where Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé got together and drank. A lot. In that time period, Les Deux Magots began to play an important role in the cultural life of Paris.
In the 1920s, the café was second home to André Breton's Surrealists, who were then succeeded by Sartre's existentialists in the 1950s. The spot quickly became the Parisian HQ of national and international artists: Oscar Wilde, Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Gide, Jean Giraudoux, Picasso, Fernand Léger, Prévert, Hemingway, and many others. They got together, debated issues, developed their artistic talents, and—let's be honest—took it easy, whiling the hours away by drinking on the terrasse.
In 1933, a small group of surrealists sitting at one of the café's tables decided to found their own literary award, which they baptized "The Deux Magots Prize," in clear opposition to the academic nature of the Goncourt Prize. At this juncture, the institution graduated from the status of café-bar to the more prestigious ranking of literary café. Nothing much has changed since then. The waiters still buzz around the art deco room with serving platters in hand, upholding ancient traditions. They are impeccably dressed: white button-down shirts, black bow ties, black cummerbunds, white aprons, and black shoes.
At 3 PM, I'm scheduled to meet with one of the brasserie's oldest servers. I arrive five minutes early. The room is suffused with sheer anachronism. My faded threads, leather jacket, and dirty Converse are majorly out of place here. I check in with the host, sit down at a table, and order a hot chocolate. Yves—the locale's most emblematic server, and the person I've come to see—is around 60 and extremely friendly. He sits across from me. It's 3:10 PM; his shift is going to start in 50 minutes.
MUNCHIES : Hello, Yves ! Where does the name "Les Deux Magots" come from? How long have you been working here?
The name "Les Deux Magots" refers to the two Asian statues installed on the café's central pillar. As for me, this March will mark my 35th anniversary working here. This story is really dating me.
Ha. That's amazing! You've been working at this brasserie since the 1980s, so you must have seen a lot of changes since then.
In the beginning, Les Deux Magots was a Parisian café that only served hot drinks and lemonade. It was only in the 1980s when it became the brasserie it is today. And over the years, it gradually transformed into a more elaborate café with a chef and pastry chef in the kitchen.
For more than three decades, you've seen all sorts of people pass through, from morning to night. Have you found that the clientele and atmosphere has changed in Parisian brasseries over the course of the last 30 years?
I feel like these last few years, Paris has become sadder than before. The 80s and 90s were more lively. Today, everything has become more compartmentalized, and interpersonal relationships are more difficult to find. It reminds me of Germany the way it was a few years ago. There were more apéritifs back in the day; there was no alcohol testing and people didn't hesitate to get in their cars and come have a drink. There was no internet. This café was a conveniently located meeting place. Everyone smoked big cigars inside. It was neighborly. Attitudes have changed too. When I started here, the boss, Mr. René Mathivat, didn't let anyone in here who wore shorts. He thought it made things look unkempt. Today, with the evolution of society and the easygoing attitudes, those kinds of rules don't exist anymore, even though this is still a chic café.
So back in the day, you probably wouldn't have let me in dressed like this, right?
Indeed. I don't think so.
I see. How would you describe your current clientele? When it comes to Parisians, we get people from the neighborhood. There are also lots of young people who came with their parents when they were little, and kept the habit—they're about 40 years old now. It's a clientele of regulars, actually. There are obviously a lot of tourists too. Before it was a lot of Germans, but today, it's mostly Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people.
Parisian servers have a horrid reputation. When you work in one of the city's most iconic brasseries, are you tempted to overact a little to stick to that cliché?
I've never seen things that way, but that's not a bad way to think about it! In my case, I try to be as professional as possible and provide flawless service. All you have to do is remain philosophical, and leave your private life and your adrenaline rush out of it. I even force myself to keep smiling, no matter what.
Les Deux Magots counts a few celebrities among its customers. Have you served some of them?
Oh yes! I've served breakfast to Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. They had their little habits and didn't like to be bothered. That's why they came in the morning. I served Ricard to Prévert on a regular basis—he sat on the terrasse every day and wore a big hat. I've also served American actors like James Stewart, politicians like President Clinton, and the Prime Minister of Canada. Also Kouchner, Jacques Vergès, and even Juppé, who came regularly when he lived in the neighborhood. Sometimes you get to chat with those types of people…
That's quite a list! Other than that, do you have any drunken anecdotes?
I remember this one time when a friend of Kersauson—a painter, if I remember correctly—had drunk way too much. The evening was heated, with lots of commotion. But what I remember most was the hazing at Beaux-Arts de Paris—the school is right around the corner. The students drank way too much and got plastered. We had to hide bottles of alcohol under the tablecloths so they wouldn't steal them. Every year, it was the same performance. I even remember that one time customers on the terrasse had taken refuge inside to avoid the drunken crowd of 40 students getting crazy outside. A woman and her daughter even hid in the bathroom downstairs for half an hour, so as not to cross paths with them. Today, these initiation rituals no longer exist. It's too bad.
You must also have a ton of stories involving extramarital affairs.
Men often come here with their mistresses; that's a known fact at the Deux Magots. It's an intimate, discreet location. It's still the case today, but it happened a lot more back in the day. More recently, I remember a couple that came here and ordered Champagne. After half a glass, they started fighting and both left the premises, leaving behind a nearly full 240 euro bottle. Things must not have gone well with his mistress that night.
You've worked your whole career life as a waiter at Les Deux Magots. What's it like?
There are fewer and fewer young people willing to do this their whole life, but yes, it is a career. I hold the same position that I did when I started 35 years ago. I like my profession. It's interesting to me because you get to meet people, you learn, and you discuss things.
What advice would you give to a young server?
When you get into this line of work, you need passion and patience; otherwise, it's much too complicated of an exercise. You don't become a good server overnight. You need time to learn and become professional. It's much more physical than it looks; you have to be prepared. You also need rigor to be a good server. Service must be consistently irreproachable. The goal is to deliver high-quality service that differentiates you from a basic Parisian waiter. Kindness is a very important quality. The goal is to be firm, while remaining friendly. You need wisdom to find the right balance and juggle the two.
Thank you for your time, and for the hot chocolate! See you around.