Montparnasse is no longer the groovy corner of Paris that it used to be back in the 1930s. This ambiguous zone, nestled in the 14th arrondissement, doesn't seem to interest the same people. Only its iconic brasseries and movie theaters continue to attract crowds, though you can bet that today's youth knows more about the area's dark theaters than the history of famous cafés bordering these long avenues in the southern end of Paris. In fact, before heading to La Coupole, the place was largely unknown to me. The only vague image I had of the establishment came from a movie: Claude Pinoteau's La Boum, which was filmed there back in 1980. But I was about to discover that this iconic brasserie in Montparnasse has a far richer history.
La Coupole opened its doors in the Interwar Period, in 1927—right when Montparnasse had more going on than Montmartre—and instantly became the place to be, transforming rapidly into a meeting place for the era's artists and intellectuals. A year after its opening, the brasserie was second home to Jean Cocteau, Joséphine Baker, Man Ray, Georges Braque, and Louis Aragon. A few years later, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, and Édith Piaf become the café's new regulars. In the 1940s and 50s, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, and Ava Gardner were seen here regularly, having a meal or simply knocking back a few.
Today, La Coupole seems to be frequented mainly by tourists seeking out an atmosphere Hemingway described in A Moveable Feast—that kind of nonchalance typical of the Roaring Twenties. At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find businessmen who seem more preoccupied by their company's financial health than by the latest literary masterpiece.
In fact, since 2011, La Coupole is also a literary prize awarded annually in June to a recently published French novel or novella. The last laureate was Virginie Despentes for her book, Vernon Subutex, 1.
For now, however, I have a 2:30 PM meeting with one of the brasserie's oldest servers. The interiors are entirely Art Deco, and the pillars and pilasters add depth to the place. Painted by Alexandre Auffray, they are today classified as national heritage sites. Elevated at the center of the room is the famous colored cupola, which is divided according to the four cardinal directions. I check in at the counter and take a seat at a table, where I meet Lyes, a 55 year-old server who just finished his shift. We start talking.
I understand. So how can you tell exactly? Usually based on the order. If I had to give an example, with a mistress it's basically: "Honey, what would you like this evening?" or "A glass of champagne to start?" Whereas with their wives, it's more like, "Honey, get the tartare, the kids are waiting at home." It's always a little more "grandiose" with the mistress. They get a better deal, in a way.
One time, I was taking the order of a man and his mistress, and when I brought out the appetizers, the woman got up and ran to the exit. He remained seated. I understood it was because his wife was coming in. The two women crossed paths right at the door.Like nothing ever happened... Are there any in the room today, for example? No, none. But it's usually in the evenings.On a more serious note, what advice would you give to a young server? The best advice I can give is to listen, assimilate the orders you're given, and not stray away from them. It's very important to listen to the customer; you have to pay attention to their feedback—whether it's good or bad. You also have to repeat the same motions thousands of time in order to perfect them. And also, be yourself and take the advice of old-timers. Those who think they know everything when they start always mess up. I still feel like I'm learning something new every day. I'm just as motivated as when I started. I'm passionate about this job and I love this place. I'll stop when I've had enough, but that hasn't happened yet. Lastly, an important trait in this business is to remain stoic and keep it together, even when you're serving 2,200 people in a single day. I see. And what kinds of customers get on your nerves? Rude comments are the most annoying. We try to do our best, but we don't have four arms and legs, either. Sometimes we are overwhelmed and we feel attacked. But I never blame clients for their attitude. They might have had a stressful day, spent 15 minutes waiting for a table, etc. You have to take it upon yourself. It's your livelihood; you have to remain professional. I would never disrespect a customer.
Thanks Lyes. Until next time…
This article was originally published on MUNCHIES France.