Paris

Secrets from a Server at Picasso and Sartre's Favourite Paris Haunt

We spoke to one of the oldest servers at La Coupole, a beloved brasserie in Paris’s iconic Montparnasse neighborhood, whose walls have heard stories from the Roaring 20s, Uma Thurman, and thousands of affairs.

by Félix Macherez
16 May 2016, 12:00pm

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.

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The cupola of La Coupole. All photos by Melvin Israel.

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.

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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.

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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.

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MUNCHIES: Hi Lyes, how long have you been working here as a server? Lyes: I've been a server here for 36 years, and June will mark my 26th year at La Coupole. I started June 5, 1991, to be precise.I see. There must have been a lot of changes since you started here. Lots of changes, from every point of view: changes in management, methodology, clientele, and staff. We've had to reinvent ourselves in order to go on. For example, we've become more upscale. We're still a brasserie, but it's more refined. Three things that haven't changed are: the classic uniform we wear, the floor, and the top of the pillars.
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And you're still here, too...The clientele has changed, then? At this moment, it seems to be mostly tourists, old people, and businessmen. Indeed. There are fewer and fewer artists who come eat here. It's more of a business crowd today—but really, it's the neighborhood as a whole that's changed. To be honest, there's always been tourists here, but after the tragic events that recently happened in Paris, there are fewer and fewer foreigners. We started feeling that after the January 2015 events, and after the Bataclan, there are almost no tourists. Nonetheless, we still manage to fill up the room. Since the attacks, Parisians have kind of replaced the tourists. Coupole-9 Speaking of tragic events, at the time Hemingway wrote his novel, A Moveable Feast, he came to drink here often. It's true. You know that La Coupole has been an institution since 1927 thanks to painters, philosophers and writers like Hemingway. It's important to remember.And the name La Coupole comes from the central cupola, right? Is it the original? The cupola existed, but the paintings you see now are from October 2008. There are four paintings in total, outlining the four cardinal directions. We asked a painter from Shanghai to paint the East, someone from Argentina to do the West; the southern section is a Moroccan and the northern, a French painter.
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There is a quasi-infinite list of celebrities that have come to La Coupole. Have you waited on any of their tables? The story that has stuck with me the most is when I served Francois Mitterrand. It was 15 days before his death. He had a fillet of sole and a lamb curry and sat at table 82. I remember it perfectly. When he got up to leave, everyone applauded him for four minutes, while he just walked slowly towards the exit with his cane. It was a big moment. More recently, I've served people like De Niro, Stallone, and Uma Therman. We had to help her exit through the back door because of all the paparazzi that were waiting outside. Coupole-7 What do you think of the terrible reputation people speak of when it comes to Parisian servers? The image is pretty accurate. In Parisian brasseries, tips are included, so you're not really working for tips. We are a brasserie, so you have to keep moving. There is a certain cadence to respect, otherwise you'd never get through the day. The goal is not to throw people out the door but to be able to serve everyone—even though at La Coupole, we remain courteous and let customers savor their time here.Have you been witness to drunken episodes? A few. There was a guy who had dinner here every Saturday with his girlfriend. They'd even planned to get married here. One night, he shot up to his feet and slapped her across the face. We had to escort him out. They eventually separated, and we never saw them again.
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Sad story. Otherwise, I was wondering, as a long-time server, can you tell when you're dealing with a married couple versus a man with his mistress or a woman with her lover? Yeah, I can tell right away who's there with a lover or mistress. But you know, there are so many that after a while, you don't even notice. I would even say that men come here more often with their mistresses than with their wives. When they do so often, it's a little awkward for us, but we remain discreet about their private life.

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.

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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.
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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.