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A Café Crème at La Closerie (continued)

Inside the Closerie we sit at one of the small, highly polished mahogany tables and order two café crèmes as we talk about Hemingway. The friendly white-jacketed waiter smiles knowingly as he switches on the controls of the tall shiny chrome cylinder of the steam pressure coffee machine.

  American Bar at La Closerie des Lilas
American Bar at La Closerie des Lilas lets you drink in the swirling action of the adjacent restaurant and brasserie and do it at a bar hallowed by plaques honoring such former habitués as Man Ray, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett. Happily, many Parisians still call this watering hole their home-away-from-home. (Source: Fodors)

After it appropriately hisses, bubbles and steams, the waiter brings us our steaming café crème order in heavy porcelain cups on a silver tray with two small white paper napkins.

The fragrant rich blend of hot French coffee and cream surely tastes just as rich and pleasing as it did when Hemingway ordered it on those cold winter mornings in Paris. Some things never change. French coffee is one of them. Perhaps not too much of the café has changed either except for certain modern additions. In my notes, I write:

"The under-the-awning outdoor part of the Lilas is pleasantly surrounded by green shrubs creating a quaint area of secluded tables that Hemingway would have liked, because they would have prevented him being seen sitting outdoors in this area."

A large part appears to have been added on under the awning that extends out toward the Ney statue. This table area is enclosed in glass for the patrons' comfort during inclement weather. Extending out considerably from the original façade of the building, it strikes me as too artificial, taking too much away from the idea of the outdoor café. With its artificial climate and its glass walls one may see but not feel the outdoors. Today's version is an imitation of the real thing. A faux French sidewalk café. Papa would have called it phony.

At least it is not all that way. When designers are clever, the glass walls fold away so that the phoniness can be withdrawn on warm spring days.

Glass terrace of La Closerie des Lilas
Greenery abounds on
the glass terrace at
La Closerie des Lilas.
(Image © Michelin)

La Closerie des Lilas is a small café; the inside has little depth to it. It is there to maintain service to the larger outdoor café part. Inside the café its warmth is quickly apparent. It has the same warmth as a classically-bound old book with rich maroon leather covers, incised with gold leaf. All the café's appointments suggest this: warm, red leather and polished brass on the bar stools, reddish mahogany and brass name-plated tables, long red leather and mahogany upholstered wall benches. Large gold-gilt mirrors behind the bar keep company with a framed painting of the author as a young veteran in a woolen army uniform from World War I. On the right, over the doors are framed old photographs of the bar as it appeared in Hemingway's time.

What strikes us most about the inside of La Closerie des Lilas is the lush richness of its colors. The ceiling is reddish brown; even the red-shaded wall lamps radiate this light. Glittering glasses and bottles at the bar with lots of mirror behind them reflect the same rich images. The tables of polished mahogany with their small one-by-three-inch brass nameplates on their corners impart a golden glow of richness, their engraved names of literary figures mindful of a long-gone golden age of literature. Our table to the left of the bar and against the wall, contains the name of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), the Irish dramatist and novelist.

The café crèmes are delightful and our waiter typically has no interest in hurrying us. This is not the rush hour. It is the early morning hour when Hemingway would have been there and patrons are few.

Later I visit the Closerie in the afternoon between three o'clock and six o'clock, after the midday meal but before the evening meal, a time when all Parisian cafes fill with people of all ages and occupations. Most at the Lilas appear to be French. They sit over their drinks reading books, newspapers, or racing forms, savoring the amber light of a waning day as they sip coffee, a glass of wine, or perhaps a milky pernod with its anise flavor tickling the taste buds. A pleasant stimulant to celebrate the end of the day before one has to return indoors to the family or to the loneliness of a hotel room.

As you sit there alone in this café and shut your eyes, you again hear much of what Hemingway heard in his day at this time: street noises, the occasional sharp click, click, click of high heels on the sidewalk immediately outside, rustling newspapers, the distant hissing of the coffee-maker, a blurred babble of voices, waiters taking orders, metal trays lightly clattering on marble-topped tables, and the steady wind-chime tinkling of glassware. Unique music, much the same tune that plays in Paris cafés for every generation, whether it is lost, "beat", or just looking.

Suddenly it occurs to me that this is the same background music Hemingway heard when he wrote his Nick Adams story about trout-fishing in Michigan after World War I, and when he wrote his hopeless love story about Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. I listen intently to what he heard. No doubt about it, it's the same song.

La Closerie des Lilas still has enormous charm, the kind that seems to resonate the historical richness of its past. I order another café crème to savor a bit more of young Hemingway's Paris, understanding a little better what he was about, and what so appealed to him in this clean, well-lighted place.

La Closerie des Lilas
171, boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris.
Phone: (+33), Fax: (+33)
Hours: 12 noon - 1:00 a.m.
RER: Port-Royal; Métro: Vavin (line 4), Raspail (line 6), Montparnasse-Bienvenüe (line 12).
Web site: (site unavailable at this writing)

Author Robert F. Burgess in 1959 Robert F. Burgess grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and worked abroad as a freelance writer/photographer. While living in Spain he met Ernest Hemingway, and later returned to Europe to research a book about the author. This feature article is an excerpt from a chapter in his book, Hemingway's Paris and Pamplona, Then and Now, A Personal Memoir, published by, © 2000; available at most bookstores and online. Reproduced with permission of the author. All Rights Reserved. For further information see

Images: 'Exterior view of La Closerie des Lilas', from Müller and Ohlsson Consulting. 'Photo of Ernest Hemingway at work', from a poster at (cropped from original). 'Photo of Maréchal Ney's statue in Paris', from the French Senate web site. 'Photos of the Cuban mahogany bar, and the greenery of the glassed-in terrace at La Closerie des Lilas', © Michelin. – All Rights Reserved.

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