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‘Soul of the community’ – The fight to save the Paris café

It used to be that a shop closed for want of customers, or because of mismanagement. But today, in cities like London, New York, and Paris, even successful shops are shuttering. The culprit: skyrocketing rents, and unchecked gentrification. Paris-based author Lisa Anselmo finds out more.

'Soul of the community' - The fight to save the Paris café
All photos: Lisa Anselmo

Such is the case with Les Pipos, a small, popular bistro in the heart of the Montagne Sainte Geneviève district in the 5th arrondissement, an area featured prominently in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris. 

Les Pipos doesn’t look like much from the outside, but once you walk through the door, you’re immediately enveloped in history – and warmth. The homey interior boasts an ornately carved zinc-top bar, and classic mosaic floor, both installed just after the Second World War. The paneling on the walls – which are plastered in old photos, posters, and other client mementos – are much older. A café or bistro has inhabited this same site since the late 19th Century.

READ ALSO Terraces to tipping: The etiquette for visiting a French café

But Les Pipos is hardly stuck in the past. Packed with customers most nights, it continues to be a favorite meeting place for students, families, and other locals who call this neighborhood home. Its lure is not lost on visitors, either.

“Close to the action, but far from the madding crowd,” crows a TripAdvisor contributor. Even Woody Allen chose this unassuming but charming spot for his downtime while filming in the area.

Still, all this could be gone in a few months. Word is the building’s owner wants them out, perhaps seeking a high-paying retailer. He’s offered to buy the lease from the bistro’s owner, and it looks like it’s as good as done. After nearly 130 years of serving the locals.

The clients of Les Pipos are having none of it, and have launched a petition to save their beloved bistro from falling victim to a “juicy real estate deal.” The petition asks UNESCO, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and the Ministry of Culture to intervene and to landmark the establishment, which they call “the soul and pillar of the neighborhood.” 

“It’s a community here. We all know each other,” says Pierre, who has worked at the bistro for some years. “One client was born in the neighborhood. Now he comes here with his kids.” 

Like Les Pipos, Pierre faces an uncertain future, as does all the staff. He could seek another contract elsewhere, but is hanging on to see how things pan out, reluctant to leave the bistro, and the area, which remind him of his small-town roots in Provence. “You can’t find that easily in Paris.” 

Saving Les Pipos is not about nostalgia. It’s a fight to retain local community life. As more and more small businesses serving our daily needs give way to faceless chain stores that can afford the higher rents, our residential neighborhoods are being transformed into transient and impersonal commercial zones. Paris, like many other large cities, is abandoning its inhabitants for quick profit, and is in danger of losing its authentic soul in the process.

New York City is case in point. With commercial leases now fetching up to €20,000 per square metre, even restaurant mogul Danny Meyer had to find cheaper digs for his profitable eatery, Union Square Café.


The elegant Blue Water Grill on the same street is reportedly being ousted for the fast food chain, Chick-fil-A. New York is forfeiting its standing as a culinary and creative capital simply because young entrepreneurs cannot afford a business there anymore. And those that can – generic corporate chains – make for a sterile and banal environment to live in, certainly not what you’d expect in a world-class city. 

Paris looks to be succumbing to the same trend. Clothing and food chains are pushing out local businesses, particularly in gentrifying residential areas, especially those popular with Instagrammers.

Gone is the little dress shop that set aside sale items for you, or the butcher who knew your name. In their place: a Kooples or Amarino. One can only imagine what might replace Les Pipos, and what that will herald for this village-like neighborhood. 

The petition to save Les Pipos posits that losing a café is losing the heart of a community – a place where people meet, exchange ideas, and share a common experience. Paris has lost over 300 cafés and bistros since 2014, and Les Pipos may soon be among their number.

The initiative recently launched by the government to save cafés is only for small towns. Their Parisian counterparts are not getting the same kind of recognition. The clients of Les Pipos argue that they should.

What can be done to save Les Pipos remains to be seen. But the popular neighborhood bistrot à vins, and the diverse community it serves, is an example of what we stand to lose in Paris – and in other cities – if residents and small businesses aren’t considered in the overall planning for growth. Prosperity is not to be found in the money-grab economy that rewards only the biggest players at the expense of vital local communities.

Like Les Pipos, real prosperity comes when you feed the soul of the city. Nurture a community and the city flourishes as a whole.

To sign the petition, click here.

Lisa Anselmo is the Founding and Editorial Director of Save the Paris Café, a collaborative project that celebrates café life in Paris. She is also the co-founder of No Love Locks, and author of My (Part-Time) Paris Life (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press).


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Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

When travelling through France ordering local dishes and drinks is always a good bet, so we're taking a virtual roadtrip through France, highlighting some of the must-try regional specialities.

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

This section of our roadtrip takes in the central part of France, from the tourist hotspots of the Alps and west coast seaside resorts through the less well know (but wonderful) central regions. 

The following is just our personal recommendation for some of the areas we’re passing through – please leave your suggestions and foodie tips in the comments box below.

Savoie/Haut-Savoie – Extremely popular for winter sports, the French Alps are stunning all year round and a summer trip for hiking, cycling or water sports is also highly recommended. The long, cold winters and the popularity of sporty holidays means that many Savoie specialities tend towards the hearty, filling, cheese-based and calorific – fondue, raclette and tartiflette.

What to order: It has to be fondue – but this is really a winter dish. Although some tourist spots sell it in summer it’s best enjoyed after a hard day hiking or skiing while watching the snow swirl around outside your window. The basics of a fondue are always the same – a big pot of melted cheese and some bread to dip in – but there are many varieties based on cheese type. We prefer a mixed-cheese option to get the full flavour spectrum, in the spirit of going local let’s order the Fondue Savoyard.

To drink: Wine! Old Swiss and French grannies will tell you that drinking water with fondue can be fatal, as it causes the cheese to solidify and stick in your stomach. As far as we know this has never been proven with science, but it’s definitely true that a crisp white wine is perfect to cut through the rich, fatty cheese.

Opt for a local vin jaune for the perfect partner.  

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Lyon – you might think that the whole of France is a foodie destination, but to French people Lyon is the ‘foodie capital’, and for that reason it’s a highly popular staycation destination with the French. Definitely check out the ‘bouchon’ restaurants which specialise in the best in local cuisine. 

What to order: Brioche de pralines rosé. There are so many delicious Lyon savoury specialities that it’s hard to pick one so we’ve gone for a sweet treat here. Pink pralines (nuts in a sugar coating) are the city’s signature sweet and while they’re great on their own, for an extra indulgent treat you can get brioche (sweet bread) studded with pink pralines. A slice (or two) with a pot of coffee is quite possibly the world’s best breakfast.

And to drink:  Beaujolais. Stick with us here, there’s more to beaujolais than the much-derided beaujolais nouveau (although that is getting better these days). The wine appellation extends almost to Lyon and is home to hundreds of small vineyards all making beautiful wines, many of whom are taking up production of vins bio (organic) or vins naturel.  

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READ ALSO: Bio, natural or biodynamic: 5 things to know about French organic wines

Auvergne – central France tends to get missed by many tourists, which is a real shame because much of it is stunning, as well as being quieter and cheaper than the coastal areas. The area is dotted with mountains and (extinct) volcanoes which give it a really dramatic character.

What to order: Auvergnat cuisine is quite meat-based, although the region is also known for good cheeses. To combine the two into one meal, we highly recommend aligot – a type of silky, creamy mashed potato with lots of stringy cheese stirred in – topped with a sausage. Have this at a restaurant with a glass or good wine or buy it from a street stall and go watch the town’s famous rugby team. Either way, the experience will be sublime.

And to drink: Volvic. Those volcanoes that we mentioned earlier give the name to one of France’s most famous mineral waters – Volvic. The water is apparently filtered through six layers of rock for five years, so give your liver a rest and sample some.

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Corrèze – moving west takes us into Corrèze, one of France’s most sparsely populated départements and one that even some French people would struggle to point to on a map. Transport is not all that easy unless you have a car but if it’s well worth the effort to visit this hidden but lovely corner of France.

What to order: Savoury dishes often feature mushrooms (especially ceps) and chestnuts and freshwater fish such as perch are also popular but we’re going to pick a dessert – clafoutis. The baked fruit flan is hugely popular across France but is traditional in Corrèze – in the classic form it’s made with cherries, but lots of different fruit options are available.

And to drink: They grow a lot of nuts in Corrèze and as well as eating them, they’re often made into digéstifs as well. If by this stage of the roadtrip you are feeling a little heavy, try an after-dinner liqueur to help you digest (although, despite the name scientists claim that a digéstif doesn’t actually help digestion).

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Île d’Oléron – We’ve now reached the west coast, and just off the shore of the Vendée are two beautiful islands. Île de Ré is known as the ‘French Hamptons’ because it’s such a popular holiday destination for rich Parisians, while its smaller brother Île d’Oléron is less high profile but equally lovely.

What to order: This area is the centre of France’s oyster production and if you take a trip around the island (or on the mainland) you will see hundreds of oyster beds. Virtually all local restaurants serve them, but you’ll also see them piled high at markets, where the stallholders will shuck them for you if you’re afraid of losing a finger in the process.

And to drink: The island is known for its white wines which pair perfectly with oysters. Stop off at the market for a quick glass (and an oyster or two) when you’ve finished your shopping or buy a bottle, plus a platter of oysters and have a picnic. 

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Head to our Food & Drink section to find guides to the regional specialities of southern and northern France.