PARIS — The French do a whole lot of things right, and very well.Wine. Cheese. Bread. Chocolate. Coffee? Not so much. No one ever believes me when I tell them the coffee in Paris is horrible. With a croissant on the side or not, it’s mostly bad, bitter black stuff, still barely drinkable with lots of milk and often too much sugar. But this is finally starting to change. More than a half-dozen great new coffee shops opened here during the fall, creating a buzz among coffee snobs. (I know. I’m one of them.) Could the French capital finally be embracing the concept of good coffee via indie shops and roasters, the way much of the world — the U.S., England, Belgium, Australia — has already done? Is jus de chaussettes (sock juice), what the French like to call an awful cup of coffee, soon to become a thing of the past?“The coffee [in Paris] has always been so disgusting. It’s been monopolized by Richard, a well-known coffee supplier throughout France — you’ll often see coffee served in ‘Cafés Richard’ cups in bistros and brasseries,” says Anna Trattles, a partner at Ten Belles, a year-old establishment and one of the city’s newest and most celebrated coffee shops. “We wanted to make good coffee in Paris, so we opened Le Bal Café three years ago.”Whereas Le Bal was known for its coffee (I went a couple of times when it first opened), it’s really a small restaurant — and one with English specialties, such as kippers and Welsh rarebit — plus an art gallery and bookshop. Trattles says Le Bal, with its bigger space and menu, is far more than coffee, which is why Ten Belles came along. “We wanted to do the kind of place that we’d want to go to,” she explains. “We wanted to do a great coffee shop.”Trattles, a Rose Bakery alum, is a partner in both operations along with Thomas Lehoux, who oversees the coffee roasting at the 2-month-old Belleville Brulerie (roasters), which supplies coffee to Ten Belles. Just 35 square meters of space squeezed into a narrow street off the Canal St. Martin in the trendy 10th arrondissement, Ten Belles is like finding a shiny penny in the bottom of your purse. And it’s surprisingly good.At 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, I meet three friends here, all expat Americans who’ve lived in Paris for a dozen years or more. We walk in the door and immediately run into Bryan Pirolli, an American from Pennsylvania whom I sat next to at a Thanksgiving dinner party a couple of years before, and who lives in the neighborhood. It already feels homey. We order cappuccinos and scones, then take a seat upstairs. There’s no Wi-Fi here and there’s probably only eight other people on the premises, meeting each other and having breakfast. After a while, we order a second round and linger for yet another hour. Leading the chargeThe coffee movement in Paris isn’t a French-driven thing. On the contrary. Most of the owners of the new coffee shops are expats, or if they’re French, they’ve lived abroad (usually America or Australia) and tasted the coffee culture in other places. So you’ll not only be able to speak English to the barista (who’s often the owner), you’ll likely hear quite a bit of it around you, too. Which is odd, this being Paris and all. Yet it’s not that surprising when you think about it. Whereas Americans have traditionally drunk coffee from morning till night — remember Mr. Coffee? Bottomless cups? — this is not a French thing. Here, coffees are strong, short and thrown back in a sip or two, like a tequila shot. Coffees like these are served after lunch and after dinner, and then you get on with your day. A bigger, milky coffee — a café crème or café au lait — is only something that you drink in the morning, with breakfast. Coffees as something to refill again and again? Jamais. “Sixty to 70 percent of my customers are expats from Australia and America,” says Nicolas Clerc, owner of the very tiny Télescope, with just five small tables, which opened in March 2012 behind Palais Royal in the first arrondissement. You can take away two things from that statement. One, there’s a big enough culture of expats in Paris to support a coffee movement, and two, expats are still quite separate from the French. “This tells me we’re not integrating, and this bothers me,” says Alisa Morov, a Los Angeles native who writes cookbooks and teaches cooking classes in Paris. “I’m glad we’ve got better coffee now, but this feels weird.” Debbie Gabriel, married to a Frenchman and living in Paris for 18 years, says the new upward trend in coffee roasting and coffee bars in Paris is not unlike the craft-cocktail movement, another expat-driven trend that started some years ago in Paris and is now becoming more mainstream. “Cocktails were never part of French culture,” she says. “They’re very slow to change. It’s the same with coffee. This trend is being driven by a very international group.”Ironically, if you walk into a Starbucks here, you’ll hear more French spoken than anything else — not because the coffee’s that great, but because the place itself is American. Like eating at McDonald’s or wearing Ralph Lauren and Levi’s, it’s considered cool. In the past year, three new coffee bars have opened in the third arrondissement (Fondation, Loustic and Fragments, which opened, then closed and is supposed to open again soon) and two — Holybelly and Ten Belles — in the 10th. “It feels like we’re at the beginning of a marathon,” says Télescope’s Clerc, who, at 37, considers himself one of the older players in what’s becoming a much-hyped coffee scene here. “All of these young guys are super-fit, and are saying, ‘C’mon, let’s do it!’ ” he says, laughing. “I want to see that in five years.” Interestingly, the players are all connected to each other in some way.David Nigel Flynn, who used to work with Clerc at Télescope, left to open Belleville roasters with Thomas Lehoux of Ten Belles. Aussie Chris Nielson, the ex-barista at Ten Belles, left to open Fondation. Belleville also supplies coffee to KB Cafeshop in Pigalle (which until recently was known as Kooka Boora), and now to Le Bal cafe, too, which is owned by the same group that opened Télescope. Christophe and Olivier Lehoux, brothers of Thomas at Ten Belles, are opening their own coffee shop/cocktail bar, Lockwood, soon. Quietly taking holdOn one of my last afternoons in Paris, I stop in at Loustic, a shop I’d learned had been open for eight months already, yet had remained under the radar and a bit hidden. Located in one of the last areas of the haute Marais to be developed, just off Rue Beaubourg on a small street, it announces its presence quietly with a discreet sign that simply says “Cafe.” This soft open has been deliberate, says the shop’s 42-year-old owner/barista, Channa Galhenage, a Londoner who has lived in Paris for 11 years. Explaining that he wanted his shop to be less about serving expats and more about attracting a local, French-speaking clientele, he says, “Too much English is being spoken in these places. I wanted to create a neighborhood coffee shop.”And it appears that’s what he’s done. On my visit, I took a seat along the red upholstered banquette that stretches along one wall, covered with pillows and movable octagonal tables big enough to hold a coffee and a snack, but not a laptop. Again, this was an intentional move. “I’m very much into old-school magazines and I want people to read the magazines — Elle, Milk Deco, Le Fooding — and talk to each other,” says Galhenage. “Wi-Fi destroys the ambiance.” Instead of long tables set up like remote offices and plenty of plugs, Loustic offers stay-awhile comfort via lots of pillows to lean on, black and white wallpaper, bevelled mirrors, exposed brick, and stripped walls that appear to be in the middle of a redo. It’s cozy, which makes it easy to stay longer than I’d intended. Coffee to go? That’s not what this place is about. “The French have a cafe culture, but not a coffee culture,” he says, bringing me a second cappuccino, which he insists I drink without sugar (I do).“I’m optimistic because everyone [in France] drinks coffee,” he adds. “We just have to change what’s in the cup.”
Ellise Pierce is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Fe and Paris, and is author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press). Follow her blog at cowgirlchef.com.