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Iconic Parisian Bistros Are Under Threat. Can They Be Saved?

5 minute read

Alain Fontaine leans on the bar at his central Paris bistro, Le Mesturet, dodging trays as waiters weave around him to deliver lunchtime service. “A bistro isn’t just some place for a quick bite to eat,” he says, turning to avoid a glass of red wine colliding with his white chef’s coat. “It’s the home of the Parisian art de vivre—that’s what we’re losing if these places die out: our way of life.”

A distinctive kind of bar-cum-eatery, the bistro offers more substantial meals than a café, but in a more relaxed setting than a restaurant. In some parts of town, they seem to be everywhere, the small zinc-topped tables of their terraces spilling onto street corners. But they’re rapidly disappearing. From 2014 to 2018, nearly a quarter of Paris bistros—at least 300 of them—closed, according to France’s National Statistics Office.

That’s why Fontaine, 60, who worked in bistros all his life before opening Le Mesturet in 2003, is leading about 30 fellow owners in a campaign this year. They want UNESCO, the U.N.’s culture agency, to give bistros and terraces “intangible cultural heritage” status. In September, they will hand their proposal to France’s Minister for Culture, who will then decide whether or not to recommend it to UNESCO. The status would raise awareness and give owners an opportunity for promotion, as well as a way to justify future planning protection from the city council. They might also be able to access some funds: every two years UNESCO hands out cash from a shared pot to put toward practices or events with the classification.

Bistro owners aren’t the only Parisians hoping to secure the designation, which recognizes the cultural value of intangible practices, crafts and events, alongside its more famous physical “World Heritage Sites.” The “bouquinistes” or open-air booksellers along the Seine are also applying, as are the roofers who install the iconic grey tops of most central Paris buildings. Among the practices already recognized in France are a summer solstice fire festival in the Pyrenees, a lace-making technique from Normandy, a centuries-old craft of Aubusson tapestry, and the controversially vague concept of “the French gastronomic meal.”

Bistros first popped up in the city in the early 19th century, as migrants from provincial France opened cheap, unfussy watering holes. Gradually the bistro became a staple of the local culinary scene, providing cheaper fare than its more upscale sibling, the brasserie. Fontaine says that affordability makes bistros a rare meeting point across different cultures and classes. “We have everyone here, blue collar workers, professionals, families, students, tourists,” he says. “They can meet, share, argue.”

A plan by the association to use membership fees to hold artistic events at bistros also revives their long history as a hive of cultural and intellectual activity. In the ’20s, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote at Le Café du Dôme; a couple of decades later, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir argued over existentialism at Les Deux Magots.

Yet to many, the disappearance of Paris bistros comes as no surprise. Soaring rents in the French capital have edged out some owners, while many family-run businesses have struggled to compete with the low prices of chains and fast-food joints that have sprang up over the last few decades. Changing habits are also to blame, as Parisian office workers abandon their traditionally long lunch breaks in favour of a sandwich at their desks.

Nevertheless, for Parisians and tourists alike, bistros remain essential to the city’s history and image. More recently, in the aftermath of the November 2015 attacks that left 130 dead, they emerged as a symbol of the city’s resilience. That night, Grégory Reibenberg was in his bistro, La Belle Équipe, when gunmen opened fire on the terrace. Nineteen people were killed, including his wife and nine friends. “But two days later, it was sunny and all the terraces were full,” he says. Thousands shared defiant photos with hashtags like “Everyone to the bistro” and “I am on the terrace.”

La Belle Équipe closed for four months, while Reibenberg renovated and enlarged the terrace. “I didn’t want it to be the same place,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone to ever be able to point and say ‘That happened there.’” The remodel has a modern feel, with exposed brickwork and a loud sound system—but the relaxed clientele and hearty menu still mark it as a classic Paris bistro. “We need to protect bistros,” Reibenberg says. “What happens inside is life itself.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent/Paris at ciara.nugent@time.com