Le Zinc: Where to Find the Classic Bars of Paris

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Le Zinc: Where to Find the Classic Bars of Paris
Le zinc was the ubiquitous Paris neighborhood bar, earning its name from its galvanized zinc countertop, which, since the 1800s, was a standard feature of French bars and cafés. The term originally referred to the impervious zinc which covered the counter, later, the term le zinc referred to the restaurants themselves. “Rendez-vous au zinc” (or: “meet me at the café”) was a phrase once commonly heard. Zinc bars are an evocative symbol of the Belle Époque and early 20th-century Parisian life. Apart from the Church, the zinc was a welcoming space for mixing and mingling, where strangers could meet up and interact over a coffee or a glass of cheap absinthe. Emile Zola wrote of le zinc in his 1873 book The Belly of Paris thus, “In particular was the counter… that was so sumptuous, with its broad expanse of silver polished bright. The covering zinc overhung the red and white marble base with a deep wavy border, thus overlaying it with a silky sheen, a cloth of metal, like a high altar spread with its embroideries.” Some of these bars were denuded of their metal during the Occupation of Paris by enemy forces who reused their metal in the Nazi war industries. Fortunately many survived and some fashionable contemporary bars looking for a historical ambiance are returning to the look, having brand-new zinc countertops fabricated. Ernest Hemingway © Lloyd Arnold, Public Domain Ernest Hemingway said in his Hemingway cadence, “Outside it was getting light. I walked down the empty street to the café. There was a light in the window. I went in and stood at the zinc bar and an old man served me a glass of wine and a brioche. The brioche was yesterday’s. I dipped it in the wine and then drank a glass of coffee.” George Augustus Sala in his 1878 memoir, Paris, Herself Again, describes how he witnessed: “Two honest working men breakfasting on bread and grapes and a chopine of thin wine apiece – made up the company before the zinc-covered bar, behind which sat enthroned a stout lady with a kerchief of crimson cotton twisted round her head.” Escargot, foie gras, and frog legs still seem to be the order of the day at the 21st-century zincs. Sure, you’ll find travelers or those looking to recreate a scene from French cinema, but these locales are popular with Parisians too. For some, chalkboard menus, bentwood chairs and zinc bars exemplify what it means to be in Paris. For others, these details seem as irrelevant as some of the dusty mannequins at the Grevin. Old or new (and you can like both), the zinc bar runs counter to the more Japanese/Danish aesthetic that comprises much of the look of the “new Paris.”

Lead photo credit : Digital Oil Painting of Le Petit Zinc by Charles W. Bailey, Jr., Digital Artist, Creative Commons

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  • marilynbrouwer@hotmail.com
    2022-08-04 05:21:22
    Brilliant, as always Hazel. Makes you long for an old fashioned bar crawl...