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 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.”
The cafés and bistros of Paris are an integral part of the city’s heritage and culture. The Musée Montmartre has preserved a zinc bar – albeit a small one – as an homage. In a city that boasts thousands of bistros, with each street, alley, and avenue in Paris having its own neighborhood bar, it seems strange that there needs to be an initiative to save the traditional Parisian bar, but café society is slowly eroding. Paris has lost over 400 cafés since 2014 and the numbers continue to diminish because of Covid-19. This is in detailed Caroline Harrap’s April 6, 2020 article Save the Paris Café published on the Taste of France website. There are more details about the initiative here.
Large restaurant chains will continue to snap up many small eateries, but money talks – spend your euros elsewhere. Resist the siren call of the familiar coffee and donuts chain located on your nearest corner and spend your money on something integral to the neighborhood, whether historical or hipster.
Here’s the A to Zinc of Paris.
Located in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Allard is an authentic French bistro dating from 1932. It was founded by Marthe Allard, a Burgundian peasant who brought her family recipes with her to Paris. With Marthe’s culinary secrets in hand, the next generation of Allard women carried the business forward. Today Allard is helmed by chef Charlotte Bringant under the auspices of Alain Ducasse. The gastronomic level is a cut above and it shows on the menu. Allard is a small space, decorated like a comfy, old-style bistro where the mirrors behind the zinc bar expand the room. Music from 1930s further enhances the experience.
41, rue Saint-André des Arts, 6th
This bar indeed has a beau zinc. Far from the madding crowd, Bô-Zinc is a jolly brasserie on a corner in the 16th arrondissement where dishes are delicious and affordable. Duck is the order of the day.
59 ave Mozart, 16th
Located in the Boulevard Voltaire, next to Eglise Saint-Ambroise, Les Cents Kilos is a nearly century-old establishment with an upstairs dining room and a large, bright, convivial corner terrace, overlooking two parks. Their eggs are free range, their meat from France or the EU.
2 rue de la Folie Méricourt, 11th
The service and the quality of the food is reputedly excellent at Bar du Central. The warm and inviting resto serves both Monsieur and Madame Croques, charcuterie, Basque sardines, shrimp, duck and healthy bowls.
99 Rue Saint-Dominique, 7th
In the Faubourg Saint-Antoine district, Chardenoux is a zinc bar helmed by a Michelin-star-trained chef. It’s a swoon-worthy neo-bistro with the old touches. The sinuous zinc bar, the tiles on the floor and ceiling, etched glass, and bentwood chairs all seem to date from the Belle Époque – after all, the premises did open in 1908. It’s a beautiful place. The chef Cyril Lignac’s small menu diverges from the usual pub grub. The famous langoustine ravioli, par exemple, is one of the most expensive entrees at 29€ – it’s doable. M. Lignac’s chocolaterie is across the road.
1 rue Jules Vallès, 11th
At a crossroads busy with cafés, Charlot holds its own. On the hip corner bordering the Upper Marais, Charlot has a cool vibe and the staff is friendly and welcoming. The appealing architecture includes a curved zinc bar. And the menu is pleasant and sustaining.
38 rue de Bretagne, 3rd
Le Chansonnier – The Singer – is a very nice brasserie named after the 19th-century socialist singer/songwriter Pierre Dupont. Found within is a small curved zinc bar and moldings circa 1918. Near Canal Saint Martin, Le Chansonnier is a family-owned restaurant that offers a wide range of fresh and homemade French cuisine. The menu ranges from country paté with onion jam to roast fish with ratatouille. The steak à cheval haché sounds horsey but it’s simply an egg riding horseback on a beef burger.
14 Rue Eugène Varlin, 10th
Cravan is on my bucket list. It’s a pretty and understated cocktail bar in an unexpected corner of the 16th arrondissement. It’s named after Arthur Cravan, a nephew of Oscar Wilde, who was a one-time poet, one-time boxer, who flew too close to the sun. “I can resist anything but temptation,” said his uncle and this little boite is very tempting indeed.
17 rue Jean de La Fontaine, 16th
Elegantly set in a historical, 17th-century Mansart building, this wine bar offers daily French cuisine, both traditional and inventive.
43 rue Croix des Petits Champs Paris, 1st
La Frégate is a gorgeous place, with an equally gorgeous zinc, and yet another for my bucket list. On the quay near the Musée d’Orsay, La Fregate is a prime place for people watching.
1 rue de Bac, 7th
The postcard-pretty Louis Philippe is the epitome of the real Paris zinc. It’s renowned as a local restaurant and as the adage goes, the food must be good. At this ever-so central café the old-fashioned décor dates from 1810. The covered terrace is a nice touch.
66 quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, 4th
This fun café varies their cuisine to the schedule of their farmer friends, and menu choices are artisanal and small-scale. They make favorite dishes that no one seems to have the patience to make at home like pot-au-feu, regional stews, coq au vin, poule-au-pot, bourguignons, and blanquettes. Clients also make a fuss about the omelets. There are an unfathomable 400 wines on the menu. This welcoming, walkable location is kind of funky too.
73 rue Roquette, 11th
Situated in the Bastille district, this bistrot is understandably decorated in the style of Art Nouveau – it first opened its doors in 1902! This zinc has had a makeover since then but they’ve kept its Art Nouveau elegance: from the lighting to the woodwork, mosaic floor, mirrors, and benches. The interior and the facade are even listed as historic monuments.
116 Avenue Ledru-Rollin, 11th
Returning to France after several years in New York, restaurateurs Mélodie and Antoine Goldschmid found a diamond in the rough in this gorgeous Les Halles location. From under decades of grime, they rescued beautiful, floor-to-ceiling walls of extraordinary Art Nouveau tiles dating back to 1906. The classic zinc bar was also salvaged as part of the refurbishments. The perfect neighborhood bistro, Poulette’s fresh look reflects its modern, market-based menu, bio-wines, and inventive cocktails.
3 Rue Etienne Marcel, 1st
This less touristy destination is a gorgeous looking place, with an eye-catching zinc bar. The aproned wait staff and signage makes it look right out of the pages of Maigret but it was here that Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke talked and talked and talked some more in the 2004 movie Before Sunset.
14 rue Jean Macé, 11th
The Brasserie Le Progrès is located in the Nord Marais (NoMa) in the city’s third arrondissement. Like its neighbor Café Charlot, this spot is situated in the center of a cool, busy, walkable neighborhood. There is a real zinc bar and a tobacconist’s counter on site for cigar lovers.
1 rue de Bretagne, 3rd
Au P’tit Zinc is popular with locals and travelers alike and it’s easy to see why. It’s old timey, cluttered artfully with advertising posters from the 1920s and 30s. P’tit Zinc is charming and vivacious; the offerings on the carte delicious. Eric gives a face to the venue, and along with a warm welcome, offers good, authentic food at affordable prices.
2 Rue des Plantes, 14th
This beautifully preserved Belle Époque dining room – complete with zinc bar, moulded ceilings and mosaic floor – has starred in a number of French films, including Paris Je t’Aime. It’s in the 12th arrondissement, a bit out-of-the way, facing onto a lovely park.
1 rue Antoine Vollon, 12th
In the heart of the Louvre district, banquette seating and a zinc bar are found in the vintage interior of this busy bistro. Classic dishes, like duck confit, are in order. The staff is old-school polite.
6 rue la Vrillière, 1st
AKA Le Zinc is a brasserie located on the border of the 17th and 8th arrondissements. Frequented by locals, Le Zinc has a large terrace shaded by trees and Haussmann apartments. Their charming and pleasingly plump menu is entirely homemade, and includes dishes like veal cutlet, poke bowls and quality cheeseburgers. Their zinc bar is right out of an Impressionist painting.
13 Blvd de Courcelles, 8th
Lead photo credit : Digital Oil Painting of Le Petit Zinc by Charles W. Bailey, Jr., Digital Artist, Creative Commons