Classics and Cocktails in Paris
By Julie Snyder
My husband, Joe, who happily leaves travel planning in my hands, had just two requests for our recent stopover in Paris. Predictably, one of them involved books and the other, cocktails.
The literary destination? Shakespeare & Company. The cocktail venue? (You can probably see where this is going.) Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris. It had been decades since I’d been to the former and I’d never been to the latter so I gladly incorporated his desired destinations into our rather rambling itinerary.
From our snug rental flat on Ile. St. Louis, Shakespeare and Company—at 37 rue de la Bucherie—was just a short walk away, past the Cathedral of Notre Dame and across the Seine. The world-renowned English-language bookshop makes its home in an 18th-century building that once housed a monastery. Bordered by a compact park, the shop shares a courtyard with its companion café and counts the oldest church in Paris, St.-Julien-Le-Pauvre, among its neighbors. Surely developers lust after this fortunate setting but I wouldn’t book on them making headway in acquiring it.
Founded by George Whitman, an American, in 1951, the bookshop was originally called Le Mistral. Whitman changed the name in 1964 as a tribute to the Bard on the 400th anniversary of his death and to Sylvia Beach, the founder and proprietor of the original Shakespeare & Company, located at nearby 12 Rue de l’Odeon from 1919 until 1941.
Both Left Bank literary legends have been magnets for famous and aspiring writers and their admirers.
Sylvia Beach’s shop blended book sales and a lending library and attracted notables such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. George Whitman strove to continue the spirit of Beach’s shop and Allen Ginsberg, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, James Baldwin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were among his devotees. Today Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, manages Shakespeare and Company, fulfilling the legacy of her father and this very special bookstore.
Though we arrived not long after opening, there was already a line waiting to get in. A soft-spoken young woman played traffic cop, managing the ingress and egress of patrons. Once inside, we navigated around the other browsers through a warren of rooms and maze of floor-to-ceiling shelves, much like salmon swimming upstream. I finally sought refuge in the second-floor reading room and perused the extensive and eclectic library—when I could take my eyes off the drop-dead view of Notre Dame out the window.
I asked a bustling blonde woman—who I later realized was undoubtedly Sylvia Whitman—if any of the library books were for sale. She said no but if I found an extra-special one, we could talk. As much as I wanted to discover that perfect book, it did not appear. Instead I left with (I’m almost embarrassed to admit) a copy of Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” Such a cliché. But at least it has a Shakespeare and Company stamp on the title page.
While Shakespeare and Company clearly honors the past, it’s also forward-thinking. During the last decade, the bookshop has hosted a handful of literary festivals, made cameo appearances in movies including Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, opened a publishing arm and partnered on the adjacent café. Free weekly literary events showcase both leading authors and new voices. If I lived in Shakespeare and Company’s neighborhood, I would be a regular—in the odd hours when there wasn’t a waiting line.
Across the Seine in the Place Vendôme at the Ritz Paris, we barely escaped a waiting line at the Bar Hemingway, tucked deep inside the recently spruced-up landmark. In fact, we were the first to cross the threshold at 6 pm after wandering through the hotel’s elegant and inviting public spaces.
The Ritz reopened in June 2016 after a four-year, $150M renovation, and fans of the Bar Hemingway will be pleased to know that in their beloved drinking establishment, little has changed. The cozy, clubby rooms are still brimming with Hemingway photographs and memorabilia, from fishing rods to passport photos and letters penned to his wife (I couldn’t get close enough to see which one) on Ritz letterhead. Perhaps the best news—legendary Head Barman Colin Peter Field has returned with his venerable team to craft extraordinary cocktails and cultivate an amiable ambience.
In the 1920s, the Ritz bar was the ultimate man cave for Hemingway and pals like F. Scott Fitzgerald, and their extended conversations and drinking sessions became epic. Legend has it that Hemingway liberated the hotel bar as the Nazis were retreating in 1944. Careening into Place Vendôme in a jeep with a group of stragglers separated from their units, he led the motley crew into the Ritz bar, proclaimed it liberated, and ordered champagne for all. “When I dream of afterlife in heaven,” Hemingway once wrote, “the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz.”
We were feeling quite heavenly as we settled in at a table and ogled our hallowed surroundings. A raft of servers quickly arrived with drink menus, a tiered serving tray of nibbles, and for me, oddly, a rose. Odd because, with its rich wood paneling, supple leather upholstery and distinct aura of Papa, Bar Hemingway exudes masculinity. Given the environment, I would have appreciated a cigar rather than a rose. I’m not kidding.
We’d come for martinis but the drink menu offered some tempting spirits including an exquisite selection of Champagnes; Bloody Mary’s with your choices of tomatoes (in season); and an array of exclusive cocktails. And then of course there was the Ritz Side Car, created in 1923 by Franck Meier, the hotel’s first head bartender, and still concocted with 19th-century pre-phylloxera cognac. For $1,500 euros.
But we’d come for martinis. I had my usual: Hendrick’s gin, up, extra olives, a whisper of vermouth. Joe ordered what was billed as “The world’s first and only Clean Dirty Martini.” It was indeed crystal clear and still had that subtle olive bite. (The recipe is secret of course.) Our drinks were excellent. Perfectly mixed. Exquisitely chilled.
We sipped and nibbled (if you need more than olives and nuts to complement your cocktails, Mini Hot Dogs and Mini Hem Burgers are available) and savored the surroundings and the crowd in what was by now a full house. A gregarious gentleman sitting at the bar tried to recruit my white-haired-and-bearded husband to join him at the annual Hemingway Look-Alike Contest in Key West, Florida. Joe politely declined.
If we lived in Paris, Bar Hemingway wouldn’t be a regular haunt—not at 30 euros for a martini—but Ernest’s man cave would undoubtedly be near the top of our “special occasion” destinations.
From classic literature to classic cocktails, Hemingway’s Paris served us well.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.