A traditional Parisian breakfast has never really been more than a baguette with a side of butter and jam. Maybe a yogurt, if you’re health-conscious. Top that off with some bad coffee and you’re set for the morning. No wonder Parisians are known for being so cranky.
Today, however, as Paris expands its culinary repertoire, there are more and more elaborate morning meals served in a variety of ways, in a variety of places. Many of those places happen to be specialty coffee shops; as the interest in good coffee has grown in the French capital, so has the interest in breakfast.
Start talking coffee and breakfast in Paris, and thoughts immediately turn to Holybelly. Opened in 2013 by Sarah Mouchot and Nico Alary, Holybelly has become a go-to for lovers of both big mugs of coffee and a hearty breakfast. Eggs have been their specialty since the beginning, and many a visitor has fallen for the stack of pancakes served with crispy bacon and Bourbon butter.
“Most people [in France] just skip breakfast altogether, maybe because it's so rarely an enjoyable experience, except on weekends when we usually raid the closest (not even the best) boulangerie. In short, we suck at breakfast,” says Alary. “That's why my little French mind was blown when I sat down for breakfast for the first time at Auction Rooms in North Melbourne at 9 in the morning. The place was absolutely packed, on a regular weekday, everyone was eating dishes, proper savory food, eggs and such, there were chefs working away in the open kitchen, baristas banging out coffees after coffees, it was miles away from anything I had ever experienced back home and it flicked something in my brain forever.”
To say that experience was revolutionary would be an understatement. “That's what I wanted to do and that's how I wanted to eat breakfast for the rest of my life,” says Alary.
Look around at most of the specialty cafes in Paris today and there’s a hint of the Anglo version of the morning meal, even if it’s done with a French spin. Alary equates that with the rise in popularity of good filter coffee, the signature drink of the Paris specialty scene. “A delicious mug of freshly brewed filter coffee paired with a couple of poached eggs on a hot, heavily buttered piece of toast is one of life's most precious treasures,” says Alary. “For me, Anglo brekkie equals savory food and I love drinking black drip while eating savory breakfast.”
But morning fare at Paris coffee shops isn’t always savory—granola has become another breakfast staple. Many cafes make their own, but one of the first purveyors of artisan granola was Emperor Norton, who started making it in 2011. “At the time, the only similar thing we can recall was bircher muesli. Alannah started making her honey granola because she thought it unacceptable to serve just fromage blanc with compote as the sweet component for a brunch,” says Omid Tavallai who runs Emperor Norton with his wife Alannah McPherson Tavallai, who in 2011 took over the weekend kitchen at Coutume. “She wanted to serve something with crunch, so she busted out her recipe, found ways to get the ingredients that restaurant purveyors wouldn't provide, and next thing you know, the next few specialty cafes that opened wanted granola, and we were happy to oblige each with their own custom recipe.” Today, the Tavallais' custom-made granola can be found at Paris cafe favorites like Télescope, Café Loustic, and Boot Cafe.
Be it granola, avocado toast, or bread, butter and homemade jam, a breakfast selection has become an assured thing at most of the specialty coffee shops in town, and even outside of the specialty scene, there are more and more establishments serving a proper morning spread.
Part of this breakfast craze might just be part of the foreign allure that the meal can offer, particularly when it comes to the weekend version. “Our French friends seem to be enamored with the idea of having stacks of pancakes or griddles full of bacon like they see in movies or on TV,” says Omid Tavallai. “Parisians love food, so who wouldn't get excited about a newly discovered full meal to indulge in?”
Brunch is now as popular in Paris as Brooklyn or Portland, an ever-growing trend that seems to see a new hip brunch joint opening each weekend. One of the longer-standing coffee/brunch operations in town is Le Bal Café. The British-influenced menu is constantly changing, proof of chefs’ Alice Quillet and Anna Trattles creativity as well as devotion to seasonality, but you can be sure to always find a hearty spread of cakes and sweets on the bar. As for the coffee service, this was one of the first cafes in town serving up specialty coffee (it’s the same team behind the city’s beloved cafe, Ten Belles), and Chemex has been their trademark coffee service since the early days. Lockwood, the popular coffee shop and cocktail bar, has taken to brunch with a Frenchie twist. Sure, there are pancakes and toast, but there are also oeufs à la coque, soft-boiled eggs served with slices of bread that are meant to be dipped into them once you crack the top off, a French classic.
Of course, as breakfast has become a staple, the options have become more and more similar—avocado toast is currently the breakfast du jour—encouraging cafes to break out of the box. Fragments has decided to take porridge to a whole new level: bananas, hazelnuts, and a sweet dulce de leche top a bowl of hearty oats, putting your homemade version to total shame. Newcomer to the Paris specialty coffee scene Café Oberkampf has gained a following thanks to its shakshuka. You can get the North African dish served with one, two, or three eggs. Served in the frying pan that it’s cooked in, the dish is as beautiful as it is tasty, and at Café Oberkampf the pan sits atop a wooden board, with two glass bowls perched on the side, one with a spicy salt mix and the other with tangy yogurt.
And while for now, the breakfast culture here is primarily made up of outside influences, there’s no reason traditional Parisian eateries can't up their own game. Paris is after all filled with beautiful bistros and brasseries, the kind of place where you want to settle into a wicker chair on the terrace and watch the city go by. “The owners operating those often gorgeous-looking little bistros are thieves, cost obsessed, and relying heavily on a clientele of one-time tourists,” says Alary. “They use cheap butter, cheap jam, cheap bread, cheap coffee, and charge top Euro for it,” he continues. “We could really have a fantastic French breakfast scene without having to emulate the Australians or the Americans but unfortunately brasseries, cafes, and bistros don't give a damn and keep filling your cup with muck.”
So for now, while breakfast is popular, in the grand scheme of the Parisian culinary world, this style of breakfast is still fringe. “Once your rank-and-file cafe/hotêlerie/restaurant-trained cook can make them or pour them out of a pouch, you're going to see it become as commonplace as burgers and bagels,” says Omid Tavallai.
Which means that if you’re getting a breakfast made with care and good ingredients, and served up with a cup of good joe, you should be sure to appreciate it.
Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Paris, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break, available now from Ten Speed Press. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.