A ‘Moveable Feast’ at Hemingway’s Former Haunt

Closerie des Lilas

Located on the south side of the Jardin Luxembourg on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, Closerie des Lilas is unlike the other two favorite Hemingway cafes we visited - Aux Deux Magots and Café Le Flore on Boulevard Saint Germain. At those restaurants it felt like there were many more tourists than French people, and the food was o.k.—café food—but nothing to rave about.  The atmosphere at both cafes was one of constant turnover—the French are wonderful about not rushing you—but tourists tend to eat their lunch and then move on to the next thing instead of lingering for hours over wine or a café crème.

Lila’s is different. I walk there with Sarah, my young friend and daughter of my friend Sandy. (Sarah arrived on Wednesday and NoLo E-hub left Friday morning to return to work in the states.) We’re seated at the last table in an ivy-covered terrace, and Sarah remarks that it reminds her of the The Ivy in L.A.—the restaurant where Hollywood power brokers lunch.  We’re both famished from the 45-minute walk to get here from our apartment, so we anxiously scan the menu.

On French menus there are many “cooking” terms that you probably didn’t learn in French Class so it’s dangerous to see “veau” and say to yourself, “I love veal!” and order it because you may have just ordered “tete a veau,” veal head, and unless you’re fond of it, I wouldn’t advise it.  When I see “riz veau” on the menu, I think, veal with rice, but when I ask the waiter what it is he tells me sweetbreads, something I’m not fond of.

I order artichoke hearts with tomatoe puree, and steak frites. Sarah orders melon with prosciutto and asparagas soup. We both have “pink wine,” and chat while we await our meal.  Around us, only French is being spoken—we don’t see another American.

The restaurant opened in 1847 and through the years has been a favorite of literary greats like Baudelaire, Hemingway, Picasso, Sarte and Fitzgerald. Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises at one of the tables here, and he said his famous comment to A.E. Hotchner while sitting at Lilas.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Our “moveable feast” arrives and the food is magnificent. Picture perfect,  the entrée, as the first course is called, arrived, followed by the plates, or main course. We enjoy every delightful morsel.  More wine follows and it’s two hours before we leave the café.  As we walk back, Sarah remarks, “That was our first true “French” lunch, sitting for hours, no rush!”

It was true; we had never lingered over lunch before and it was the perfect day for it, overcast with the sun peaking through clouds periodically, the feeling of an afternoon that there is no reason to hurry. We walk back to the apartment through Luxembourg Gardens. 

“Sarah, if you are lucky enough to have dined at the Closerie des Lilas as a young woman, for the rest of your life it will stay with you, for Lilas is a moveable feast.”

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