“Paris! Meaning the Café Select, the Dôme, the Flea Market, the American Express.”Henry Miller
People don’t come to Le Select to be seen. They come for lunch.
And dinner, or a snack at 3:00am. Or to play chess on the terrasse or under the block glass skylight in the back, or just bavarder with the waitstaff. It’s been host to as many historical figures as any other café on the Carrefour Vavin, the crossroads of the boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail, and still draws celebrities today.
Le Select isn’t so much the noisy younger brother of the Montparnasse gang (it opened in 1923), as the one that didn’t pick up any fancy aires – the one the others might sniff at when forced to admit, “yeah, he’s related, but….” And whereas the Dome, the Rotonde, and the Coupole have fostered an air of exclusivity, the Select is unabashedly a neighborhood place. It is noisy, in a friendly cacophony sort of way, and livelier. And unlike it’s swankier siblings, Le Select has resisted the urge to update and ‘modernize’ – checked-tile floors instead of marble, original bar, and a somewhat goofy painted wood cut-out of an artist with pipe and hat greets you by the front door holding the Plat du Jour – it’s the sort of thing that would scream clumsy tourist trap elsewhere, but here it’s absolutely earnest, and because of that, somehow comforting. When Jean-luc Goddard needed the quintessential Parisian café for a scene in ‘Breathless’, this is where he came. You can’t buy ‘Le Select’ coffee mugs or souvenirs, but you can get a good drink.
The waiters here are a bit more harried, but efficient, in green vests with no aprons, plenty of cross café shouts of , “J’arrive, J’arrive!”, and they’re not too proud to grasp a bottle of wine between their thighs to help pop the cork (something that, believe me, is not gonna happen at La Rotonde). The Maitre D’ pitches in, and seems like someone’s well-to-do, but friendly uncle. And I’m guessing it’s been like this since Hemingway drank here.
And Hemingway did drink here, quite a bit. In ‘The Sun Also Rises’ he sets four scenes in Le Select, and when Jake Barnes or Brett refer to simply “the café” this is invariably where they mean. Rumor has it that Papa’s preferred perch was in the narrow section that leads to les toilettes, so any needy young lady had to squeeze her way past his attentions.
It was also the favorite watering hole of social critic Harold Stearns, who describes it in his autobiography, “A Street I Know” as such: “…a seething madhouse of drunks, semi-drunks, quarter-drunks, and sober maniacs…it was a useless silly life, and I have missed it every day since.”
One of those drunks was American author/poet Hart Crane, who had a history of overindulgence. In July, 1929, Crane got roaring drunk at the Select, refused to pay his tab, punched a waiter (some accounts claim he punched 4 waiters), the cop who came to intervene, and tussled with several other gendarmes who came to assist. They ended up knocking him out cold and literally dragging him feet-first to jail. Andre Gide, e.e. cummings, and Jean Cocteau, among others, rallied to get him released.
Henry Miller, a regular in the years following Crane’s expulsion, thought of the Select as iconic of ex-pat life in Paris, and it features regularly in ‘Tropic of Cancer’. He writes about waiting for other ex-pats to appear and possibly buy him a meal in exchange for a good afternoon’s conversation, and of sitting up all night at the Select, trying to raise train fare for a trip to Dijon. Photographer Georges Brassai lived in an apartment upstairs, and took regular meals here.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre would go there and, as de Beauvoir noted, “…sit among the crop-haired lesbians, who wore ties, and even monocles on occasion…”
Les toilettes, as noted above, are through a narrow squeeze in the back and down some slightly cramped stairs.
99 Boulevard de Montparnasse
Phone: 01 45 48 38 24
Ouvert: Monday – Thursday 7:00am – 2:00am
Friday 7:00am – 3:00am
Sat/Sun 7:00am – 3:00pm
A non-comprehensive list of historical drinkers who frequented Le Select:
James Baldwin, Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, Georges Brassai, Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Colette, Hart Crane, e.e. cummings, Salavador Dali, Simone De Beauvoir, Isadora Duncan, Serge Gainsbourg, Alberto Giacometti, Andre Gide, Emma Goldman, Ernest Hemingway, Chester Himes, Max Jacob, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Marais, Henry Miller, Joan Miro, Vladimir Nabokov, Anaïs Nin, Pablo Picasso, Samuel Putnam, Jean-Paul Sartre, Erik Satie, Chaim Soutine, Harold Stearns