Can The Modern Coffeeshop Honor The Traditional Café?
Flipping the tables on coffee culture in Paris doesn't have to mean forsaking a sense of place for the sense of taste.
BY PAULINE HERBERT-WHITING
Tucked away in the small Comme des Garçons courtyard of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Honor Café looks like any permanent food truck. A modern outdoor structure protrudes from the aged courtyard and people queue to order a classic coffee or pastry. But a closer look reveals that there’s seating area in the back, built into the store behind it.
It is perhaps Honor’s unusual physical structure on one of the oldest and most well-known streets of Paris, that also best represents its place in Paris’s coffee culture. The coffee shop boldly departs from the traditional French café Parisians know and cling to while expanding on the French value of good flavor.
As an American exchange student in Paris, it was the space that first drew me to Honor. I could grab a quick coffee to go, and ordering at a counter instead of seated at a restaurant reminded me of ordering at Starbucks or other typical American coffee shops. I would venture that the other, primarily Anglophone, customers also came to Honor to find some comfortable culture space pocketed within an unknown city.
In Parisian tradition, the most important part of the café experience is the space itself. Typically, one sits in a restaurant-style establishment on a street corner, people-watching for several hours while sipping on a café allongé. People almost always sit outside, and cafés facilitate outdoor seating even during the winter with the installation of heat lamps. Who cares if the coffee is mediocre if one has an unobstructed view onto the picturesque streets of Paris, filled with the fashionable French and tourists alike?
For Daniel Warburton, the cofounder of Honor, the very thing that makes Honor special is not the unique style of the coffee stand, but its prioritization of coffee quality over space.
“Interestingly,” Daniel says, “In a land that focuses heavily on the prominence of agricultural products, [coffee quality] is not something that’s been really looked at or considered.”
In starting Honor, Daniel hoped primarily to bring a higher quality of coffee to Paris. Although he agreed with my theory that Anglophone customers came to Honor looking for a comfortable environment reminding them of home, Daniel also believes that Honor “naturally will have Anglophones, or people familiar with this sort of thing, searching it out”. After all, specialty coffee has developed most notably in Seattle and Sydney, and then later spread to the United Kingdom and beyond.
That’s also the path Daniel and his wife, Angelle, both Australian, followed. They brought their value of good coffee overseas, first to London, and then to Paris. They found that although specialty coffee shops had already begun to develop in London, they essentially started the business of quality coffee in Paris from scratch. The biggest initial challenge was managing to produce specialty coffee in a land without a lot of existing nice coffee facilities.
Their trick? “Currently, we’re using an English roaster who I have known for a long time,” Daniel says.
Essentially, Honor imports coffee beans from England, brews them, and somehow - by sight or by smell? - the Anglophones in Paris find their way to it.
Daniel knows that a lot of the craze around Honor does stem from its unique aesthetic in a nontraditional space, but he hopes that Honor, and Parisian coffee shops in general, do not become all about space again.
“Hopefully, it will get to a point where it’s not just ‘Oh, we’ve got a cool new space that’s not a café and not a restaurant, that does a little bit better than Starbucks” he says. “I hope that we don’t get to a point where coffee shops become just about the space, and not about the quality.”
It seems that Daniel sees coffee and space as two contradictory forces, as if putting more emphasis on space pulls energy away from the coffee production. For Daniel, the coffee itself should always take priority. “There has to be substance as well as style.”
Although the coffee shop’s innovations break away from French coffee traditions in every sense, Honor’s focus on quality fits perfectly into the French core value of good flavor (as it applies to French wines and cheeses, for example).
This folding of an Australian/American value into a preexisting French gastronomy brings crowds of Anglophones to the café each day, and with luck the French will begin to become more attached to nice coffee as well.
Although change has always come slowly in Paris, Daniel may be starting a new wave of specialty coffee by building on an age-old tradition of “dégustation”.
PAULINE HERBERT-WHITING is an American college student living abroad in Paris. When she is not in class at Sciences Po, she enjoys reading, writing, playing the violin, attending art exhibitions and concerts, and sampling all 365 cheeses of France. Her goal is to smuggle some of those cheeses past US customs on her way back home for the holidays.