As numbers fall, Paris seeks UNESCO help for classic bistros

PARIS (Reuters) - It might seem like there are two on every corner in Paris, but old-style bistros and street cafes are dying out to such an extent that a movement has started to try to protect them.

Alain Fontaine, owner of Le Mesturet and founder of “Bistrots et Terrasses de Paris”, says an essential part of Parisian life will be lost unless a way can be found to preserve the classic cafe with zinc-topped bar, terrace and good food.

“They’re vibrant places, open to life and the city,” his group says on its website, which has launched a campaign to get recognition from UNESCO, the Paris-based U.N. cultural organization. “They’re threatened and need protection.”

Thirty years ago bistros and street cafes made up half the restaurants in Paris, according to Fontaine, but the figure has fallen to just 14 percent, with fast-food joints, coffee chains and snack bars steadily squeezing them out.

For Fontaine, UNESCO recognition would restore pride to bistro owners and put tradition back on the map.

“Tourists would know where to go in Paris,” he told Reuters.

“If they want to meet Parisians in bistros and on terraces, there would be a label, we will be in the guide, there will be signs in the windows reading ‘this establishment is recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO’.”

In some popular areas of the city, the absence of sidewalk cafes has begun to stand out.

On the Boulevard Saint-Michel on the Left Bank, near the Pantheon and the Luxembourg Gardens, Burger King and McDonald’s now occupy two corners where cafes once stood, and across the street a bistro recently shut down.

Tourists say they like the idea of a special status.

“There’s only a few cities where there’s really a cafe culture, a bistro culture, and Paris is one of them, and that’s really my favorite part about coming here,” said Holly, an American visitor having lunch with her partner.

“We’d be walking down the street and be like, ‘oh, let’s get a cup of coffee’, and it’s so easy for us to pop in anywhere. You can’t do that in most places.”

But bistros aren’t just for tourists. Many French drop in for a coffee or lunch at their local favorite, glad to get a meal of steak frites or confit de canard at a decent price.

“When you think of Paris, you think of gastronomy,” said local Mathieu Warnier. “Bistros, at least a large part of them... are places where you can get good traditional food without paying extortionate prices.”

Writing by Luke Baker, Editing by William Maclean