Closerie Des Lilas – A Gem In Paris’ Montparnasse

Categories:Travels To France

The allure and vibrant history surrounding Paris’ Montparnasse district always fascinated me.  My enchantment of this area has always been due to the literary and artistic circles, in particular the American literary and bohemian expats, that gravitated to the cafes, watering holes and dance halls of Montparnasse and as a consequence contributed monumentally to its history and culture.  For me personally, knowing that I am walking in the footsteps of so many great historic figures is what magnifies my excitement and anticipation of returning to Montparnasse whenever I am in Paris.  To be exact it’s actually my fascination with Earnest Hemingway and following his legendary trail around Paris that led me to a most celebrated restaurant and favourite haunt of Hemingway’s – a delightful place called La Closerie Des Lilas.  This historic and grand restaurant doesn’t get as much attention perhaps as the well known and loved Les Deux Magots and Café Des Fleurs or Brasserie Lip, known as the literary triangle on Boulevard Saint Germain, however, the crowd that it once attracted and the history that had been made there makes it a serious contender.

So finally, on the eve of my last birthday and stay in Paris in November of 2018, mon mari and I arrived at Closerie Des Lilas and stood at the entrance completely mesmerised by its ambient Art Nouveau Façade all lit up for the evening.  We lingered for a few minutes in the outdoor terrace where fragrant lilacs once bloomed in Spring and where petite mosaic outdoor tables stood empty yet gracefully in the chill of Autumn.   An old fashioned fruits des mers cart stood displaying the appetising catch of the day and elevated our anticipation and promise of something deliciously tempting to be served at dinner or to some lucky patron during the evening.  As we entered the restaurant we felt as though we had walked into late 19th century Paris where rich and elaborate décor revealed a historic past and the welcoming tinkling notes of the grand piano promised a romantic evening to remember.  Waiters’ with heads and
trays held up high rushed about eager to serve diners as they contentedly laughed and conversed at their tables where perhaps unbeknownst to them great writers and artists of many generations once wined and dined.  I wondered if they were aware of how Appollinaire, Boudelaire, Satre and Emile Zola were regulars at La Closerie des Lilas and where the intellectuals of the enlightenment era debated over pressing topics of the day.  Were these elegant patrons aware that here is where artists like Picasso, Mogdiliani, Cezanne and Dali gathered and perhaps pondered over the subject of their next masterpiece over a glass of wine and plat du jour.  As mon mari and I waited by the reception desk in the piano salon I imagined where all these great figures of the past once sat especially Lenin who was regularly spotted here playing chess with Paul Fort in the restaurant’s terrace in days of long ago and the charismatic characters of the Lost Generation like Hemingway, the Fitzgerald’s Mann Ray and others dining at the bar after a night out at the bal Bullier dance hall nearby.

The liveliness, warmth and activity of the place delighted me instantly and my imagination ran wild as I tried to envision and recreate wonderful scenes of the past and while waiting by the piano bar to be escorted to our table I took a moment to walk into the bar reminiscent of the old world glamour I adore and walked up to the counter with faux red leather bar stools where Hemingway was a regular.  I asked the barman to kindly show me the bar stool Hemmingway used to sit on and as he pointed to it a warm sensation went through me when I realised that I was standing right beside it.  I imagined Papa Hemmingway enjoying one too many glasses of cognac here while joking around with his friends and barmen sharing some fascinating stories of some recent adventure or daily occurrence.  The bar was alive with the buzz of excitable guests dining in burnt red faux leather banquette seats and dark wood tables that rested upon the old mosaic tiled floors.  Over sized café print art hung on the sunshine yellow walls that were illuminated further by the art deco sconces that in turn reflected into the wall mirrors that cleverly exaggerated the size of the rather smallish dining space.  As I headed back into the Piano Bar also filled to maximum capacity with diners hidden in their own booths I noticed a winding staircase which perhaps led to the venue’s private dining area on the first floor.  I couldn’t help but feel as though I had been here before and everything that I had read about La Closerie seemed to unfold before my very eyes and in the few minutes we waited to be seated I was already completely enamoured with this place and let the excitable feeling of being here permeate through my mind in hope that I would always remember it as it delightfully unfolded before me.

Our waiter for the evening, a perfect image of professionalism and French charm, welcomed us kindly and seated us at a perfect table in the restaurant section of the establishment.  The restaurant room is generous in size and beautifully decorated with tables perfectly adorned in white and stunning table wear.  La Closerie offers three dining experiences – the piano bar, brasserie and fine dining restaurant and I would recommend to reserve in advance as the place is quite popular and it would be difficult to get a table quickly unless you do reserve especially during dinner time.   We exchanged a few words with our waiter who was happy to listen to our condensed discoveries of Paris and gracefully handed our menus over to us and offered a detailed explanation of every item including the chefs recommendations and specials then left us for a few minutes to decide on what we wanted to order.  La Closerie des Lilas menu is as legendary as the venue itself offering traditional and some typical Parisian brasserie cuisine prepared and served to the highest standards that is expected of such restaurants in Paris.  The choice and selection of seafood and fish dishes here is exceptional as is the wine and beverage selection particularly the cocktails served at the bar where Hemingway once sat at a barstool by the counter regularly.  Service here is impeccable and reminiscent of old world Paris where every action and detail reflects the pride and passion of the establishment.

To explain the menu in detail would take quite a few paragraphs so trust the waiters and their recommendations according to what your in the mood to try and have faith that whatever you select at La Closerie will be divine and truly memorable.   The choices we made for starters, entrées and mains we enjoyed immensely and I would highly recommend without a doubt and would order them again when visiting the restaurant on our next visit to Paris.   Try a selection of fresh seafood – oysters, langoustine and sea urchin are superb and served with aioli and other condiments.  For entrée my recommendation would be the crab ravioli in a smoked butternut squash cream and the “Quennelles de brochet aux ecrivisses, sauce Nantua”. For mains do try the Filet de boeuf Hemingway au poivre noir (but of course!) flambe au Bourbon avec pommes Pont-Neuf or simply pan fried filet of beef with black pepper and flamboyed in bourbon which becomes the sauce in which the filet is served with a side of beautifully prepared chips arranged to honour Paris’ Pont-Neuf bridge.   The Hemingway dish is prepared right before your eyes on a stove top table rolled in from the kitchen and the experience of it all is truly unforgettable and spectacular and incredibly delicious.  Another recommendation for a main dish would be the “Filet d’agneau au beurre noisette, sauce galangal, courge spaghetti et tapenade” which translates simply to lamb filet pan fried in caramelised butter and served in galangal sauce with a side of zucchini spaghetti and tapenade.  For desserts you the option of selecting a gateaux or two of your choice from the dessert trolley or a heavenly selection of French fromages from a cart that is conveyed to your table and served to you on a cheese plate on the spot – it doesn’t get better than this folks!

To expend some quality time in Paris is to visit and dine at La Closerie des Lilas.  Here, you will encounter an honest and captivating snapshot into Paris’s intricate past and will get to feel like a local and made to feel very welcome and special indeed.  Ponder in the outdoor terrace before entering the venue, close your eyes and imagine the intoxicating aroma of lilacs in the air and once inside take a seat in the Piano Bar on Hemingway’s bar stool and say a quiet bon jour  to the literary and artistic ghosts of the past who helped shape Paris’ past and continue to stir emotion and interest in our present day.  Thank you to La Closerie Des Lilas and staff for an unforgettable time and for making my birthday a wonderful experience I will never forget.  Merci beaucoup et a bientot!


171 Boulevard du Montparnase, 75006 Paris, France  (check website for opening hours, telephone and menu)


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