Sartre was here: 17 cafés where the literary gods gathered 2
Photograph by Geolette Esguerra

Sartre was here: 17 cafés where the literary gods gathered

The Metro Style editrix puts down her fashion pages for a bit to retrace the steps of literary giants, pausing for a drink in their favorite watering holes.
Geolette Esguerra | Oct 09 2018

When Edmund White began his treatise on the flâneur, he had Paris in mind, a landscape that lends itself to aimless wandering and endless experiencing. Paris, around the Second World War, was home to a coterie of artists and thinkers who wedded café culture with intellectual discourse. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir set up shop in watering holes like Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots. These places were stomping grounds for The Lost Generation of writers that included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot.

Across the pond, and many years after, The Beat Movement, another artistic expression founded in New York City and San Francisco, staked its own enclaves. Driven by the desire to experience the world in its raw, untethered state, the Beats congregated in bars and pubs around Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side in New York City, as well as the North Beach area in San Francisco.

In Manila during the 60s, art, politics, and pot were the witch’s brew burbling at Café Indios Bravos on Mabini Street in Malate. Owned by writer Betsy Romuladez-Francia, the café had an adjacent gallery and an atelier on the second floor which attracted iconoclasts of all persuasions including writers, painters, hippies, radicals, state spies, expatriates, nascent filmmakers, and many soon-to-be National Artists. These places offered a means for ideas to originate and simmer, unprepossessing corners where introductions resulted in draft manifestos, short stories, novels written in longhand or pounded with fury on portable typewriters. These were sanctuaries for rambling and desultory debates, and for the greatest minds to thrive. With time, ownership changed hands, which led to ruin, and sometimes, happily, to preservation. Far too often, the reputation of these places preceded them, and turned these holes-in-the-wall into tourist traps. Yet, one cannot deny the thrill of stepping into a dim bar, imagining those who changed the course of history, literature, and the very way we think, men and women huddled in groups, or by their lonesome, germinating ideas and works of such lasting impact.


Les Deux Magots, Paris

The café means “two Chinese figurines” in English, alluding to the novelty store that once stood in its spot. At that time, it was the “office” of intellectuals and artists who frequented the place, along with its neighbor, Café de Flore. In its day, the café hosted the likes of Pablo Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.

6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés, Paris, France


Café de Flore, Paris

Opened in the 1887, two years after its nearby rival Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore was named after a sculpture of Flore, the goddess of spring, which stood just across the café. By 1913, Café de Flore had become the writing room of poets, and the salon of the likes of Andre Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement. Later, it would supplant Les Deux Magots as the place for intellectuals to hang out in. Wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, “We are completely settled there; from nine o’clock in the morning until midday, we work, we eat, and at two o’clock we come back and chat with friends until eight o’clock.  After dinner, we see people who have an appointment. That may seem strange to you, but we are at home.”

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172 Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris, France


La Rotonde, Paris

Pablo Picasso met English painter Nina Hammet here one evening, introducing himself as “Modigliani painter and Jew.” It was also around this time that La Rotonde’s founder, Victor Libion, allowed starving artists to sit in his café for hours, accepting their works as payment. Some of its patrons included Diego Rivera and Federico Cantú. Picasso, who lived in a studio nearby, painted two diners in the café in his Inn, the café de la Rotonde.

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105 Boulevard du Montparnasse


Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, London

This pub has been around since The Great Fire of 1666, with Charles Dickens as a frequent visitor, earning Cheshire Cheese a mention in A Tale of Two Cities. Other notable patrons included Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as The Rhymers Club that had W.B. Yeats and Ernest Rhys. The pub is dark, with centuries-old wood paneling and vaulted cellars. 

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145 Fleet St. London, England


The Eagle and Child, London

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien often held their Tuesday morning meetings here with their literary group, Inklings. They held court in the Rabbit Room of the pub, which was constructed in 1650. The name takes afer the crest of the Earl building. The Eagle and Child is known for its eclectic range of real ales and quality pub food.

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@bohdand on Instagram

49 St. Giles, Oxford, England


Vesuvio Cafe, San Francisco 

Located right across City Lights Bookstore, Vesuvio was the haunt of the leading lights of the Beat movement like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady. Other patrons include Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, and Francis Ford Coppola. It was said that Kerouac once spent a night here in 1960 on his way to Big Sur to meet Henry Miller. The night grew long and the allure of the drink grew stronger, so much so that Kerouac never made the appointment. The Kerouac, the drink named after him, is a mix of tequila, rum, and orange juice.

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255 Columbus Avenue, North Beach, San Francisco, California


Chez Andre, The Standard, New York City

New York writers have been known to congregate in this basement bar inside The Standard, doing renga and performance poetry on its dim stage. It has also been the venue for Fashion Week afterparties. Celebrities partying in the club upstairs have been known to wander in.

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25 Cooper Square, New York City, New York


Old Town Bar, New York City

One of the oldest in New York, this legendary bar and restaurant is located between Park Avenue and Broadway in the Flatiron District. It dates back to 1892, and has been the backdrop for many Hollywood scenes like The Devil’s Own, State of Grace, and Bullets over Broadway. Customers have included Frank McCourt, whose signed copy of Angela’s Ashes can be found in the bar.

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@oldtownbarnyc on Instagram

45 East 18th Street, New York City, New York


McSorley’s Old Ale House,New York City

This Irish tavern had only one rule when it opened in 1854: No ladies. The dictum lived on until the 1970s, quashed after women filed a discrimination case against the bar. Its many years have seen patrons such as presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and Teddy Roosevelt, writers Hunter S. Thompson, LeRoi Jones, and e.e. cummings (who wrote in a poem how McSorley’s has “the ale that never lets you grow old”).

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15 East 7th Street, New York City, New York


San Remo Café, New York City

Jack Kerouac described San Remo Café’s patrons in his novel, The Subterraneans: “Hip without being slick, intelligent without being corny, they are intellectuals as hell and know all about Pound without being pretentious or saying too much about it. They are very quiet, they are very Christlike.” It was the stomping ground for bohemians and writers like W.H. Auden, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara; as well as jazz musician Miles Davis and artist Jackson Pollock. While the café closed in 1967, a plaque stands in its place in 93 MacDougal Street to commemorate one of New York’s most iconic haunts.

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@thesanermocafe on Instagram

93 MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village, New York City, New York


La Floridita, Havana

Twenty years, that’s how long Ernest Hemingway was a patron at El Floridita in Havana. It was here that he passed time when he wasn’t working on For Whom the Bell Tolls, and a place where he brought some of his friends like Jean-Paul Sartre, Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner, and Tennessee Williams when they came to visit. It was said that the daiquiri was invented in this bar, his favorite drink. Other patrons he might have met along the way were Ezra Pound and Graham Greene. To this day, the bar has kept his favorite chair, with his bronze bust lording above it.

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Obispo No. 557 esq. a Monserrate, Havana, Cuba


Long Bar (former Shanghai Club), Waldorf Astoria, Shanghai

The former Shanghai Club was known for its Long Bar, stretching 34 incredible meters, the longest in Asia in 1910. Noel Coward was said to have rested his cheek on the bar while commenting that he could see the curvature of the earth. While the original bar structure is no more, it’s been reproduced in dark timber paneling with limestone tops. The bar is still known for its extensive choice of single malt whiskies and beers, and selection of Cuban cigars.

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Zhongshan East 2nd Road, Huangpu, Shanghai


Long Bar, Raffles Hotel, Singapore

The home of the Singapore Sling (invented in 1915 and initially called Gin Sling), the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel hosted literary giants like Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, and Rudyard Kipling, to name a few. Long Bar stays true to the colonial style of Raffles Hotel, with interiors in dark mahogany and woven plantation-style rattan chairs. It also retained its trademark box of unshelled peanuts, free for patrons to throw on the floor in a nod to Singapore’s strict anti- littering laws. Try: Fables of the East cocktails, a 1920s reference to Somerset Maugham’s first visit, and The Stray Tiger, which draws from the legend of a tiger shot under the billiard table in 1902.


Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Road, Singapore


Foreign Correspondent’s Club, Hong Kong

The club was established after World War II as a meeting place for expat reporters and diplomats, and is arguably the most famous press club in the region. It was founded in Chongqing, China, and its HQ has moved from Hong Kong to Shanghai and back to the Old Dairy Farm Depot in Ice House Street in Hong Kong in 1982. The Main Bar is the heart of FC, and has lent itself off to many novels and movies, like the setting of John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy. It’s regarded as among “the world’s great watering holes.”

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2 Lower Albert Road in Central, Hong Kong


Harry’s Bar, Venice

Harry’s Bar in Venice opened on May 13, 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani. It was named after the American Harry Pickering, who loaned Cipriani the money to open the bar. Credit the owner’s easy way with customers, and what was then its uncharacteristically bright interiors for bringing in both ordinary folk and the cognoscenti like Arturo Toscanini, Guglielmo Marconi, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, and Peggy Guggenheim, among many others. The bar says that the secret of its 84-year success is “luxury in simplicity”—in their service, and in the way they prepare their food.

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Calle Vallaresso, 1323, 30124 Venice, Italy


Bar Luna, Ubud, Bali

Inspired by Paris’s legendary Café Les Deux Magots, Ubud restaurateur, founder, and director of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival Janet De Neefe sought to recreate the nonconformist spirit of the Paris café in Bar Luna, located in the basement of Casa Luna restaurant in Ubud, a town in Bali. Twice a week, the bar hosts a free-for-all mashup of writers and musicians who perform or debate. It has a monthly schedule of activities for its Lit Club and attracts prize-winning novelists, poets, activists, musicians, and artists. The bar tagline is, “Celebrating Literature in an Offbeat Way.”

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Casa Luna basement, Jalan Raya, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia


The Elephant House, Edinburgh

A modest tea and coffee shop and restaurant, The Elephant House was thrust to fame for being the place J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in longhand. In fact, the café now bills itself as the “Birthplace of Harry Potter,” its bathroom awash in wizardly graffiti including one that reads, “This way to the ministry,” followed by an arrow pointing to the toilet bowl. Aside from Rowling, the café boasts of having novelists Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith as frequent visitors.

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21 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland


Photographs by Geolette Esguerra

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue No 21 2015.