The Parisian equivalent of the Cheers bar—a place where everybody knows your name—is the humble neighborhood zinc. Referring originally to the metal counter that supported elbows, drinks, and conversation, the zinc now refers more broadly to the place itself.
That place can wear the guise of a café, a wine bar or even a modest bistro. It isn't the menu that defines a zinc, but rather its slightly nostalgic feeling. A true zinc embodies the French idea of mixité, or diversity. It should be modest (read: cheap) enough to support a motley mix of regulars. It requires a counter where those regulars can debate everything from Carla Bruni to la crise (the recession). Bad coffee, smoke-stained walls, a local drunk, and a sleeping dog are also good indicators of authenticity.
A zinc will feel different depending on the hour of your visit. In the morning, regulars gather to down a café express (espresso) before dashing off to work. Many of them take their coffee at le comptoir (the counter), where the price is usually cheaper. Laptop warriors and journal-scribblers arrive later and often stay working until the late afternoon. (A good number of zincs offer free Wi-Fi; check here to see a list by neighborhood.) The early evening is when you'll find the most diverse mix at the local zinc. Parents and children come to share the goûter (after-school snack), friends meet up for the apéro (before-dinner drink), and lovers cuddle in dark corners before going home to their families. Some zincs start to feel like restaurants around dinner time, while others feel like a dive bar all day long.
The Paris zincs are a little bit emptier these days, after the implementation of a smoking ban in January 2008. Café owners complain that business is down by 25%, with customers less inclined to hang out for hours without their nicotine crutch. Nevertheless, zincs remain a great perch from which to watch the local wildlife. You'll find a zinc in every neighborhood of Paris, but here are a few of my personal favorites:
Le Temps des Cerises A friendly spot in the southern Marais with yellow walls, long burgundy banquettes, cheap drinks, and simple boards of charcuturie or cheese. 31 rue de la Cerisaie, 4th arrondissement
Le Rubis A casual oasis off the posh rue Saint-Honoré, le Rubis is a destination for wine sippers in the afternoon and evening. They also have a great grandmotherly lunch in the bare-bones dining room upstairs. 10 rue du Marché Saint-Honoré, 1st arrondissement
Aux Folies Grab a table on the sidewalk terrace to soak up the atmosphere of one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods. Aux Folies is a Belleville institution during the apéro hour. Start your night with a drink at this charming dive before moving on to an east-side restaurant. 8 rue de Belleville, 20th arrondissement