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Paris Campaigns to Protect the ‘Intangible’ Cultural Value of Its Bistros

The city wants UNESCO to list the cafe-restaurant hybrids as world heritage sites. Can that save them from decline?
Wine Waitress Jennifer Muday at Paris' Mesturet bistro, at the launch of the campaign to have the city's bistros listed by Unesco as part of the world's intangible cultural heritage
Wine Waitress Jennifer Muday at Paris' Mesturet bistro, at the launch of the campaign to have the city's bistros listed by Unesco as part of the world's intangible cultural heritageFrancois Mori/AP

The Parisian way of life is under threat. The latest frontline on which it is being attacked is the city’s café terraces and cheap, traditional restaurants. So says a campaign launched Monday that seeks UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Status for Paris’s bistros—a campaign already endorsed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Less formal than restaurants but with more full meals than a café, these bistros are indeed a classic component of the archetypal Parisian scene. Cosy, convivial, and often busy all day long, the Parisian bistro’s classic look of wood and wicker chairs, zinc counters, and walls brightened with mirrors has been admired and copied all over the world, even if the spirit of these places has proved harder to emulate and transplant. Now, bistro defenders say, this institution is under threat, pressed under the boot of high rents and changing social habits. It’s easy to understand the concern, but will acknowledging bistros’ special place in Parisian culture actually do much to save them when the culture itself is changing?