PARIS - It's as if the tour buses that stop at the base of Montmartre keep their customers on a short leash. Most first-timers walk through the tourist trap above the Boulevard de Rochechouart and take the funicular to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica before making an inevitable U-turn and heading back down the hill.
Too bad. They're steps away from a Parisian hot spot and a classic French debate on the death of the apéritif, the predinner drink known here as the apéro that is adored for its intimacy.
Wine glass in hand, the cafes and bars along the avenues of the hidden northern side of Montmartre are the perfect place to discuss the ritual's importance and debate its demise.
"It's a moment where we take the time to live," says François Simon, food critic for Le Figaro newspaper (where his influential columns can make or break a chef or a restaurant) and author of several books and a blog called Simon Says! "The apéro has a very soft and unctuous rhythm."
The keys to the rhythm are companionship, atmosphere, and a drink on the table, but curiously, there's no drink of choice.
"I'll have a glass of Pouilly-Fumé," says Simon, commenting on his favorite apéro. "I'll bring a bottle of white wine down to the garden. To spice up the conversation, I'll open a bottle of Asti Spumante" - in the homeland of Champagne.
Here, he touches on the most important part of the near-daily ritual. The apéro - a derivative of the Latin aperire ("to open") - is a consecrated time to talk, whether for an uninterrupted catch-up session with a friend or a flat-out flirtation.
Some say otherwise. "In Paris it has changed a little," says Simon. "The apéro seems to be disappearing - we're drinking less," adding that it is losing out to "work, other leisure activities, and people on a health kick."
This makes Simon a little upset. For him, the apéro is not just seduction, it's a bit of "rebellion."
Lending gravitas to a predinner drink in a way that only French philosophy can, Simon evokes Georges Bataille's philosophy of the "accursed share," where excess money is either squandered on luxury or channeled into bloodshed, to justify the small splurge of an apéro.
The man clearly prefers to make love, not war.
In the watering holes on and around the tree-lined Rue Caulaincourt on the hidden side of Montmartre, rebellion seems to be the winning choice. Here, starting in the late afternoon, work, to-do lists, and the stress of everyday life take a far back seat to devoting time to friends.
"It's an excuse to drink!" says a wide-smiling Georges Chaillot, giving his take on the apéro's social function to three friends who are soaking up some sun on the terrace of the Au Rêve café.
"No! It's a time to see your friends!" scolds a grinning Simone Berghen. "Or you drink because you're with people you like." She pauses, deciding to split the difference with her longtime friend. "All the excuses are good."
Over Campari-based Americanos, kirs, a tiny plate of charcuterie and half a baguette someone has smuggled along, Chaillot and his group of retirement-age friends are happy to debate the role and possible demise of the hallowed French tradition.
No matter what the subject, scenes like this play out every day all over the City of Light. Time stops, talking about work becomes taboo, and people work on the art of conversation. As a friend of mine says, "It's where you plant the seeds for the discussion that will follow during dinner."
"France is wine country," explains Michèle Carlier, one of Chaillot's friends who lives above a wine shop a stone's throw from Au Rêve. "It was a way to see your neighbors. It's very Parisian." Sure enough, all of this group's members live a short walk from the cafe and they became friends long ago because they were clients.
"Elyette, is the apéro still alive?" Chaillot calls out to someone inside the cafe.
"Less and less!" comes a response that I follow to the source, Elyette Planchon. She and her husband, whom she calls Bixou, are the third generation of her family to run Au Rêve. If you want to get off the plane and instantly feel like you're in Paris, this is the place to go: There's a beautiful stone bar where Planchon has run the show since 1965 (Bixou has retired), a bowl of 50-cent hard-boiled eggs on a stack of plates behind the bar, and people watching a-go-go. Through a door at the far end of the long kitchen you can even glimpse her living room.
Wearing an apron that reads, "Frenchmen! Learn the gesture that saves lives!" with an illustration of a beret-toting man sucking wine straight from the bottle, she gives her take on the demise of the apéro.
"The apéro was very popular in the '50s and '60s," Planchon says, standing under a large black-and-white photo of her and her husband running the bar 30-odd years ago. "People didn't have much money, so their apartments weren't made for having one another over. Eventually, things changed. Now, it's cheaper to be at home and [going out] is more occasional."
Yet everything that happens seems to contradict her "less and less" theory. As she talks, a steady stream of customers of all ages is coming and going. She knows most of them on a first-name basis, greeting many with a kiss on the cheek. Many clients simply refer to her as "Madame Elyette."
"There are 13 people in here now," she says, pointing toward the terrace, "six regulars I know well, and the rest just like the place."
Around the corner from Au Rêve on the Rue Marcadet, it's hard to believe that the apéro could be in danger of fading away.
Arthur Jordan, 51, runs the Cave Café, perhaps the trendiest address for an apéro on the back side of Montmartre, serving about 10 natural-production wines on tap.
"It's part of your social life and where you make your social arrangements," says the American-born Jordan, addressing the cultural and sociological place of the apéro.
"People come home [from work], drop off their stuff, then come out right away," says his bar manager, David Costa, 41.
"They're not here to get wasted," adds Jordan, making a thinly-veiled jab at the after-work habits across the English Channel. "The French don't spend a lot of time at home and we cater to that."
"Anglophones start drinking and don't stop," adds Costa. "They don't really think about eating." Unless you're on a bad date and want to jump ship, chances are very good that you'll end up going out for dinner with your friends after you've finished your drinks.
My epiphany doesn't happen until later in the week. I've been staying with friends for several days without seeing them until we meet for a Thursday apéro. For an hour and a half, we consciously shut out the rest of the world, unconsciously working on becoming better friends.
There's a Chilean Malbec involved and a snack of foie gras they've brought home from a family trip, but the drinks and snacks simply give the time together an excuse to happen.
A few days later at Au Rêve, Michèle Carlier, her chin barely clearing the bar, stops in to say hello to Planchon. Carlier invites me to have a glass of wine with her and when I inquire about her friends, she says, "They'll be by soon," knowing one combination or another will arrive shortly because they always do.
We ask Planchon about the slightly peculiar name of the bar and she grins.
"Ah. The difference between 'Le Rêve' and 'Au Rêve' encapsulates all the subtlety of the French language. 'Le Rêve' [the dream] is something you project. 'Au Rêve' is a place," she explains, before modestly adding, "but you shouldn't examine it too much."
Carlier asks if the apéro is the favorite part of a Parisian's day and Planchon offers a philosophical grin. "It flows," she responds. "It's like a smile."
Or a dream.
Joe Ray can be reached at joe-ray.com.