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The “coffee waiters’ race”: return of a classic to Paris

Tray in hand, two hundred waiters and waitresses from Paris are preparing this Sunday, March 24 to revive an old tradition.

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The “coffee waiters’ race”: return of a classic to Paris

Tray in hand, two hundred waiters and waitresses from Paris are preparing this Sunday, March 24 to revive an old tradition. After 13 years of absence, the waiters' race, renamed in a gender-neutral way "café race", is making its return to the capital.

The test, born in 1914 according to the historian Laurent Bihl, author of A Popular History of Bistros, is today relaunched by the City of Paris and Eau de Paris, in partnership with the Union of Trades and Industries of the hotel industry (UMIH) Paris Île-de-France and the Hotel Group

What are the rules? Dressed in a black bottom and a white top in the traditional outfit of waiters, participants must cover 2 km in the Marais, leaving and arriving at the Town Hall. They carry a regulation round tray on which are placed a coffee, a croissant and a glass of water. Nothing may be knocked over and running is prohibited.

Reading the interwar press on the BnF press site, RetroNews, is more or less the conditions imposed on waiters a hundred years ago. Except for one detail. It was not then a question of promoting Eau de Paris but rather the French aperitif. Despite the early start time of the race, 8:30 a.m., the 1929 edition saw participants compete in the streets of Montmartre weighed down… with a bottle of cinchona and four glasses. In 1932, a bottle of port and two glasses had to be transported between the Places de l'Opéra and the Place de la République. No less than 2 km covered in brisk walking in just over 20 minutes for the first to arrive, reports the newspaper L'Intransigeant. The winner wins a bicycle, the next winners an engraved cup, a kitchen buffet or a mirror cabinet. Everyone without exception can keep the bottle of port that they have been carrying around, “unless, playing on misfortune, they have sadly left it on a sidewalk in a thousand pieces.”

Broken glass occurred particularly in 1948 when for the first time participants in the Parisian race, sponsored that year by La Vittelloise, were allowed to run. It is the newspaper Combat which tells it in its edition of April 20: "We could never have supposed that it was possible to run from Madeleine to La République holding in one hand a tray cluttered with two bottles, three empty glasses and a glass full of mint water, without breaking or spilling anything. We were right, it's impossible. This year, the waiters proved that they could move at a run, but they dropped most of their bottles on the pavement of the boulevards – to the great joy of motorists and their tires.”

The event has many variations: the number of bottles or glasses is modified at the discretion of the organizers and sponsors. In 1933, around the Longchamp racecourse, competitors were perched on bicycles. The length also differs. The route is most often two to five kilometers but it can sometimes extend over ten or eleven kilometers. The waiters' race is actually a classic of the festivities organized in the capital but also in the provinces. We find it during patronal festivals or July 14. It was even exported. According to the Paris town hall website, it is found “in more than fifty countries, from Washington to Brussels, from London to Berlin and from Buenos Aires to Tokyo”.

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