The phrase ‘Cinq a Sept’ (5 to 7 and pronounced ‘sank-ah-set’) has an interesting double meaning of its own significance to the French and other nationalities. Although a prevalent concept in the Jazz Age of the 1920s it still resonates today.
In its broadest sense Cinq a Sept it is the time for cocktails or an aperitif before dinner. After a days work at about 5pm thousands of workers in Paris throng the streets and take a rest sitting around tables at the brasseries and cafes and call for drinks. It is the debonair hour of the aperitif or cocktail. Although it is often described a L’Heure d’Aperitif it does actually extend for two hours to 7pm.
All the fashionable cafés on the boulevards like the Café de la Paix, the Grand Café, the Napolitain, Café du Dome, Brasserie Universelle, La Rotunde, Le Select or the Café Americains were swamped with crowds even in the winter. It was the busiest time of day and had the largest turnover and it was the same all over Paris. One’s chief occupation was to gossip with friends, or those nearby and lazily watch the crowd as it passed by as one sipped something delicious, technically an aperitif or cocktail to give an appetite usually containing something bitter. Everyone sitting at their favourite spot in their favourite café will be drinking their favourite and perhaps strange conconction of their own particular fancy.
Arthur Phillips said it was no easy job to obtain your drink of choice for everybody calls the waiter at once. What you have to do is show a patient insistence before you can attract his attention and leaning back, take stock of your neighbours. ‘Journalists, stock-brokers, foreign princes and grand dukes, men-about-town, cocottes, actresses and fearfully respectable bourgeoisie are seated all around – a queer mixture thrown into a melting pot of common purpose.’
According to Basil Woon in 1926, the pre-dinner cocktail hour at the Ritz and other large bars on the Champs Elysees starts at 5.30 and ends at 7.30. He rather jokingly said that all the ‘tea rooms’ are also crowded at this time. There are three types of tea room– one kind is frequented by Americans and here tea is replaced by cocktails, another kind is frequented by the French who sip porto and vermouth and flirt with their neighbours and the third and last kind is the English who really do have cups of tea.
However, for some Cinq a Sept also referred to the happy tradition of an afternoon triste, where a gentleman or lady met another apart from their lawful husband or wife. It was supremely the hours of elicit rendezvous and infidelity. Cheers and bottoms up!
Dining in Paris by Sommerville Story
Paris That’s Not in the Guide Book by Basil Woon
The Gay City: Being a Guide to the Fun of the Fair in Paris by Arthur Phillips
Paris With the Lid Lifted by Bruce Reynolds
Where Paris Dines by Julian Street