Life’s too short. It takes time to discover all the quartiers that make up the 20 arrondissements of Paris. When you do find an excellent new restaurant tucked away somewhere, or a bar with a great atmosphere, you pass the information on like a precious gift. So here are a few of the gems I’ve found in the last four years, well off the beaten track for tourists.
|Bistrot du Peintre, Paris|
The Bistrot du Peintre, 116 Avenue Ledru Rollin, is all graceful Art Nouveau curves and original early 20th-century decor. No one I know has ever been disappointed by a meal here and as a main course is 15 to 20 euros it doesn’t break the bank. Their Cuisse de Canard Confite is enough to make a vegetarian crack. A great place to indulge in that great French past time, sharing the enjoyment of delicious food with good company.
The Bistrot du Peintre is at the heart of what was the old furntiture-makers’ district east of Bastille. The noisy workshops and machine saws of 20 years ago have vanished along with the aroma of rare woods, but the area has turned into one of the best places to live and go out in Paris. It’s not as expensive and pretty as the Marais (west of Bastille), though that’s close by if you want to go there and window shop in the boutiques on a Sunday or stroll round the place des Vosges and listen to the buskers. Neither is it as poor as Belleville. But it’s very lively. And it’s changing rapidly.
Essentially what you need to know is that the Right Bank is the new Left Bank. All the new galleries and interesting bars that are opening stretch in an arc from Bastille north up through Belleville and Menilmontant, then west towards the slopes of Monmartre. This is where it’s happening, because gentrification has priced out the young from the Left Bank, Sartre’s 5th and 6th arrondissments, turning them into a playground for the rich and tourists looking for a long-vanished Paris.
In Bastille, nightlife centres on rue de Lappe, a cobbled street that contains the old Balajo club where Edith Piaf used to sing. This short street is lined with bars and restaurants, including the beautiful but pricey Bistrot les Sans Culottes at number 27.
For my money, though, the best bar is the Bastide halfway down the street, a scruffy and unpretentious place that hasn’t changed in 20 years. The walls are lined with faded posters – Marlon Brando in Un Tramway nommé Desire; a police mugshot of the notoriously ugly singer Serge Gainsbourg. It keeps irregular hours but gets crowded, which is good as it forces the French to overcome their innate reticence and start talking to strangers. And all ages come here – from 25-year-olds to 60-year-old veterans of the 1960s and ’70s.
|Pause Cafe, photo by Ben Ford|
An important side of Parisian social life is people watching. Set yourself up at a table in a café like Pause Café, 41 rue de Charonne, and check out the people checking each other out. This café enjoyed minor fame for its role in the film Chacun cherche son Chat (Everyone’s Looking for Their Cat) about daily life in the quartier Bastille. The barman is still Ariskey, who you can see in the film, who likes to pass a dry joke with the regulars. Dry humour is known as humour froid in French, and as in England, is something of an art form. When the sun comes out the tables get packed with people posing and looking out for minor bo-bo celebrities. Bo-bo, or bourgoise-boheme refers to people with middle class or professional jobs who pose as Bohemian artist types. But there are real people there, too, and if you want to meet them rather than pose, the basic rule in a French cafe is to sit at the bar. Espressos are half price at the bar, too!
Parisian cafés all have tiny round tables outside, just big enough for two people. It’s a city geared to intimate encounters between two people, whether you’re meeting your friend, your lover or your mum. It lends itself to the revealing of confidences and to storytelling. Parisians are forever arranging meetings at cafés where they drink very slowly and hang out for hours. Breakfast in a café – coffee and a croissant – is the best way to meet the habitués, the locals. Parisians are more relaxed then and less concerned with competitive posing.
But the best kept secret in the area is Le Fanfaron at 6, rue de la Main d’Or, a bar that keeps itself exclusive by not even having its name painted on the outside. Everything in it is retro, from the ’50s style bar to the Hammer Horror and Barbarella movie posters and the ’60s music. Xavier, the quiffed barman and a huge Rolling Stones fan, cuts up sausages for the clientel in between changing the vinyl records, alternating rock’n'roll with later bands like Iggy Pop or Patti Smith. Watch your change though as he’s apt to forget how many drinks you’ve had, just keeps a rather inaccurate paper tally. Regulars coast in on their Vespa scooters in all their Mod gear. It’s the antithesis of bo-bo cool, a much grungier subculture style.
Leaving Bastille behind, the other main drag for bars and night life on the Right Bank is on the two parallel streets rue Oberkampf and rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, accessible from Metro Parmentier. Oberkampf stretches up the hill towards Menilmontant and Belleville and on Saturday night glitters with light from the bars. Walking up from the metro, stop in first at Café Charbon, 109 rue Oberkampf, with its high ceiling and mirrored walls, get a Mojito or something to eat and then set out to explore the surrounding streets and bars.
Le Chat Noir, 76 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, puts on gigs in the cellar, often folk or French chanson, a style that is closest to cabaret, somewhere between traditional songs, folk and pop and which usually involves accordions. Look out for a free pocket sized listings magazine called Lylo that is distributed in bars and also the music shop fnac (at Bastille), as this contains details for all the music and concerts and clubs across Paris.
If you want to get away from the beer and the noise, for something calmer and more intellectual, move down the street to the Ogre Ã Plumes at 49, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. Yves, Virginie and Sophie, three actors, run this restaurant and café litteraire, hosting readings by French authors and putting on pieces de theatre in the basement.
Finally round off your night dancing to electro or funk at the Alimentation Generale at 64 rue Jean Pierre Timbaud, or the Nouveau Casino behind Café Charbon, or the OPA (always free to get in) back at 9 rue Biscornet just off Bastille. If salsa is your thing there’s Barrio Latino, 46 rue du faubourg Saint Antione, 2 minutes from Bastille. Or for jazz and blues sample the concerts in the cellar at the Caveau des Oubliettes, 52 rue Galande, in the 5th arrondissement, Metro St Michel. Entry free as long as you buy a drink.
If you’re planning a trip to Paris, be sure to browse Viator’s list of Paris tours and things to see and do.