Paris: After Dark
Published: June 2009
By Kimberley Sevcik
Dormez-Vous?Sleep is out of the question —as the sun sets, the city is just waking up
No one loves a classic the way the French do. Witness the staying power of the Limoges teacup, the Chanel suit, the Vuitton satchel. As it is with fashion, so it is with nightlife. Maybe because history has been made on so many of the city's moleskin banquettes, Parisians just don't discard their cafés and bars with the same insouciance as New Yorkers and Angelenos. Some of Paris's best hangouts are more than a century old. And it seems that those colonialist instincts die hard, too: these days, for every Napoleon-era wine bar, there's a new club with a Third World theme—the more exotic, the better.
Café de Flore 172 Blvd. St.-Germain; 33-1/45-48-55-26. You haven't experienced Paris until you've spent an hour with a kir in a café like this: officious waiters in long aprons; tiny tables so close together you can't help making eye contact with your neighbor (and toppling his Kronenbourg as you leave). There's almost as much history here as at Les Deux Magots next door, but with only a quarter the number of tourists corralling waiters into photographs. Picasso and André Breton were habitués, as was the existentialist clan.
Café du Trésor 5-7 Rue du Trésor; 33-1/44-78-06-60. A welcome departure from the rattan-chair-and-marble-bistro-table look, Trésor could have been a set for Pee-wee's Playhouse, with its shiny yellow walls and big, bright vinyl armchairs. The goateed waiters wear backward baseball caps, the tables are painted with cartoons, and orders for margaritas far outnumber those for Pernod.
La Palette 43 Rue de Seine; 33-1/43-26-68-15. It's not the predictable menu that lures St.-Germain art dealers here, or even the used palettes on the walls, donated by Beaux-Arts students—it's the knowledge that they're treading the mosaic floors once brushed by Cézanne's and Braque's soles. That, and the arrogant charm of the burly, legendary waiter Jean-François, who flirts equally with the Bardot double and her 70-year-old aunt.
Buddha Bar 8 Rue Boissy d'Anglas; 33-1/53-05-90-00. The towering wrought-iron entrance gate with brass knockers evokes the Forbidden City, and there's always a crowd clamoring to get into this instant legend of a nightclub. The gene pool's greatest hits do laps around the mezzanine bar with fruity cocktails in hand, while along the balcony, tapestry chairs offer a prime view of the dining pit below. A massive gold statue of the Enlightened One keeps it all in perspective.
Hemingway Bar 15 Place Vendôme; 33-1/43-16-30-30. This tiny room at the end of a l-o-o-o-ng hallway in the Ritz was recently renovated in the kind of clubby style the priapic writer would have loved: leather armchairs, oak tables, and shelves filled with books by the Lost Generation. The darling bartenders, all Hemingway scholars manqué, will eagerly share anecdotes about the writer as barfly.
La Renaissance 22 Rue de Douai; 33-1/45-26-50-00. No wonder Bizet wrote Carmen while he was living in this 19th-century town house: wouldn't we all accomplish great things surrounded by soaring coffered ceilings, marble caryatids, and 10-foot-high French doors?Some visionary decorator must have seen the odalisque potential in red velvet chaise longues, and the nubile beauties who patronize this place seem happy to fulfill it.
Havanita Café 11 Rue de Lappe; 33-1/43-55-96-42. Meant to evoke a time when Cuba's image was powered by the combined charismas of Che and Fidel. The walls are covered with photos and paintings of the revolutionary duo, the ceiling with collages of old Cuban movie flyers and ads for finned Cadillacs. Settle into a leather armchair, order a Cuba Libre and some sweet plantains with hot sauce, and let the merengue take you away.
Le Réservoir 16 Rue de la Forge-Royale; 33-1/43-56-39-60. A warehouse turned restaurant/bar with a cool, Diva-esque aesthetic, softened by pastel-stenciled walls and flickering candlelight. The tables are stocked with French celebrities; on nights when there's live salsa, you might find yourself literally bumping shoulders with them.
Rosebud 11A Rue Delambre; 33-1/43-35-38-54. Say you're browsing through the leeks at the Rue Mouffetard market and you see a man who makes you want to look twice. If you were to fantasize about slipping him a note, it might say, "Meet me at Rosebud at 10 p.m."—because it's not trendy and never has been, because the gentle lighting and mauve walls make everything look sepia-toned, and because Sartre and de Beauvoir came here when they wanted to dodge their friends at the Flore and be alone.
Taverne Henri IV 13 Place du Pont-Neuf; 33-1/43-54-27-90. The fluorescent lighting is unforgiving and the Formica tables uninspiring, but there's no better wine expert in the city than Robert Cointepas. His motto, "I recommend what I like," hangs over the bar of this earthy tavern, which is sure to transport you to the Dordogne.
Willi's Wine Bar 13 Rue des Petits-Champs; 33-1/42-61-05-09. A refined wine bar is hard to find in a city where grabbing an after-work petit rouge is equivalent to Americans' grabbing an after-work Bud. But the English owners of Willi's have given their reasonably priced international list a proper home, with white tablecloths, fresh flowers, and original prints on the walls. The clientele is accordingly polished and sophisticated; the mood, surprisingly relaxed.
Aux Trois Mailletz 56 Rue Galande; 33-1/43-54-00-79. A vestige of the Latin Quarter as it used to be, before the tourist takeover—scrappy and carefree and smelling of young red wine and old books. Not much has changed since GI's mingled with budding intellectuals here in the forties; back then, they were undoubtedly flirting at the same tables covered in red and white checks, pouring house Burgundy from the same foggy carafes, and slow-dancing in the same corner to an amateur band's version of "Satin Doll."
Le Bar Hôtel Villa 29 Rue Jacob; 33-1/43-26-60-00. An impressive roster of musicians plays this intimate room in the basement of a sleek St.-Germain hotel. The whimsical purple-and-gold furniture—designed by Christian Dorner, a Philippe Starck disciple—seems to come alive with the music: the stools are shaped like teardrops, and the chair arms look like legs bent at the knee, poised for a cancan kick.
Le Petit Opportun 15 Rue des Lavandières-Ste.-Opportune; 33-1/42-36-01-36. The club New Morning is where you go in Paris to hear the Wynton Marsalises of the world, but Petit Opportun is where the Wynton Marsalises go to catch local talent. You can touch the musicians (or at least make meaningful eye contact) from most points in the musty, medieval cellar. When the music stops, the band members hang out at the bar upstairs, rhapsodizing over Sarah Vaughan's vibrato on "Lover Man."
Castel's 15 Rue Princesse; 33-1/40-51-52-80. Follow the pageant of strappy cocktail dresses up to the unmarked red door. They breeze in, greeted with kisses by the coat checkers. You, however, will be halted at the threshold if you don't have a preposition in your family name; ask your concierge to call ahead. Downstairs, young marquises and countesses-in-waiting appraise one another under the watchful eyes of their parents. The bold ones venture onto the dance floor and do a little step-together (no hips, please) to a tame Lionel Richie beat.
La Java 105 Rue Faubourg-du-Temple; 33-1/42-02-20-52. Don't let the gloomy alley entrance deceive you: the pitch at this world music club never dips below an exclamation point. Come prepared to dance salsa, zouk, or samba, as someone will surely yank you off your seat if you dare play the voyeur.
Le Balajo 9 Rue de Lappe; 33-1/47-00-07-87. The last bal musette (popular dance hall) on the Rue de Lappe is the kind of place Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley might have stumbled into at 3 a.m., tight on single-malt scotch. The club still has many of its pre-war decorative touches, among them a balcony where orchestras used to crank out the waltz, fox-trot, and rhumba. Go on Thursday for Latin-dance night, or risk assault by all the Commodores songs you'd hoped had gone the way of Farrah hair.
Le Casbah 20 Rue de la Forge Royale; 33-1/43-71-71-89. The door policy here can be Darwinian, but if you've taken your fashion cue from the Paris runways you'll most likely be ushered into a landscape of Moorish arches, hand-carved wooden chairs, and richly upholstered banquettes, piled with pillows and fit for an opium den. Dancing—to soul, funk and house music—is downstairs.
Bouffes de Nord 37A Blvd. de la Chapelle; 33-1/46-07-34-50. This theater's resident director, Peter Brook, is among the world's best. Seeing one of his productions in any language is a thrill—even more so, of course, if you're lucky enough to catch a show in English. He's just as likely to do Beckett as he is to do Shakespeare, avant-garde premieres as Greek tragedies.
La Ste. Chapelle 4 Blvd. du Palais; 33-1/44-07-12-38. In the Middle Ages, the devout considered this gorgeous church the gateway to heaven. After experiencing a concert here—lush string harmonies reaching toward the vaulted ceiling, candlelight glinting off gold fleur-de-lis—even non-believers might be convinced. The schedule has everything from medieval folk songs to gospel, but the classical music is most likely to transport you.
Opéra Bastille Place de la Bastille; 33-1/44-73-13-00. Parisians balked when architect Carlos Ott's hulking concrete building took over four square blocks of the 11th Arrondissement. Still, even the most pianissimo soprano phrase carries to the corners of the 2,700-seat auditorium, and some intriguing lesser-known works are still performed among the blockbusters.
Opéra Garnier Place de l'Opéra; 33-1/44-73-13-00. A place to arrive at in long gloves and an ostrich-feather headdress…Whatever you wear, you'll never outshine your overripe surroundings—Carrara marble banisters, chandeliers the size of compact cars, gold leaf by the pound. The Opéra Bastille stages most of the city's operas, but you can see smaller productions here, as well as the world-class Paris Opéra Ballet. Reserve at least a month in advance for seats in one of the gilded, velvety boxes; you'll feel like aristocracy behind your opera glasses.
Is life a cabaret?
Cabaret is almost a quaint anachronism these days; no surprise that it attracts many more tourists than locals. There are two styles in France: deluxe and standard. If you choose the deluxe version, expect high camp and a tab of $100 per person, minimum. The show at the Moulin Rouge (82 Blvd. de Clichy;
33-1/46-06-00-19) is the truest to tradition.
The standard (and more authentic) cabaret consists of a revue combining folk songs, poetry, and comedy sketches. In the stone cottage that houses Au Lapin Agile (22 Rue des Saules; 33-1/46-06-85-87), the Mathieu family has been presenting revues since the days when Picasso traded a painting for a meal here. You have to admire the husband-and-wife proprietors, who exhort tourists to sing along night after night without ever losing their enthusiasm. Despite the incessant flashbulbs, the show is sweet and sincere.
A chanteuse with a Piaf-inspired warble makes regular appearances at Le Loup (21 Rue de la Roquette; 33-1/40-21-90-95). The murky teal-blue room is filled with a chain-smoking clientele in black turtlenecks and John Lennon glasses, proof that Parisians haven't completely abandoned cabaret.