Want to find the hidden joys of one of Europe’s most iconic destinations? T+L shows you how.
Forget Tablecloths—and Come Hungry
T+L's Guide to Secret Paris
Forget Tablecloths—and Come Hungry
If you think back to the traditional stereotype of French restaurant dining, you’ll envision grumpy, bow-tied waiters and a confusing array of silverware. All of this fusty silliness is now more and more easily avoided thanks to the “bistronomy” revolution so thoroughly chronicled by both the French and American press. Allow me to join in the adulation and note that le grand quartier and the 11th are home to some of the best examples of the phenomenon. Bistronomy is a back-to-basics movement that started with Yves Camdeborde’s La Régalade in 1992 and continued in outlying neighborhoods where the chefs and owners themselves live. Generally, a restaurant in this genre serves under-$50 prix fixe menus produced by young chefs who cut their teeth in haute establishments. Diners are either neighbors, too, or they are playing follow-the-chef along with the slavering food press and blogs such as lefooding.com. They’ll depart their own beaten paths for an impeccable meal combining the finest small-producer ingredients with low-key presentation. I fell in love with Miroir the first time I walked in the door and was greeted by the broad smile and neon-green Adidas of the owner’s young wife, a former employee of the magnificent wine emporium Lavinia, who steered me through the small, refined carte as if I were an old friend. Then I ate their caramelized pork belly from the Basque producer Louis Ospital, served au jus with roasted root vegetables. Cartoon hearts floated above my head, and soon the restaurant and I had each other on speed dial.
The upside of bistronomy is massive for the individualistic French: young restaurateurs need only toil at grand, Michelin-starred places long enough to learn something about polish and technique before jumping ship to a homier, mo
I was only supposed to stay for two months. It was early 2006, my father had just passed away, and I was courting massive burnout. When a saintly friend offered me a free room in his three-bedroom apartment in St.-Germain-des-Prés, I booked my ticket. Okay, I thought. Get away, learn a little French, smell the rosé, and come back fresh. But Paris had other plans for me. The way the apricot light at sunset bounced off its pale façades; the slower pace of life; the disdain for hysterical consumerism and the workaholism it requires; the tragic, fascinating history and the civic pride that comes with having survived it; the neighborhood markets, the organic markets, even the supermarkets, filled with readily available terroir: before my sojourn was up, I was hooked. When I discovered that I could buy an apartment for about half of what I’d spend back in Brooklyn, the choice was practically made for me.
As grateful as I was for the free digs, St.-Germain is a better neighborhood for finding a luxury handbag than a couple of lemons and a six-pack of Kronenbourg. But the perch I settled on, in Montmartre’s little village of Abbesses, is fit for my kind of living: relaxed, friendly, and pleasantly cacophonous. It’s been almost five years and several swings of currency later, and with every passing day, my roots grow deeper. Despite the bureaucracy (which is even worse than people say), the occasional explosions of nastiness (Parisian manners are either baroque or shockingly bad), and the weird in-between-ness of expat life, it would take a government intervention to get me to leave.
In the time from being a visitor to setting up house, I’ve learned that the Paris I live in is a much lovelier place than the one I had ever known before. The city’s deeply grooved tourist tracks—St.-Germain, the First, the Latin Quarter, the Champs-Élysées—have much worth seeing, but compared with the life I live in the 18th Arrondissement, they feel slick and prefab, like a gift set of experiences shoved brusquely through a revolving door. In spite of being the world’s most visited urban center, and the proliferation of Subway sandwich shops, the occasional Starbucks, and all those homegrown luxury companies gone multinational, the city is fueled by mom-and-pop businesses that allow it to maintain a profoundly, sometimes anarchically, idiosyncratic character. During an interview I did with the British actress Jane Birkin recently, she joked that France is a nation of soloists, incapable of forming an orchestra, and this is especially true in the capital city, which houses 10 million of the country’s boisterously unique, queue-jumping citoyens. The expressiveness, eccentricity, and drama on display here are rivaled only by New York City at its most vibrant. It’s in the farther-flung corners, the parts of the city less manicured for the consumption of outsiders, where you find the earthiness that mellows that bad temper, and where you more clearly see what makes Paris one of the most authentically charming places on earth.