Want to find the hidden joys of one of Europe’s most iconic destinations? T+L shows you how.
Drink Some Wine
T+L's Guide to Secret Paris
Drink Some Wine
A close cousin to bistronomy is a wave of wine bars with a similar approach to impeccable ingredients and low-key refinement. The Parisian wine bar—a working-class hangout with copious by-the-glass choices that thrives at lunchtime—seems like it’s been with us forever. In fact it’s a creation of the post–World War II period, when France wrested its wine industry back from the industrial swill it was producing during the war. In 1954, some Beaujolais producers started the Coupe du Meilleur Pot award, which is managed by the Académie Rabelais, a food society peopled by French critics and scholars. Its criteria nail the ideal wine bar equation: great wines by the glass, a favorable ratio of quality to price, and an in-house proprietor. That last element is crucial, as a jocular owner full of opinions is just as important as what’s on tap.
You couldn’t ask for better than Gilles Bénard at Quedubon, in the 19th, which opened in 2007 and has yet to attract the Rabelaisians—though the local media attention it has received makes me think it’s only a matter of time. Minutes off the east side of the Buttes-Chaumont, with modern but warm interiors, Quedubon’s list has some 150 vins natures, or beyond-organic wines untainted by additives or chemicals. If Bénard, a voluble leftist of the old school, is on site, and your French is passable, you’re in for a good time. “People in Paris now are searching for quality and authenticity,” he says after an amusing digression about the sensual importance of the mouth. “Maybe it would have been easier for me to have opened in Sentier [the garment district in the Second Arrondissement], but the crowd that comes here is not coming by chance. Here we have a whole conversation with guests. We’re doing real sommellerie, trying to transmit a culture.” Bénard sings the praises of Olivier Camus’ equally impressive
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.