T+L's Guide to Secret Paris
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.
Visit “The Big Neighborhood”
Time for an American bakery metaphor: imagine the cinnamon bun–shaped map of Paris. Now slice a large wedge from the top section. You’ll end up cutting the Ninth, 10th, 17th, 18th, and 19th Arrondissements, or what Sébastien Guénard, the chef at the fêted Abbesses bistro Miroir, calls “le grand quartier.” In the short time since I’ve moved to the area, I’ve watched the steady onslaught of gentrification (Hello, Kiehl’s; thanks for popping up, Comme des Garçons pocket shop). The same is true for Pigalle and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, just to the south; Batignolles, to the west (the rest of the 17th was already pretty haute-bourgeois); the Canal St.-Martin, in the 10th; Belleville, in the 19th and 20th; and other areas in the 19th that surround the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. I’ll add the Oberkampf piece of the 11th to the east, too; though it’s not geographically in le grand quartier, it shares the same earthy spirit.
There are few major tourist landmarks in these areas, except the Palais Garnier opera house and the Butte-Montmartre, a hectic scene whose kitschy church of Sacré-Coeur and pseudo-artists I avoid like a tropical disease. If you’re afraid you might miss Paris’s traditional beauty wandering outward a bit from the attraction-heavy center, know that while Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s grand boulevards and soaring town houses have become the de facto look of Paris, his 1860’s overhaul homogenized a lot of the city’s architecture. In fact, the areas he left alone (Montmartre’s dollhouse scale and picturesque steps; the Marais’ medieval warrens) are more apt reminders of the Paris of long ago.
As with so many “outer” neighborhoods that are now “in,” the traditional working-class immigrant population of the northeast has been di
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
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
Please Stay on the Grass
If you’re a toddler, the Jardin de Luxembourg, in the Sixth, with its padded-ground play space and rental toy boats, is ideal. To me, the sight of all that gravel and roped-off lawns is torture. I guess my southern California upbringing begs for a park where you can actually sit on the grass wherever you please. For its location, its relative peace, and its 61 acres of shaggy, totally open greenery, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is bohemian Paris’s favorite picnic spot. And on the weekends, thanks to the in-park wine-and-snack bar Rosa Bonheur, it’s a major scene. If you’re in search of an only-in-Paris experience, head to the Pavillon du Chemin de Fer, inside the park’s southern border, well before dark, and make sure to get on the right side of the barricades the house erects around 7 p.m., when the party begins. Once the stanchions go up, those unlucky enough to be on the other side must wait in a brutally long line to get onto the patio (or catapult themselves over the barricades, as several girls in American Apparel rompers pulled off the last time I was there). Under colored Christmas lights, a hip crowd—a mix of fashion, advertising, and art types—drinks enough rosé and eats enough saucisson to give a nutritionist fits.
Occupying a different spot on the socioeconomic spectrum is the majestic Parc Monceau, which lies between the 17th and the top of the Eighth in the fancy Ternes district. Every time I pass by the park’s grand, gold-tipped, 19th-century gates, I am struck by the desire to walk barefoot. Planted in the English style, the abundant flowers and trees feel a bit wilder than in your typically manicured French gard
Shop in Peace
I am proud to say I have almost shed my new yorquaise shopping addiction. Almost. My credit card still occasionally hears the siren call. How could it not? Paris is a city that, despite the natives’ relative disinterest, is a paradise for the acquisitive. Rather than endure the throngs at the grands magasins or on the Rue St.-Honoré, my first stop is always the Galeries du Palais-Royal. It’s got excellent shops along the galleries that enclose the garden behind the palace itself: Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs, the glove maker Mary Beyer, Rick Owens, the king of vintage couture Didier Ludot, and the accessories genius Pierre Hardy, who also designs for Balenciaga and Hermès. In spite of its dead-central location, the Palais-Royal is quiet and calm. This is partly due to its status as a historically protected monument (it was built as the home of Cardinal Richelieu in the early 1600’s): the companies it houses can never eclipse the structure itself. In most cases, the original shop signage remains virtually unchanged from a century ago, so it’s the windows, far recessed under those gorgeous colonnades, that have to do the talking, and most of them choose to whisper. You could visit the gardens and almost not know you were in the city’s coolest de facto luxury mall.
Boutiques in neighborhoods that don’t scream “Shopping!” help to thwart the conveyor-belt feeling, too. Spree, in Abbesses, offers a mix of European and Asian labels (Isabel Marant, Martin Margiela 6, Helmut Lang, Tsumori Chisato, Comme des Garçons Shirt) casually strewn over Midcentury furniture, and it still feels fresh to my seen-it-all American friends. The shop’s friendly owners, Bruno Hadjadj and Roberta Oprandi, used to live across the street, but they’ve just transformed their former house into an ar
What they say is true: French people don’t really eat on the go. But they couldn’t care less if you do. In high-density situations like, say, shopping in the Marais, fast sustenance, especially of the sugary variety, is key. While I love Pierre Hermé, in St.-Germain, the lines are a lot shorter at the brilliant Pain de Sucre and the comestibles just as deft and original. Years ago, the French husband of one of my oldest friends laid down his boulangerie rule: if it is great at breads and savories, it will not be so at pastries, and vice versa. He lives near Pain de Sucre, and since it opened in 2004, the place has changed his mind. Didier Mathray and Nathalie Robert’s salty, flaky, olive-oil brioche is what first turned my head; their pirouette pomme, with crunchy almond crust, pistachio-and-lime cream, and apples caramelized with rosemary, made me a believer. Another delicious escape in the area is the Marché des Enfants Rouges, on the Rue de Bretagne. A covered market with a poorly marked entrance, it’s easy to walk by without knowing what lies in wait: an alluring hive of fish, meat, fruit, and flower peddlers, with several fast lunch options. (The Japanese bento is terrific; the pizza is not.) If you’re brave enough to attack the grands magasins, know that the food halls at the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps are both extraordinary, though not exactly Zen. But À la Mère de Famille, a few blocks east of the department stores, is everything you want a traditional confiserie to be: full of froufrou offerings and temptations at every turn. Traditional Breton caramels au fleur de sel often lack the chewy texture they mas
Book a Hotel in the Ninth
Paris has been on a hospitality roll lately. In the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, there’s the new Intercontinental Paris Avenue Marceau, with its careful and chic assemblage of design furniture and modern art. Right off the Champs-Élysées is Grace Leo’s cheerfully sleek new Hôtel Beauchamp, and there’s something of an Asian invasion afoot with the arrival of Raffles’s Royal Monceau, Shangri-La, later this year, and of Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula in 2011. Of course, grand hotels have their charms, but the smaller hotels of the Ninth Arrondissement are worth a second look. Staying at one of the quartier’s new crop of hôtels particuliers means the best of both worlds can be yours. You’re in le grand quartier, but convenient to the central city’s monuments. When Hôtel Amour made its debut in 2006, its rock-bottom prices, cheeky décor, hourly-rate policy, and boldface-name patrons shook up the district. Now, just a few blocks away, is the new Hôtel Joyce. It doesn’t have the fashionable pedigree of Amour, whose owners are the nightlife kings Mr. André and Thierry Costes. Nor does it have the youthful crowds. But it’s a poppy, quirky newcomer with immaculate, affordable rooms that have great beds and lots of light. A few minutes southeast is the boutique Hôtel Jules, also a Grace Leo–managed property, with small but well-kitted rooms and a lobby that feels like a space-age library. Finally, almost across the street from the migraine-inducing department stores on the