Like a local: Paris

Get under the skin of Paris, where fine food and culture awaits

By Sophie Dening
Published 12 Apr 2011, 12:40 BST

"Paris became a city to which its inhabitants developed a visceral attachment, almost regardless of their own places of origin." (Footprints in Paris, Gillian Tindall, 2009)

UNTIL recently, the alleyway that leads to Le Bal Café, a seedy sliver of the 18th arrondissement west of Pigalle, was a no-go area; now it looks respectable and friendly, with a Magnum-backed photography gallery housed in a former dance hall and the adjoining utilitarian dining room a hit with its hip and wholesome weekend brunch.

An all-day, anglophile affair of kippers and Welsh rarebit, it's a real phenomenon, with groups of friends and young families rolling in so enthusiastically that the supply of home-made cakes is exhausted by 4pm.

From its grand hotels to its celebrity cemeteries, Paris is heavily cloaked in history and tradition, but its residents don't see it that way — they are too busy creating and consuming new art, design, food and fashion. Visitors who chase the timeless Paris experience, but without tapping into the immediacy of what Parisians are excited about, will see some beautiful churches, eat some terrific charcuterie and probably feel as though they've 'done' Paris.

Yet if you check out Canal Saint-Martin, as well as Place Saint-Sulpice, you'll find you want to come back again pretty soon; Paris changes faster than you'd think and is never, ever done.

The city is relatively small, so an easy-going itinerary can still be adventurous: you might start with coffee at Breizh Café in the Marais, walk up the canal a bit and stroll around Parc Buttes-Chaumont or seek out socially conscious art at Maison des Métallos before lunch and a glass of wine at Le Baratin in the 20th arrondissement.

From there, it's a swift hop on the Métro to head to Palais-Royal for a new pair of jeans at Acne before settling in for dinner at one of those fine old bistros that exist only in this city. It's all about finding your own perfect mix of classic and contemporary, your own take on cafe culture, your own locales.

Dining out in Paris is as amazing as you'd expect it to be, but perhaps not for the reasons you'd expect. The crème de la crème of haute cuisine is still enthroned in the dining rooms of palace hotels such as Le Bristol and Le Meurice and oligarchs can eat lobster and turbot at Ledoyen, where Flaubert and Manet dined.

However, Parisians know that their best bet for a momentous meal is to book ahead at one of the more relaxed new 'bistronomique' restaurants, whose chefs have shrugged off the starchy weight of classicism and opened their minds to Iberian, Scandinavian and even English thinking: seasonality, simplicity, accessibility.

Le Châteaubriand is the neo-bistro par excellence — a hip, much talked-about dining room in the 11th arrondissement where the food is inventive and affordable, wines are biodynamic or natural and the clientele is adoring. Look out for its new, more casual sibling next door, Le Dauphin.

There's no single district where the innovators huddle. Earthy pioneer Le Comptoir du Relais is in Saint-Germain; Franco-Chinese Yam'Tcha is near Les Halles; Saturne, a stand-out new bistro with natural wine nous, is by the Bourse; and Chez l'Ami Jean, a Basque old-timer with new tricks, is down in the 7th arrondissement.

Food glorious food

Such foodie haunts come with a high hip quotient. For something a little less feverish, Parisians favour neighbourhood haunts such as Aux Charpentiers in the 6th arrondissement and the wonderful Chez Georges in the 2nd arrondissement. For seafood, La Mascotte in Montmartre is old school and shellfish nirvana can be found at L'Ecailler du Bistrot in the 11th arrondissement.

Street food and world food are disappointing relative to what you'll find in other cosmopolitan capitals, with even Montmartre's best Vietnamese holes-in-the-walls not a patch on the bánh cun purveyors of east London.

To make up for it, Paris has an astonishing culture of wine bars where you can drink fabulously and order oysters, charcuterie, cheese or steak tartare. Le Rubis is one of the oldest, reassuringly simple and central near the Place Saint-Honoré. Le Verre Volé is low-key but trendy, near the Canal Saint-Martin. Les Juveniles, not far from the Musée du Louvre, is easy-going and slightly eccentric and Les Fines Gueules, near Les Halles, does the best steak tartare in town, according to some.

Parisians love discussing food; many will cross the city to buy from their preferred street traders and walk past perhaps two boulangeries in their own neighbourhood to get a boule au levain at their favourite. Great streets for foodie strolls are rue Montorgueil, rue Mouffetard and rue des Martyrs.

Places mentioned
Le Bal Café: 6 impasse de la Défense, 18th arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 44 70 75 51.
Breizh Café: 109 rue Vieille du Temple, 3rd arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 42 72 13 77.
Parc Buttes-Chaumont: 19th arrondissement.
Maison des Métallos: 94 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 11th arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 48 05 88 27.
Le Baratin: 3 rue Jouye-Rouve, 20th arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 43 49 39 70.
Acne: 124 galerie de Valois, 1st arrondissement.

Party people

There are various pockets of nightlife in Paris, from the glitzy strip of rue de Ponthieu to the indie scrum around Oberkampf and the mainstream clubs and cafes of Grands Boulevards.

Yet when you look away from the twentysomething scene, the gay scene and the moneyed, trendy cliques, it all goes a bit quiet after midnight. If you want to stay up with a drink, the hotel bars are the chicest choice: the Crillon and Plaza Athenée are far from preserved in aspic and Pershing Hall is the best of the boutique options.

Otherwise, quirky is best and Molotov is a new Soviet-themed bar near Opéra, where you can drink Zubrowka and snack on pelmeni dumplings. Not far away, Harry's New York Bar is one of the world's oldest cocktail bars with all-ages appeal. Cocktails are in the ascendant in Paris, thanks to the dapper chaps behind Experimental Cocktail Club and Curio Parlor, and the owners of Le Blitz tequila bar.

In summer, city-dwellers pour on to Canal Saint-Martin, where al fresco socialising makes for long, languid evenings and boules matches at Bar Ourcq. Listen out for information about unadvertised parties thrown in the Jardins des Bagatelles; if you bag a ticket through Parisian friends, you'll have the time of your life.

Alternatively, head up to Parc de la Villette for open-air cinema and jazz — the city is still steeped in the music, with a handful of good clubs on rue des Lombards in the 1st arrondissement. Opera and classical performances tend to be top-notch at both Opéra Garnier and Opéra Bastille, as well as the Auditorium du Louvre (you can't go wrong here) and Salle Pleyel.

Otherwise, head out on a Thursday in Saint-Germain and you'll stumble on an art gallery vernissage (preview). Otherwise, join the Sunday hordes at the cinema — the artiest are on rue des Ecoles in the Latin Quarter.

Places mentioned
Hôtel de Crillon: 10 place de la Concorde, 8th arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 44 71 15 00.
Molotov: 4 rue de Port Mahon, 2nd arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 73 70 98 46.
Experimental Cocktail Club: 37 rue Saint-Sauveur, 2nd arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 45 08 88 09.
Bar Ourcq: 68 quai Loire, 19th arrondissement. T: 0033 1 42 40 12 26.
Duc des Lombards: 42 rue des Lombards, 1st arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 42 33 22 88.
Auditorium du Louvre: 34 quai François Mitterrand, 1st arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 40 20 51 51.

Pile of style

So beautiful is the architecture of their city, so epoch-making their artists and fashion designers that there's quite an onus on Parisians to look good. And they do make it a priority — grooming and style are lifelong duties among certain classes. Yet shopping is hardly a visible pastime; more a pleasurable duty, like cooking or sex, that has its place and is done gracefully.

Never mind the Dior, Chanel and YSL boutiques in the prestigious 'Golden Triangle' of the 8th arrondissement — these are the preserve of the international elite rather than fashion-conscious Parisians, who instead like to kit themselves out closer to home.

On the Left Bank, that means Boulevard Saint-Germain as well as rue Bonaparte and rue de Grenelle. In the Marais, hip clothing stores are clustered around rue Charlot, rue Saintonge and rue de Poitou: APC, Isabel Marant and Christophe Lemaire are just a tiny handful of the names behind the Paris look.

Scent, umbrellas, lingerie and gloves all continue to be sold by specialist retailers, with some districts retaining a historic connection to, for example, books (5th arrondissement) or antiques (7th arrondissement). Then there's the Paris 'concept store' — a fashion boutique that sells art books and magazines, design and, in some instances, furniture and accessories. The pioneer of the concept store was Colette, still an essential destination at 213 rue Saint-Honoré.

L'Eclaireur is less pop and more edgy, while the new generation of concept, 'multi-brand' boutiques include Surface to Air in the Haut-Marais plus Spree and No Good Store in Montmartre.

The volume of art in Paris — commercial, public and iconic — and monumental architecture can be overwhelming. Act like a local and find your own favourites. Make a point of always visiting the Musée de Rodin or the Musée Carnavalet when you're in town, so it becomes 'yours', or get to know the 19th-century passages — the original shopping malls.

The best way to appreciate the city's culture is to explore it; to walk and walk and walk some more rather than disappearing into the Louvre for days on end. Again, it's better to find your own preferred corner of that particular art behemoth — the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, for example.

Places mentioned
APC: 112 rue Vieille du Temple, 3rd arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 42 78 18 02.
Isabel Marant: 47 rue Saintonge, 3rd arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 42 78 19 24.
L'Eclaireur: 8 rue Boissy d'Anglas, 8th arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 53 43 80 12.
Musée Rodin: 79 rue de Varenne, 7th arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 44 18 61 10.
Musée des Arts Decoratifs: 107 rue de Rivoli, 1st arrondissement. T: 00 33 1 44 55 57 50.

Top 10 local tips

01 Use a sturdy grey civic bike (like London's 'Boris bikes') called a vélib. You need a credit card.
02 Check out Paris Plages in the summer, when the Seine gets sand and deckchairs.
03 Eat soupe a l'oignon at 4am at Le Tambour or Au Pied de Cochon, both near Les Halles.
04 Go for a promenade or jog in the Jardins des Tuileries or the Jardins du Luxembourg.
05 The best boulangeries are Arnaud Delmontel, Du Pain et Des Idées, Le Moulin de la Vierge and Boulangerie de Monge.
06 Browse in L'Ecume des Pages bookstore on your way back from dinner in Saint-Germain. It's open until midnight.
07 Walk up to Montmartre by night and stop for a snack at one of the Vietnamese cafes.
08 Buy something stripy from APC or Isabel Marant.
09 If you have lunch at Chez Georges on Rue du Mail, skip the starters and order the daily special.
10 Find a neighbourhood cafe that you've never seen in a guidebook and make it your own.

More info
Non-fiction: Paris and Elsewhere by Richard Cobb. RRP: £9.
Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb. RRP: £18.99.
The Authentic Bistros of Paris by François Thomazeau. RRP: £10.
Classic Paris authors: Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway.

Published in the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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