In Paris, Living Large for Less

By Rory Satran
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 8, 2005

The windows of Paris used to torment me. When I first arrived in the city three years ago as a Converse-wearing, ramen-eating student, I would wander around gaping at the boutiques and restaurants I could not afford. I was a classic leche-vitrine, that miserably appropriate term that literally translates as "window licker." For those who, like me, were born with tastes that far exceed their means, Paris can be a frustrating place.

Today, in the back streets of the Bastille, far from the trudging tourists of Saint-Michel, there is an American teacher sipping champagne and cracking a creme brulee. This young expatriate has achieved the ultimate coup in an increasingly expensive city, particularly for dollar-poor Americans: to live richly when decidedly not rich. I may not have shed the Converses, but I've exchanged ramen for foie gras and never looked back. Paris is filled with affordable decadence -- you just need to know where to find it.

My French friends have taught me the value of the petit plaisir -- that is, the tiny luxury that all French people allow themselves from time to time. Far from the excess of "buy-one-get-one-free" America, the principle of the petit plaisir is that we should treat ourselves to mini-extravagances once in a while. It's a philosophy currently in vogue with the dieting set, thanks to Mireille Guiliano's bestselling book, "French Women Don't Get Fat," a veritable celebration of butter, sugar and cream, albeit in moderation. The surprise revelation at hand: French women do eat, and richly. But they choose their pleasures wisely, and savor them.

Here are eight little luxuries to savor in Paris.

Hot Chocolate at Angelina's

One of my first experiences with the petit plaisir was a rendezvous with a Frenchman, who took me to the legendary Angelina's teahouse on Rue de Rivoli. The over-the-top extravagance of the place was slightly intimidating: waiters in tuxedoes, clinking crystal, Parisian matrons in mint-green Chanel and Hermes scarves. But my date, a graduate student whom I knew to exist almost wholly on falafel and spaghetti, winked and told me not to worry, that we were there for the hot chocolate.

And, for less than a cocktail or lunch at Wendy's, we had a lavish afternoon surrounded by Belle-Epoque mirrors and gilded moldings. This is not to undermine the hot chocolate itself, which appears in its own pitcher, with enough thick, decadent potion for at least three cups, finished off with dollops of homemade whipped cream from a silver pot. Angelina's cocoa is an excellent introduction to cheating your way into Parisian opulence. So sit back, sip your cocoa and don't be afraid to say firmly to your waiter: "Oui, ça sera tout." (Yes, that will be all.)

Angelina's Tearoom, 225 Rue de Rivoli, 8th arrondissement, 011-33-1-4260-8200. Metro: Tuileries. Coffee $5.15, hot chocolate $8.

Champagne at the Ritz

The Hemingway Bar is one of the most celebrated spots in Paris. It also happens to be one of the hardest to find. Part of the mystique is the fact that the bar lies slightly apart from the maze of glitz that is the Paris Ritz. After your taxi pulls up to the Place Vendome entrance, walk past the snooty doormen and continue straight through the endless lobbies and corridors until you seem to hit a wall. Turn left into a tiny nook; this is it. Once inside, the bar may surprise you by its size and low-key vibe. But the surprise will melt away when you see the fresh orchid perched on top of your champagne cocktail.

The best luxury spots are those that make you feel right at home. The Hemingway Bar wraps you in sumptuousness without the slightest feeling of unease. Don't forget to make a trip to the powder room, which ranks among the best in the world, with its octagonal, fun-house mirrors. I recommend that men pair the obligatory jacket and tie with jeans -- you may get the rock-star preferential treatment. Ladies, jeans are out for you, so glam it up: How often do you come to the Ritz?

Hotel Ritz, 15 Place Vendome, 1st arrondissement, 011-33-1- 4316-3031, Metro: Madeleine, Concorde or Opera. Cocktails from $30 per person.

Posh Picnic

The perfect way to nurse a Hemingway-induced hangover is an afternoon in the sun. A picnic is that oh-so-Parisian way to enjoy a beautiful day, and to avoid those expensive and crowded cafe terraces. But let's dpeart from the classic Luxembourg Gardens feast. Chances are, if you've been to Paris, you've done Luxembourg. Which is lovely, but you can't even sit on the grass! Despite its working-class, eastern Paris location, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is a wonder of opulence with its manmade lakes, waterfalls and caves. Designed in the 1860s by Baron Haussmann to accommodate the developing craze for civilized outdoor activity, Buttes Chaumont is a meandering, fairy-tale-like park 10 minutes by Metro, taxi or bus from the center of Paris. And you can even sit on the grass, a rarity for Parisian parks. The Buttes Chaumont's fantasy aspect lends itself nicely to a good old-fashioned tea party, which is a good old-fashioned tea party, which is quite easy to supply at any local boulangerie or patisserie. Try some of the ubiquitous and adorable petits-fours (miniature cakes, macaroons, tarts and eclairs) -- at about 50 cents each, you can rationalize at least 10.

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, bounded by Rue Botzaris, Rue Manin and Rue de Crimee, 19th arrondissement, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.

Metro: Buttes-Chaumont.


And should it rain, why not a movie? Paris has always been a glamorous place for cinema, with its vast selection of gorgeous ar-thouse theaters. But the Cine-Theatre 13 of Montmartre takes the classic art-house cinema to a new level: Spectators sit on couches and armchairs in a sexy, low-lit room with a full bar. For about $19, you get the movie fare along with a coupe of champagne. There's something divinely French about sipping champagne in the dark as you watch a movie. The intimate atmosphere is even more pronounced on Saturdays, when the audience chooses from a selection of three possible films. It's most likely the closest you will get to a luxurious private screening room in this lifetime. Take a liking to a particular armchair? Next time you visit, you can call ahead to reserve it.

Cine-Theatre 13, Le Cinema du Moulin de la Galette, 1 Ave. Junot, 18th arrondissement, Montmartre, 011-33-1-4254-1512, Cinema-Theatre 13. Metro: Lamarck-Caulaincourt. Admission $10, $19 with champagne.

Shopping at Chanel

Don't despair, penny-pinching fashionistas. There is a home for us all at 31 Rue Cambon, Mademoiselle Chanel's legendary boutique in the first arrondissement. No, I am not going to reveal the Perfect LIttle Black Dress for $40. Doesn't exist, sorry. Remember, this is all about tiny luxuries -- beautiful little trinkets to tide you over until you hit the jackpot. So nod to the doorman outside and enter the fashion mother ship. This is the only place in the world that your clumpy Birkenstocks will not make a sound -- the carpet is like a giant marshmallow. There are fresh white camellias and orchids everywhere, Coco's choice. The place is like a giant white womb for luxury addicts. After a nice long browse around the $6K tweed and leather suits, head to the makeup counter and let the impeccably groomed vendeuse or maquilleuse help you. This is Chanel, and she does know best. Breezily let her know that you just dropped in to pick up the latest lipstick --are there any new exciting shade? Don't worry, all of Chanel's employees speak English. Possibly German and Japanese, too. Then the clincher: Let Madame know that the lipstick is a gift and you would like it wrapped. Your $20 lipstick will be duly swathed in yards of black satin ribbon and a whitesilk camellia. And you get to carry around the most classically chic shopping bag in the city all day long.

Chanel, 31 Rue Cambon, 1st arrondissement, 011-33-1-4286-2800, Metro: Madeleine.

Ribbons and Sparkles

Every Parisian fashion-school student and savvy designer has the legendary La Droguerie in his or her address book. The name means "hardware store," but I am not suggesting that you outfit yourself in chains and bolts. La Droguerie is in fact a vast wonderland of all things ornamental, ostensibly for the seamstress: feathers, ribbons, buttons and sparkles, among other treasures.

There are a few branches, but the most well-stocked is that on Rue du Jour, in the 1st arrondisement. For less than $13, I recently purchased three pompoms of satiny rabbit fur in crimson, gray and mallard blue, which I affixed to my winter coat with safety pins. Tres chic!

Well-heeled Parisians go to La Droguerie for more than just cheap and original fashion, but also for the elegant details of everyday life: delicate silk flowers for the table, polka-dotted ribbons to adorn lampshades or trimmings for gorgeous photo albums. I have one fashionable French friend who creates beautiful Japanese-inspired gift wrappings from La Droguerie's wares. An incredible cloth and string wrapping (topped off with a silk lotus flower) can transform the most banal of gifts into a gem. La Droguerie proves that in Paris, luxury really is all in the details.

La Droguerie de Paris, 9-11 Rue du Jour, 1st arrondissement , 011-33-1-4508-9327 . Metro: Les Halles.

Glittering Nightlife

Young Parisians are increasingly bringing the principle of the petit plaisir to underground nightlife, once the territory of beer in plastic cups. The OPA, a Bastille bar and club better known for its progressive twentysomething DJs than its sumptuousness, now offers its clientele an affordable treat: A magnum of champagne for about $90. For those unfamiliar with the magnum, we're talking about a giant double-size bottle of champagne hitherto seen only in rap videos. It's perfect for the jaded children of the night. And if you split it with six friends, it's also about the price of your average Parisian cocktail. With a flute of champagne in one hand, you might even fool people into thinking you're French, a definite nightlife plus. A foolproof way to glam up your nighttime posse, along with the magnum, is the addition of those ubiquitous digital cameras. Young and trendy Frenchies are susceptible to all things small and silver, so snap away at your crew constantly. It's all about the power of persuasion: If you have to be an American, you may as well be a movie star.

OPA Bar and Club, 9 Rue Biscornet, 12th arrondissement, 011-33-14628-1290. Metro: Bastille. Admission varies, sometimes free (call ahead).

Trendy Art Opening

Another epicenter of young and trendy luxe is the Palais de Tokyo, a relentlessly cutting-edge modern art museum in the stodgy 16th arrondissement. The installations and exhibitions of the Tokyo are worthy on their own, but there is no better incarnation of hip luxury than the near-monthly vernissages (exhibition openings) that take place on Wednesdays from 8 p.m. until midnight. There's free food, free booze and far better people-watching than you'll get at the Cafe de Flore, that old standby of guidebooks. Who can turn down an open bar and the chance to mingle with the Parisian art community? What's more, the space is truly impressive, with vast columns and looming windows -- an original place to take in an exhibition, and a welcome change from the Pompidou Center.It's also one of the only completely free ways to experience the Parisian pleasures of wine, eye candy and innovative art. It's like one of those glamorous parties that usually require humiliating waits behind velvet ropes -- minus the ropes and the cover charge. After all, part of the principle of the petit plaisir is the decision to get out of the house, dress up and make daily life just a bit more enchanting -- even for just a few hours.Palais de Tokyo, 13 Ave. du President Wilson, 16th arrondissement, 011-33-1- 4723-5401, Metro: Iena. Admission $7.70.

Rory Satran is a freelance writer based in Paris.

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