In Paris, Eleventh Heaven
Sunday, November 6, 2005
Perennial and amateur visitors to Paris making the familiar loop around the city center may be inclined to ask: Where are all the Bohemians and intellectuals who forged the formidable artistic reputation of Saint Germain? Why do the most hallowed bastions of Parisian culture now seem like teeming tourist traps? And is that a Starbucks at the Odeon Metro stop?
Just as hip New Yorkers are stretching across the Brooklyn Bridge into trendy neighborhoods like Williamsburg, stylish Parisians have been heading northeast into the 11th arrondissement -- and bringing with them an array of quirky boutiques, neighborhood restaurants and cheap bars with good music.
Once a quiet working-class outback to the more desirable first through eighth arrondissements, the 11th -- aka l'Onzieme -- is not slick and swish like the eighth, nor relentlessly, cloyingly charming like the fifth. You will see people digging through the garbage in front of supermarkets, butchers selling whole heads of goat and bakeries specializing in cakes in smutty forms. But you will also see traditional Haussmann-designed stone buildings, glitteringly spare art galleries and stunning squares.
The population is generally a mix of working-class old-timers pushing their market caddies on wheels, young movers and shakers on bikes, skateboards and Pierre Hardy heels, and several ethnic populations, including Chinese and North African. More and more, it's the young folk, discussing art installations and recent novels over a beer in the afternoon.
The 11th -- bordered to the south by the grim 12th arrondissement, to the west by the Marais and the garment district of Sentier, and to the north and east by the hilly ethnic ghettos of Belleville and Menilmontant -- is a $7 cab ride from the Latin Quarter, or you can take the Metro to the Bastille station. But take the scenic route, a 15-minute walk from Notre Dame. Starting from Paris's poetic center, the Ile St. Louis, take the fabled bridge Pont de Sully to the right bank. Head north by foot (or bicycle, tres onzieme! ) on the Boulevard Henri IV until you reach the Place de la Bastille -- the beginning of the 11th, and usually as far as most tourists venture before retreating to their Latin Quarter hotels.
The Bastille has always been a populist, working-class area, in keeping with its inception as the site of the legendary storming of the Bastille prison by the masses of proletariats during the French Revolution. The Place de la Bastille, like its sister to the north the Place de la Republique, is a rather charmless and overpopulated hub. However, there are a multitude of fascinating hot spots both north and east of the Bastille. To the east lie the arty enclaves clustered around the Metro stations Faidherbe-Chaligny and Charonne. This was once Paris's furniture-making capital, and there are still many of the original ateliers. To the north are established hipster havens around the Oberkampf Metro station and developing areas like that around the Parmentier station.
One droll indication of the direction the 11th is taking is the recent installation of the design-heavy Hotel Murano (13 Blvd. du Temple), which is technically in the third arrondissement but is across the street from (and somehow still in the heart of) the 11th. Residents of the neighborhood were somewhat surprised to see this stark white building erected on a rather commonplace boulevard not far from the bustling and banal Place de la Republique.
The hotel, which bills itself as an "urban resort," features a vodka bar off the lobby and primary-colored light schemes in the rooms. This tribute to luxe modernity is ironically packed between some of the quaintest artifacts of the old neighborhood: a delicious but dismally slow Tibetan restaurant and a model train store. The juxtaposition of old and new is part of the 11th's idiosyncratic charm: hyped-up trends coexisting with the district's original commerce and character.
The trendification of the 11th is said to have been kindled in part by the restaurant-cum-nightclub Cafe Charbon (109 Rue Oberkampf), a cavernous dining room and bar that has pulled in the crowds for the past 15 years as well as inspiring a slew of like-minded bars and cafes in the vicinity. Unfortunately, the Cafe Charbon has since fallen prey to its own hype, with tourists heading in to check out the reputed artistic scene. However, its basement spinoff in the same building, the Nouveau Casino, is known for its excellent nighttime offerings, including cutting-edge rock, electronic and rap music, as well as performance art and occasional fashion shows.
The Nouveau Casino is somewhat of an insider's secret, hidden as it is through an unmarked door at the back of the Charbon. You can beat the crowds at the cafe by slipping downstairs to one of the 11th's most consistently hype (pronounced "ipe," rhymes with "pipe") venues. Dependably dark and mind-blowingly loud, the Nouveau Casino is the perfect spot for a racy rendezvous. There are two levels, the main stage with its dance floor and a loungelike upper level with intimate little tables. Despite its secret-basement allure, the Casino is one of the few Parisian boites that remains cool and airy even when jampacked with dancers.
There are many heirs to the Charbon in the bar/restaurant/cafe combination category. In fact, one of the 11th's most charming qualities is its abundance of delightful spots that are just as lively at 1 p.m. as at 1 a.m. These are neighborhood canteens frequented by locals seeking anything from a morning espresso to a business lunch to an evening birthday party. They're a step beyond the classic Parisian all-hours cafes, with a more evolved cuisine and decor.
One such joint is the Pure Cafe (14 Rue Jean Mace), a stripped-down, burnished-mirror kind of place decorated in shabby-chic style. You may recognize it as the unnamed cafe where Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke's characters catch up in the 2004 film "Before Sunset." However, there is no hint of Hollywood in this backwater of the Bastille, the traditional craftsman's district of Faidherbe-Chaligny. The Pure is the kind of authentic city cafe that morphs from a sleepy newspaper-reading daytime hangout to a bustling bar and restaurant at night. One of its most appealing aspects is the melange of grizzled furniture makers seated at the zinc bar alongside young families from the neighborhood and international students from the nearby photography school.