Clearly, Ernest Hemingway was onto something. Decades after he dubbed Paris “a moveable feast,” culture-drunk Americans still return home from stints abroad determined to savor the City of Light’s fading afterglow. It’s this promise of a nostalgia trip — and the carbs that go with it — that Paul bakery brings to Washington.
Paul’s distinctive black storefronts pepper every neighborhood in Paris, from the Champs-Elysees to Charles de Gaulle airport. After expanding to London, Madrid, Tokyo, Kuwait and Dubai, the 120-year-old family-run company launched its flagship U.S. store two months ago on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
On a sticky Sunday in July, heat radiates from the concrete in Penn Quarter. The water in the Navy Memorial Fountain has turned a murky chartreuse, as if it needs a quick shot of chlorine. Fanny-pack-clad tourists spill out of the National Archives.
It doesn’t feel much like Paris.
But behind Paul’s gilded door, a melange of easy-listening jazz and scents of baking bread waft through the air. A group of expats chats in French over demitasse cups of espresso. A young couple speak excitedly about an upcoming trip to Europe. A boy abandons his Declaration of Independence replica to get a better look at a glistening raspberry tart. (Thursday’s Bastille Day baguette relay should bolster Paul’s European ambiance as well.)
Like Five Guys, Starbucks and every chain eatery that came before them, Washington’s Paul is cut to a pattern. Although thousands of miles from its overseas counterparts, the American shop has the same black-and-white checkerboard floor, country French sconces and exposed wood-beamed ceilings.
“What we offer here is exactly what you will find in France — it’s the same proposition that started many years ago in Paris,” Philippe Sanchez said.
Sanchez, chief executive of the newly formed company Paul USA, will lead the expansion of the brand as it radiates from Penn Quarter to Northern Virginia, Maryland and onward up the East Coast. Inside the Beltway, Paul’s proliferation will put it in competition with established neighborhood chains such as Marvelous Market, Firehook Bakery & Coffee House and Belgian import Le Pain Quotidien.
Mark Furstenberg, bakery consultant and former owner of Marvelous Market and Breadline D.C., said the increasing saturation of the city’s bread market is a good thing.
“Any retail bakery is a good bakery,” said Furstenberg, who is credited with igniting the artisanal bread movement in the District with the opening of Marvelous Market in 1991. Furstenberg, who plans to open a bakery and pastry shop in Dupont Circle this year, said he hopes the addition of Paul will help revive Washington’s “brief flirtation” with an enduring bread culture.
According to Sanchez, Paul executives selected the District as the location for their new company because of its large international community and its vibrant restaurant culture. The District’s French aesthetic, courtesy of architect Pierre L’Enfant, was not a factor in the decision.
Yet when Paul Chairman Maxime Holder came to the Pennsylvania Avenue store — after looking out the door and seeing the Capitol on one end of the street and the White House on the other — he commented, “Yes, this is very much like Paris!”
Perhaps more in keeping with the neighborhood feel of many Paris and London locations, a smaller Georgetown storefront near Wisconsin and M is scheduled to open in late summer or early fall.
Sanchez said he would also like a store in Bethesda, where a thriving French community exists around the Lycee Rochambeau French International School. A handful of French families have already started commuting into the District just to pick up their daily supply of bread, he added.
Laetitia-Laure Brock, the 31-year-old blogger behind French Twist D.C., said that, for her, Paul is a little piece of home.
“For a minute you can forget you’re on Pennsylvania Avenue and you think you’re on Rue de Buci or Avenue de l’Opera, until you catch a glimpse of the National Archives right across the street,” she said.
A Penn Quarter resident and Paris native, Brock said her close-knit group of French expats celebrated the first time she brought bread from Paul to one of their regular gatherings. “For us, it’s great because what they’re supporting is so important to our culture,” Brock said. “Just seeing how they make the bread right in front of you; you can tell why it’s so good.”
According to Sanchez, the process takes seven hours.
“The recipes that we follow are the very same recipes that were crafted generations ago for the original Paul store,” Sanchez said.
He raises a finger as he recites each ingredient: “Flour, salt, water and yeast — that’s it.”
Before Paul opened its doors in the District, the company’s head chefs paid a visit to ensure that the ingredients and process yielded the proper results. Sanchez said even though the recipes are not extremely complex, dealing with living matter — yeast — makes standardization difficult.
“Since we don’t use anything artificial, you have to adapt to the weather . . . and the humidity.”
Sanchez hopes this attention to detail will help translate the Paul experience for Americans, a people whose relationship with baked goods is markedly different than the French.
He reminisced about making regular pit stops at the boulangerie after nights of bar-hopping. “It’s 3 a.m. and you see the light on and you knock on the door, and the baker says, ‘Come in!’ ” Sanchez said. “And we would buy hot croissants directly from the baker.”
It’s hard to imagine late-night revelers in the District trading a Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smoke or a greasy Jumbo Slice for fresh croissants and pain au chocolat from the neighborhood bakery.
In the meantime, we’ll always have Paul.