“There is but one Paris and however hard living may be here, and if it became worse and harder even—the French air clears up the brain and does good—a world of good.”
– Vincent van Gogh
Upon returning from my week-long trip to Paris, I felt silly telling friends how wonderful it was. The last thing Paris needs is good PR, so my recounting the legendary sites and sounds and the metric tons of buttered food and fine wine we consumed seemed superfluous. But I’ll do it anyway: the City of Lights is a break-neck, all-consuming barrage of sensation and emotion that will change your life. Any attempt to describe it in words is doomed to fail – touch, taste, and sight are the key interfaces, and I can never ably describe those first evenings gazing on the neon-lit Eiffel Tower or the bustling street side cafes, humming with negronis and spirited conversation. Even pictures fail:
Here are my observations, clumsily bracketed:
Cocktails Si Vous Plait: Amidst the dishes of rich food and gallons of vin rouge, I did my utmost to fit in some of Paris’ finest cocktails spots (I felt duty bound). And there are many to choose from – still a wine-town, an adventurous clique of cocktail stars have worked to turn the city to spirits. Their efforts are aided by Paris’ ambiance: baby, I observed, this low-light, medieval town was made for cocktail bars. Our first spot was the Experimental Cocktail Club, a welcoming and underground joint hidden in the 2nd Arrondissement. Blink and you’ll miss it (it took a couple of minutes of embarrassing searching), but do persevere, as the classy cocktail cave offers some ultra-complex mixes that challenged my grasp of what’s possible in a single drink. A few days later, we stopped into ECC’s sister bar, the Prescription Cocktail Club next to St. Germain, which is subterranean and evokes the Belle Epoque (the fun parts). Cool bartenders do an amazing job welcoming customers and dealing sublime drinks including Papillon, which is an ode to strong gin that you will never forget.
Other spots of note included Mabel, a low-profile cocktail pioneer that features some of Paris’ better rum drinks including the Blockbuster Daiquiri, with popcorn bitters! Then, if you’re in search of the finer things in life, carve out a hour or two to visit the Ritz Hotel, home to the famous Hemingway Bar. Even though we walked in three minutes after it opened, we failed to grab a seat, so we settled on the Ritz Bar right across the hall; what a plan B! The Ritz bar is impossibly sophisticated, with extremely expensive but alluring drinks, and some true artists behind the bar. You ever see anyone pour a cocktail from above his head to below his waist, without spilling a drop? I have!
The pinnacle of my abbreviated Paris cocktail bar crawl was the famous Little Red Door, a spot that combines high-art, great cocktails, and optical illusion. We spent ten minutes of quality time with a trio of German tourists who were attempting to gain entry by opening the little red door, as one does. A hint, you’re doing it wrong. Once you figure out the trick (I won’t tell you, because it’s a character-building exercise) you’ll be escorted into an engaging, cozy bar with a splendid art-themed menu and super-star bartenders. Look at this drink, the Moderismo – long-stem and delicious, it sums up the Red Door’s combination of chic style and serious cocktail work.
They Earned Those Michelin Stars: Paris is world-renowned as a center for haute cuisine, and the reputation is legit. If you have any trepidation about high-falutin’ dining, throw that shit out, because this is your shot to nosh on some of the more innovative, adventurous dishes you’ll ever order. We started at David Toutain, a sharp modernist outpost near the Esplanade des Invalides that features a gorgeous twilight view of the Eiffel Tower. We went with the six course meal, which is an out and out lie, as most of the “courses” would be better characterized as “journeys.” Loosen your pants to deal with the barrage of eye-catching and mouth-watering food you’ll gorge on. For a bit more grounded experience, swing into the surprisingly intimate La Bourse et la Vie – our evening was spent with about ten parties of experienced Parisian diners and a super pleasant staff. The menu is short but robust, with a chocolate mousse that is to die for.
Candle lit white walls and romantic ambiance make for a magic evening at Grand Coeur, which delivered one of the best meals I had in Paris. On the border of the impossibly charming Le Marais neighborhood, Grand Couer’s dessert, Hot Brioche, is the greatest thing I’ve ever consumed in my life. Literally warm sugar, bread, and chocolate from heaven. Don’t try to resist.
Special lunch call out: if you’re looking for a spot to rest your weary feet after a long walking tour of the Eiffel Tower (totally worth it) and the Rive Droite, you can’t do better than Monsieur Bleu. Rose, great pasta, and endless bread help you power through your joyful exhaustion and make it through the rest of the day, with class.
Our final night in Paris deserves special mention: the three-star Guy Savoy, which is artfully ensconced in the Monnaie de Paris, is the restaurant elevated. Giddy to sup from the kitchen of the renowned chef Guy Savoy, I was startled to see him welcome us at the hostess stand. Yeah, pretty cool. I was tempted to go all in for the multi-course tour of decadence, but having eaten and drank ourselves into a coma throughout the week, we settled on the more sedate tasting menu, which offered some exceptional cuts of meat and chocolate. For fun, take a look at the wine list and see the vintages you could drink if you were a well-heeled CEO or head of state. Flummoxed by the high-priced options, I randomly picked a bottle of Minna Rouge, which may have been the best red wine I’ve ever had in my life.
Eat Local!: You can’t swing a dead cat in Paris without hitting a Michelin-starred restaurant, but make sure to take the time to search out some of the more blue-collar, genuine Parisian haunts. One of my favorites was La Poule au Pot, a Paris institution founded in 1935. Experienced and well-adorned waiters help you navigate the intimate setting, but the food is down to earth, particularly the rural French delicacy of Chicken in a Pot. Brace yourself though, it’s a half chicken and about a gallon of broth. Add a half-bottle of wine and a fistful of appetizer cheese, and you have yourself a good night. Another back-to-basics favorite is Chez Denise, the perfect accompaniment to a long-day strolling through the Louvre. Prepare to make new friends, because they will throw you right into the relaxed crowd of Parisians, with whom you can share a magnum bottle’s worth of wonderful local Beaujolias. Rub elbows with the locals as you polish off some shockingly rich seafood dishes accompanied by rafts of butter. Mon dieu!
That Includes Street Food: Paris, like any ancient city, features several tight mazes of narrow streets lined with local food booths including, most importantly, crepe stands. Our base neighborhood of St. Germain was home to several of these appetizing avenues, one of which I authoritatively and creatively deemed Rue de Crepe. The joys of watching an experienced crepe hand, Gaulois perched in his lips, put together a mana-from-heaven concoction dripping in nutella and bananas almost surpasses the sensation of the taste. Almost. Don’t hold back, eat everything you pass.
Pace Yourself, Croyez Moi: Setting foot in Paris, your nose and appetite will literally be assaulted by options: alcohol, food, alcohol – the mind is overwhelmed with opportunities for fun and compromising your health. Now, for context, I’m a 34 year old hearty eater and drinker (surprise!) but I was not prepared for the carb and cocktail avalanche that overtook me on several days. If you want to make it through a lively Paris vacation and avoid long hours in your local hospital, do your best to avoid endless prix fix meals, because if you don’t, you will die. Happily and full, but you will expire. Of note, French restaurants have this little endearing but treacherous custom of NEVER LETTING YOU LEAVE, so be warned – you’re almost always in for long and sumptuous evenings. And you have no choice.
Fin. What else there is to say – Paris, you are everything. I’ll miss you.