Plus ça change… The more things change in the city, the more we continue to love it. These three neighborhoods are undergoing a uniquely French version of gentrification, treading the line between edgy and not. They’re the best way to see how more and more Parisians are living their lives.
Canal Saint-Martin10th arrondissement
There’s no better example of la gentrification in action than the area around Canal Saint-Martin. Built in 1822 to bring in drinking water, the canal was to be paved over in the 1970s and turned into a highway. Residents mobilized to defeat the project. Later, the water—long murky—was cleaned up, followed by the canal banks. There’s an urban axiom: “Clean the water and the people will come.” Have they ever!
Start at rue du Faubourg du Temple (between Métro République and Métro Goncourt), a block south of where the canal emerges from underground. Walking north, on the quai de Valmy, you can join parents and children watching the series of nine old-fashioned locks that lift and lower boats, compensating for an 82-foot height change in the water levels. The locks fill up and drain like giant bathtubs, albeit with midsize boats in them. More mechanical charm is found in the bridges that swivel sideways to allow boats to pass. You can see what has drawn people to the neighborhood: Cobblestones pave the quayside; vast trees frame the waterways.
Parisian hipsterism meets northern California granola-osity behind the violet facade of Sésame. Light breakfasts run about $12—or go wild, in a healthy way, for the $20 brunch that includes food you expect from the City by the Bay and not the City of Light: salads, quiche, veggies, juice, and organic eggs.
Continue on to the Shipping Company for a little window-shopping. The tasteful wares include playful furniture and animal figurines with cigarettes dangling from their lips. A few steps up the canal is a clothing shop, 71 Quai, which sells sleek clothes that aren’t expensive, at least in the off-season. It’s the Gap-like uniform of less-edgy young professionals.
If hunger pangs are sinking in, drop in for brunch next door at Chez Prune. The clientele might range from beautiful people to hip grandmas to aging guys dressed as Hell’s Angels—it’s up to you to figure out if he and his tattoos are real, but it may be safer not to ask. The smoked-salmon and fine-cut-ham plates come with pureed eggs, a salad, and Prune’s take on the blini. Also, on rue Beaurepaire, there’s half a block of smart books, interesting tchotchkes, and unique clothing. Look for the colorful awnings—they’re where you’ll usually want to poke around. Be sure to drop in on Kaloma, where you can imagine the delicate silks, sensual lamp shades, and fine wood furniture from Asia in your tastefully refurbished canal-side pad.
Back on quai de Valmy, continue past a few storefronts to Artazart, a bookstore with a spunky anarchist spirit. Devoted largely to the kinds of books that end up on coffee tables, it also sells notebooks, pens, and doohickeys. In response to new European Union rules that have mandated loud health warnings on cigarette packs, Artazart has wrappers to replace the new smoking kills message with ones like smoker’s pride and kamikaze. They also carry a mini pack that holds a single smoke. It says very last cigarette.
Hit the cobblestones once again until you reach the pink, green, and yellow awnings of the Antoine & Lili empire, where sexy couples and cool parents stock up on women’s clothing, tableware, and a multitude of other beautiful and sometimes useful props for home and wardrobe. The third awning is Le Cantine, Antoine & Lili’s quirky café, which serves light sandwiches, pastas, and quiches for under $12. The sugary crumbles and messy chocolate things are as good as they look.
Next up: large and mostly ugly housing structures that are beyond gentrification. Nonetheless, it’s worth persevering. Some of the streets that shoot off from the canal have places worth your attention. A nice spot to relax in the evening is Le Verre Volé, an admirably simple wine bar on rue de Lancry (on your left as you go up quai de Valmy). Pull up a wooden chair, sample a Bordeaux, Medoc, or Beaujolais, and listen to the well-chosen jazz.
Cross over the canal to the quai de Jemmapes for the return trip. A one-block detour will take you halfway across the world. Paris has one of the largest Cambodian populations outside of Southeast Asia, but good Cambodian restaurants are few and far between. Seize the moment at Le Cambodge, on Avenue Richerand, a small street jutting off quai des Jemmapes (it’s a block before the red brick l’Hôpital Saint Louis, built in 1607 for Henri IV). Try the Soupe Phnom Penh or the Cambodian morning soup.
As you return to the starting point of your stroll, stop by the Centre Cultural Pouya, inside a non-descript apartment building. It’s a cultural center offering an impressive array of Iranian films, CDs, and books, as well as Iranian dance classes, theater, concerts, and, strangely enough, yoga and salsa dancing downstairs. Sink into the vibrant pillowed seats and sip cardamom tea ($2) or sample Iranian ice cream (pistachio, rose water, or saffron, $4.80).
Roll with Parisians, preferably on a Sunday or holiday, when the streets running along Canal Saint-Martin are closed to cars, but take advantage of the bike lanes anytime. Rent bikes or skates—in-line or old-fashioned—for $2.40 per hour at Toy’s Paradise (41 quai de Valmy, 011-33/1-40-18-95-74).
Paris canal Saint-Martin
- Métros Jaurès, Colonel Fabien, Château Landon, Jacques Bonsergent, or République
- Sésame 51 quai de Valmy, 011-33/1-42-49-03-21
- Chez Prune 36 rue Beaurepaire, 011-33/1-42-41-30-47, ham and salmon plates, $13
- Le Verre Volé 67 rue de Lancry, 011-33/1-48-03-17-34
- Le Cambodge 10 Avenue Richerand, 011-33/1-44-84-37-70, fish with ginger, $11
- Centre Cultural Pouya 48 bis, quai des Jemmapes, 011-33/1-42-08-38-47, www.pouya.org
- Shipping Company 56 quai de Valmy, 011-33/1-42-40-48-32, closed Sunday and Monday
- 71 Quai 71 quai de Valmy, 011-33/1-42-45-38-80
- Kaloma 32 rue Beaurepaire, 011-33/1-42-00-61-29, closed Monday
- Artazart 83 quai de Valmy, 011-33/1-40-40-24-00
- Antoine & Lili 95 quai de Valmy, 011-33/1-40-37-34-86
Montorgueil 1st & 2nd arrondissements
Visit the Montorgueil neighborhood on a weekend and you’ll see restoration not only of its century-old storefronts, but also of its vibrant street life. The closing of the rue Montorgueil to cars in the early ’90s helped bring back foot traffic, but although a few high-style restaurants have crept in, the area has for the most part retained its historic charm.
Rue Montorgueil begins behind the Saint Eustache church, which dates back to 1532. If you want to see what the faded colors of Notre Dame looked like before its controversial scouring, check out this vast, under-noted Gothic church. As you wonder at the stone sculptures and detailing, try to figure out the meaning of the stone representation of a fish attempting to snack on its own tail. Atop the church is a remarkable sundial; you can spy it from the side of the building, near the statue of l’Ecoute (“The Listener”) by Henri de Miller—a huge stone head with a large hand cupped to its ear.
Walk up Montorgueil, past the Italian and French restaurants and the sandwich shops, to the tempting boulangeries, pâtisseries, and fromageries, several of which hawk their goods curbside. Nuts, condiments, and fruits are crammed into the signless shop between 21 and 23 rue Montorgueil. Purchase large oysters, mussels, and assorted shellfish on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from the friendly gentleman at a stall in front of the expensive L’Escargot Montorgueil Restaurant. L’Escargot’s impeccably kept storefront dates back to 1875, making it one of the oldest in Paris, and the restaurant—once considered among the city’s best—was frequented by the likes of Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Charlie Chaplin, and Salvador Dalí.
Farther up, at Les Jardins d’Anais, pick up flowers for your love. Better yet, pick up food: Nearby is Stohrer, which has been dishing out the good stuff since it was opened in 1730 by a former pastry chef of the royal court of Lorraine. There are countless exotic deli goods, such as escargots de Bourgogne, picnic-friendly potato and rice salads, fried fish balls (accras de morue), and scrumptious desserts and chocolates. Weather permitting, have a picnic on the grass at the nearby pedestrian plaza, a stone’s throw from Saint Eustache.
At La Fermette, a cheese shop, the friendly and efficient staff will proffer samples of delicacies like the two-year-old Mimolette; it is to cheese what pure, dark fudge is to chocolate. While you’re there, get some of the milder tomme or the ashen goat cheeses. Ask for a sample or two, and be adventurous.
Dine on a bit of history at Le Rocher de Cancale. The restaurant is among the oldest in Paris, a fact apparent in the two-level, neoclassical-inspired wood facade that wraps around the corner of the building. The restaurant dates from 1840, just a few decades after the world’s first formal restaurants opened in Paris (it moved to its current location from 59 rue Montorgueil in 1846). In the old days, it was the place for the upper crust to dine on the finest sea fare. Nowadays, this former haunt of Molière and Balzac is also a great spot to sip coffee or wine and watch the foot traffic on a weekend afternoon.
- Métros Etienne-Marcel, Sentier, or Réamur-Sébastopol Note: Rue Montorgueil turns into the rue des Petits Carreaux
- L’Escargot Montorgueil Restaurant
- 38 rue Montorgueil, 011-33/1-42-36-83-51, dozen escargots, $24
- Stohrer 51 rue Montorgueil, 011-33/1-42-33-38-20
- La Fermette 86 rue Montorgueil, 011-33/1-42-36-70-96
- Le Rocher de Cancale 78 rue Montorgueil, 011-33/1-42-33-50-29, fricassee coquille, $19
- Saint Eustache 2 rue du Jour
- Les Jardins d’Anais 52 rue Montorgueil, 011-33/1-42-33-14-81
Oberkampf 11th arrondissement
Less than a decade ago, drug dealers roamed the area around rue Oberkampf, above Avenue de la République. Recent years have seen a transformation that has ushered in a happening semi-alternative nightlife. (It’s like a starter neighborhood for people who will likely move to Canal Saint-Martin in 10 years—even if they don’t realize it yet, and assuming they’ll be able to afford the rent.) Now many of the dilapidated streets nearby are stirring. As you read this, dead storefronts are morphing into cool bars or ethnic restaurants, from Brazilian to Senegalese to Japanese.
If you’re walking northwest on rue Oberkampf, turn left on rue Saint-Maur. One required stop is La Bague de Kenza, home to scrumptious Algerian pastries and breads. The line usually trails out the door; use the time you spend waiting to figure out which odd-shaped sesame- or almond-paste thingamabob you want. Pistachio addict? Try the rzimette et aroussa, a delectable Algerian dumpling sweetened with honey.
Down the block, at the corner of rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, is Le Chat Noir, an unpretentious café with a dashing green facade (smattered, as you might expect, with black-cat logos). Inside, people talk animatedly about neighborhood battles, the wacky wall paintings, or the latest in war and love, all while keeping an eye on whoever’s passing by the windowed doors.
From Le Chat Noir, walk southwest down rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud for a true treat of a dinner. A striking restaurant with an elegant red interior and laid-back music, often lounge or jazz, Sacophane serves what might be described as re-Europeanized California cuisine (i.e., fine but hearty), including salade de langoustine with grilled almonds in a raspberry vinaigrette, and roast lamb in a juicy fig sauce. The two-or three-course set menus (for $24 to $36) would be much more expensive elsewhere in Paris. Best of all, the staff doesn’t mistake being classy as an excuse for unfriendliness.
Bars on rues Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Saint-Maur, and Oberkampf are as common as parking meters in Beverly Hills. Walk along rue Oberkampf and rue Saint-Maur and pick the environment and music best suited to your taste. Les Couleurs is a nice downscale joint with a large, kitschy wallpaper mural of a tropical beach that contrasts with—and adds to—the bar’s scruffy, deconstructed charm. The drinks are affordable, and the free live rock, samba, folk, or just about anything else can be very good. (Many neighborhood bars have free live music after 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., thanks in part to the large number of struggling musicians who live nearby. Hearty tippers are appreciated when the chapeau comes around.)
For something more mellow, visit La Perle du Sahara, one of the area’s many Middle Eastern cafés. Settle in on a couch and sip Arabian mint teas with pine nuts floating in them, and ask the staff how to smoke through a large water pipe called a naguilé.
- Métros Saint-Maur, Menilmontant, Parmentier, or Oberkampf
- La Bague de Kenza 104/106 rue Saint-Maur (it may soon be moving back next door), 011-33/1-43-14-93-15
- Le Chat Noir 76 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 011-33/1-48-06-98-22
- Sacophane 61 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 011-33/1-48-07-17-04
- Les Couleurs 117 rue Saint-Maur, 011-33/1-43-57-95-61
- La Perle du Sahara 69 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, no phone