hot new heart of paris

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Here, the local baker knows all his customers by name.''

It is this element of le vieux Paris that appealed to 32-year-old Olivier when he was looking for a place to open a bar six months ago. Enamoured of Menilmontant's "decrepit charm" he bought up an old cafe-tabac on the rue Oberkampf and transformed it into Le Cafe Charbon, one of the most happening places on the new Paris scene.

At first glance Le Charbon, with its huge gilt-framed mirrors, maroon leather banquettes and turn-of-the-century lamps, appears to be the very antithesis of the modern cafe, but the languorous background rap of MC Solaar and the thronging crowd of assorted trendies confirm that it is just what the Nineties night-life crowd is looking for.

"In an age where techno music and Internet cafes are supposedly all the rage a lot of people thought I was mad to open a bar that looks like it's straight out of the Edith Piaf era," admits Olivier. "But decor isn't important; it is the spirit of the place. I wanted to get away from that awful over-sophistication that has been taking over Paris night-life. You know the kind of bar a la designer Philippe Starck where you're harassed by snooty waiters because you can't choose between the 25 different wines on offer. I wanted to create an old-fashioned sense of conviviality where people can just hang out and talk to one another.''

Olivier's attempt to reinvent French cafe tradition for the Nineties is a stark contrast to the other version of the modern cafe that has been springing up in Paris lately. Self-styled cafes-philo, such as the Cafe des Phares in Bastille, have tried to recreate the ambience of the old Left Bank hangouts, promising customers stimulating intellectual debates on soul-searching subjects such as "What is a true Frenchman?".

Far from creating the spontaneity of the old Latin quarter, however, the cafes-philo succeed only in resurrecting the stilted and stultifying atmosphere of a sixth-form debating society. Can you imagine the proprietor of Les Deux Magots, the old Left Bank corner cafe, getting on the phone to beg Sartre and De Beauvoir to come and start a philosophical debate.

"Philosophy," scoffs Niko, a 28-year-old musician who is a regular at the Charbon, "I don't think young people today want to sit around and talk about the meaning of life. They want to get on and live it.

"Anyway, when my parents talk about the Left Bank they never mention Sartre and all that crowd; they convey the excitement of the old jazz bars, the art-house cinemas, they talk about it as a place where people discussed creative ideas. Well, you've got music venues here, artists' open days, and lots of young creative people hanging out here so I guess this place is closer in spirit to the old Left Bank than any so-called cafe-philo.''

An English circus-performer, Caroline Proller, has just finished her stilt-walking act at Le Garage, a new venue in the area. She is in her element: "Paris has always been so stuffy," she says, "when I first came over here seven years ago the cafes were really boring. You just sat at your table, paid a fortune for a beer and spent all evening staring into space. You'd never have dreamt of doing stilts in Bastille or the Marais. In this area, anything goes. Last night I saw a transvestite comedian who finishes off the evening with a strip-tease - I never thought I'd see that in this city.''

Transvestites and Fellini-esque stilt-walkers might not correspond to the chic image of Paris that the tourist board is keen to promote, but a night out on the run-down slopes of Menilmontant is far more conducive to a good time than sipping kirs with a bunch of Albert Camus wannabes.

PLACES

Le Cafe Charbon: 109, rue Oberkampf

Favela Chic, Brazilian restaurant: 131, rue Oberkampf

Le Cafe Cannibale: 93, rue Jean Pierre Timbaud

La Fleche d'Or, a disused station converted into a bar and music venue: 102 bis, rue de Bagnolet

Le Garage, music venue: 3, Impasse Mont Louis

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