Low rents, hip bars and a cosmopolitan buzz are drawing the young and arty to the Oberkampf district. Forget the Left Bank, says Alicia Drake, the new spirit of Paris is here
They are calling it the new Saint- Germain. Yes, it's rare for Parisians to express enthusiasm, but mention the area of Oberkampf, to the east of the city, right now and they positively gush. "It's the perfect neighbourhood," raves Oberkampf resident and fashion PR Jean-Claude Chiroutte. "It's the essence of everything that is great about Paris. It has spirit and authenticity. There are people writing in the bistros, artists hanging paintings on the street. It's got soul."

Imagine Notting Hill five years ago, remove the trust funds, halve the rents and you're approaching Oberkampf. A working-class, cosmopolitan part of town which is still a little rough round the edges, it has been rising in the hip stakes over the past two years due to an influx of young photographers, musicians, artists and fashion people.

They are attracted to the area by the cheap rents, a fairly central location and because, unlike many of the bourgeois ghetto areas of Paris, in Oberkampf you will find all ages, all classes and all races - North Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Indian, French and Turkish - living side by side. As Chiroutte puts it: "I moved from the 7th arrondissement, which was a walking cemetery, to here, where the streets are in technicolour."

It's not the first time that the Paris artistes have believed they have found the promised Paris neighbourhood. In the Sixties it was Saint Germain, in the Eighties Les Halles and in the early Nineties the Marais and Bastille. "The Paris intellectuals and artists are constantly on the move, migrating to those areas that are still untouched, unrestored and not too clean," explains fashion historian Xavier Chaumette. "Now that the Marais and the Bastille have become touristy and suburban, they have moved up the road to Oberkampf. They spend their days and nights hanging out in the new restaurants, bistros, cafes and bars which have sprung up in the past 18 months along and just off the main street, rue Oberkampf, which runs up to Menilmontant. Quirky and with a fin de recession buzz, these places have got character, charm and serve seriously cheap alcohol.

"They say it's a fashion phenomenon, but it's more than that," says Brazilian Rosana Mazzer, owner of one of the funky new restaurants, Favela Chic (131 rue Oberkampf). "It's the chemistry of this place that makes things happen. Compared with the rest of Paris, it's a world apart."

Decorated with stuffed cockerels and crucifixes and with a wild, party atmosphere, Favela Chic has fast become the local neighbourhood restaurant. During the day, Rosana's mother-in-law, Madame Pigeon, serves traditional, French, home-cooking. At night, Rosana breaks out wicked cocktails of Caipirinha and Mojito, turns up the music volume and they hand out plates of steaming Brazilian food, such as white fish cooked in garlic with roast bananas and sweet potatoes.

Just down the road and another pulse-point of Oberkampf life is the Cafe Charbon (109 rue Oberkampf), a divine turn-of-the-century cafe which reopened under new ownership in October 1995. The scene at night is funky and downtown, with DJ and wall- to-wall APC jeans and features the kind of serious cruising only the French can get away with. Directly opposite is a groovy little bar, the Mercerie, and a couple of doors up Le Cithea (114 rue Oberkampf), which is a smoky bar/club dive with live music followed by DJs. It's open until late (5am), so the Oberkampf crew move in after the Charbon shuts down at 2am. "It's a bit like New York's East Village here," explains fashion stylist Laurent Folchier, "It's about music, ethnic mix and street fashion."

Around the corner is La Ville de Jagannath (101 rue Saint-Maur), a vegetarian Indian restaurant serving authentic Temple cuisine. Run by John Armstrong, a former model, and Sophie Ong, a former model booker, the place has a spiritual souk feel with garlands of jasmine, fragrant food and diners lounging on low-slung couches.

John steams his carrots in mineral water, knows the yoga of herbs and is inspired by the philosophy of Hari Krishna, although as he puts it: "We're not selling books at the table." The clientele is fashion, with photographer Mario Testino, designers Koji Tatsuno,

Jean Colonna and John's male-model friends. The restaurant operates a "no-stimulants" policy, which means no coffee, no tea and bring your own alcohol. They did try a no-smoking rule, but those freedom-fighting French took it as an attack on their personal liberty - so they've had to decide to let in nicotine.

The area is in that heady period of raw growth and there are new bars opening up every week, among them Les Couleurs (117 rue Saint-Maur) and Le Robinet (121 Boulevard Menilmontant). At the moment it is still all about rash and inventive energy with, as Jean-Paul Chiroutte describes, "people spending their last bit of cash on three mis-matching chairs and a table, then opening up a bar."

But already there are signs of cash-flow arriving. The area's first contemporary art gallery will open in September and there are complaints that the banlieusards (boys from the suburbs) are invading the Cafe Charbon on Friday nights. "Still, at least for the next five or so years," insists Chiroutte, "Oberkampf spells total happiness."

Reach Oberkampf by Metro to Oberkampf. Alicia Drake is the author of A Shopper's Guide To Paris Fashion (Metro pounds 9.99).