The essential Paris: a swirl of art & architecture, music & fashion, street & feet, and of course, food & wine. The Italians might have taught themhow to cook, but the French perfected it. On four prior visits I bathed in luxury and fantasy: eating at the likes of Le Pre Catelan and Taillevent, playing the horses at Longchamp, shopping art galleries and food markets, visiting countless museums, boating the Seine and canals and walking the Marais, the Left Bank, and the many parks.
It wasn’t until my fifth trip that I discovered a different Paris, an area guidebooks and tourists ignore. I didn’t seek it out. My business was obliterated in the recession of 2008, crippling mycash flow, so we cheaped it out this trip, exchanging our apartment in Boston for one on the Boulevard de Rochechouart in Montmartre (18th arrondissement.) We stayed in a third floor apartment one block from Place Pigalle and the sex entertainment area, and ten blocks from the only vineyards in Paris. Up the hill with a great view of Paris sits Sacre-Coeur, surrounded by scores of street artists and souvenir peddlers, attracting hordes of tourists, few of whom visit other areas of Montmartre.
The Boulevard we faced was a 24-hour noise fest: motorcycles, horns, sirens, tour busses, drunks, partygoers, buskers, and more. The middle class, mostly white, artsy neighborhood behind us felt more local French than center city. More heels than sneakers. Few cameras. Menus and waiters with little English.
In my walks around the neighborhood, a densely populated area filled with 19th century apartment buildings, I was impressed with the number of food establishments and set about to map them. I printed out Google maps and walked every block within 15 minutes of our apartment, forming a semicircle which ended at the boulevard.
I counted 118 restaurants: cafes, brasseries, mom & pops, Italian, Asian, and other ethnic, no McDonald’s, no place that would attract Michelin attention, and only a couple that were reviewed in Zagat’s guide – and 42 other food and wine shops including boulangeries, boucheries, charcuteries, chocolateries, creameries, creperies, fromageries, patisseries, poissonneries, rotisseries, and any other –eries you can think of. Only the French!
We could have eaten out two meals a day and have gone four months without repeating a restaurant, but we only had 18 days. Nonetheless, the two of us ate 60 meals at about 25 different restaurants (including takeout.) The food was affordable (3-course meal, 29 to 39 Euros,) predictable, and usually delicious. Beef bourguignon, steak frites, coq au vin, fish-of-the-moment, cold salad with hot fried potatoes …
In my experience, French restaurant service had almost always soared to the sublime. That belief crashed to the sidewalk in Montmartre. In one half-full café, we waited 15 minutes to get a menu, 15 to order, 25 to get our food and, after asking twice, 20 minutes to get l’addition.
A memory from Taillevent provides contrast. At the end of a luxurious lunch, I spotted a couple of cigars being torched on the other side of the room, so I asked our waiter and he brought over a selection which included Cubans unavailable in the States. He cut and lit, I puffed, and my sweetheart waved away the smoke. Within seconds he disappeared into the kitchen and hurried back with two portable fans, setting them in front of her, blowing in my direction.
Maybe Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises was right. In Paris, it’s about money. In other words, you pay for it, you get it. Otherwise fuhgettaboutit. Lunch at Taillevent cost us 300 dollars. Ah, the good old days.
As I was exploring further east, still north of our boulevard, I crossed the “Mediterranean Sea” (Boulevard Barbes) into North Africa. I was warned by two French women not to go there because “they” snatch backpacks, reach into pockets to take money, and lord knows what else. I saw few “white” faces.
The poverty showed: buildings in need of repair, closed shops, chipping paint, empty restaurants, laundry hanging out windows, and most notably, hundreds of men and some women just hanging around in midday, some holding out empty cups. The smell of cooking oil, body odor, and despair filled the air.
Many women wore colorful African-style dresses, others including men wore traditional Muslim garments. A number of shops catered to their needs with ready-to-wear clothing, but they were outnumbered by small shops with piles of fabrics and two or three women working at sewing machines.
I continued my survey, mapping food establishments throughout Barbes, an area approximately the size of the one I’d done in the more prosperous western Montmartre.
By the numbers Montmartre Barbes
Restaurants 118 35
Specialty Food 17 19
General Food Market 13 23
Alcohol (Bars. Shops) 12 11
The numbers tell only part of the story. Restaurants in Barbes are smaller, cheaper, and less busy. None looked particularly inviting, though I didn’t eat in any of them so I can’t comment on the food. Halal boucheries sell cheaper goat and stewing meats, not the beef and lamb sold in Montmartre. Patisseries bake bread but few fancy pastries. Live chickens and other poultry is sold out of a storefront whose entire floor is covered with clucking and fluttering birds. The larger number of food stores, many of which sell bulk tins of oil and bags of rice, indicate more home cooking in this sector as well as Mediterranean and North African cuisine.
Stores sell Islamic religious items, books, carpets, hookahs, and other products from North Africa. On my walking tour I passed two small art galleries, a Catholic church, and three mosques. The only hotels were small and no-star. Off the Boulevard, traffic was light. Public transportation surrounds but doesn’t transect the area. Boulevard Barbes is lined with stores: second hand, phone, deep discount clothing, shoes (5 Euros.) Swarms of hustlers with arms full of watches, sunglasses, handbags, cigarettes… Roasted corn sold from the top of a shopping cart. A woman peddler sitting on the sidewalk, straddling a basket of cassava. People struggling to stay alive.
A few blocks away I witnessed five women rummaging through a dumpster, grabbing food and other items discarded by nearby stores. One woman wore a mask. Two women tussled briefly over a package of crumpled pastries. After that, as I walked the neighborhood, I noticed other dumpsters with trash ringing them, a telltale sign that they’d been picked through.
Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements. Their boundaries are political, lines on a map. As one travels south from the 18th through the 9th and into the 1st and 2nd the change is gradual. The buildings become more monumental, the shops more expensive, and tourists begin to outnumber locals. It’s the tour guide Paris of romance. Of memory.
But some boundaries, such as the one defined by Boulevard Barbes, are chasms – an economic precipice. A dark divide.
Written by Gustaf Berger -- Pictures by Amika