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Are Parisian Bistros Finished or Just Getting Started?

Ten years ago, French chefs reimagined the bistro. Now, they’re doing it again — in unexpected ways

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A short walk from the Louvre, Chez la Vieille guards the corner of Rues Bailleul and l'Arbre Sec, as it has for 56 years. Flowing cursive spells out "Adrienne" along the top of the façade, a reference to its original proprietress, a Corsican woman named Adrienne Biasin, who opened the workaday bistro in 1958 to feed the staff of the nearby Les Halles market. A "sold" sign hangs in the barred windows, and the door is locked.

In Paris, 58 years doesn't exactly qualify a restaurant as a village elder. But there's gravity in Adrienne's closing. And not only its closing, but its upcoming revival at the hands of American restaurateur Stephen Starr, whose deep portfolio of restaurants includes bustling faux-bistros in Philadelphia (Parc), DC (Le Diplomate), and Miami (Le Zoo). Cue the mourners, the angry mobs, and the locals chafing at the greedy appropriation of their culture. Hand-wringers worried, as they have forever: Would this be the latest nail in the coffin of the bistro, Paris's great institution?

Starr's partner for the project is Daniel Rose, the chef/owner of the Paris game-changer Spring. And to understand why Rose's involvement is an appropriate example of what's going on in Paris now, you have to understand what was going on in Paris a decade ago. When Rose opened Spring in 2005, the restaurant became the poster child of a burgeoning culinary movement, bistronomie. Restaurants that followed this new style were dubbed neo-bistros, "places that take the format of the local, small, corner restaurant and instead of making traditional French food, make food that's a little more modern and personal," Rose explains.

Would this be the latest nail in the coffin of the bistro, Paris’s great institution?

"I had been cooking six, seven years in France, but in French that's like three months, like dog years," Rose says. "The reaction from the French was very suspicious, like, 'Oh my God, don't do that, it's not possible, you'll never make money, you're only 29.' In the States, 29 is like, 'Why haven't you opened a restaurant yet?'"

The original Spring —€” it moved to its current location, down the street from Chez la Vieille Adrienne, in 2010 —€” had 16 seats and menu that changed constantly. Reservations were impossible. "Nobody answered the phone, and when someone did answer it was me, trying to do something with my right hand and scratching down a phone number with my left," Rose says.

Rose did whatever he wanted, opening and closing on a whim within the first year. "I ran to Japan for seven weeks and put a sign on the door that said, 'See you in April.' But people liked that authenticity, and it created a following." And the bistro, that sacred institution, was on notice.

Chef Yves Camdeborde, in front of Le Comptoir, in 2005. Photo: Joe Ray/AFP/Getty Images

Rose is probably Paris's best-known bistronomie practitioner, but according to Sébastien Demorand, the journalist who coined the term a year before Spring's opening, the movement's origins go back even further than his invention of the word that would define the genre.

In 1992, right after the first Gulf War, Demorand remembers, "All the restaurants and customers were broke. Nobody wanted to go out and spend money anymore." Someone needed to do something to reinvigorate the public. Enter Yves Camdeborde, a sous chef at the posh Hôtel de Crillon who quit to open his own restaurant, La Régalade, in the 14th arrondissement with his wife, Claudine. He jettisoned the expected trappings of fine dining because "he couldn't afford all that; sometimes he chose blood sausage instead of lobster," Demorand says. "He was classically trained but the food was so much more lively. [The restaurant] was affordable and it was packed."

These tenets would come to define the bubbling revolution: Inexpensive. Casual. Friendly. Personal. And perhaps most importantly, the chef's willingness to turn a back on France's deep-rooted arbiters of taste and accept that a Michelin star was not in the future. At the time, it was a really brave thing to do. "Yves had so much influence, and his friends started opening places like [Régalade], laid-back spots with great wines and affordable menus of great food," Demorand says.

"Chefs were like, ‘Fuck you, Michelin. The music is loud, the place is crowded, we’re alive, and this is what we do now.’"

In 2004, Camdeborde sold Régalade to his second-in-command, Bruno Doucet, and in 2005 (around the same time Rose debuted Spring), he opened Le Comptoir, a neo-bistro that remains one of Paris's toughest reservations. Other chefs helped usher in the second wave, namely Iñaki Aizpitarte, who in 2006 opened Le Chateaubriand in Paris's then-nascent 11th arrondissement. Over the next several years others would follow: Gregory Marchand (Frenchie, 2009), Charles Compagnon (L'Office, 2011), Bertrand Grébaut (Septime, 2012).

"The press didn't know what to make of these guys," explains Lindsey Tramuta, author of the upcoming book The New Paris (Abrams). "Before, if there wasn't a set road map, then something was wrong. They made the model for do-whatever-you-want-to-do an acceptable thing. [The restaurants] may have been inconsistent, but they were always an experience."

According to Tramuta, an eight-year resident of the 11th arrondissement, the neo-bistro movement has transformed her neighborhood into "the epicenter of really interesting changes in dining." Le Chateaubriand spawned tapas spot Le Dauphin a few doors down. Septime spun off Le Cave, the wine bar moon to Septime's planet, and Clamato, where smoked eel slides up to lentils and vivid ceviches gather in Falcon Ware bowls. Camdeborde has expanded, too, with L'Avant Comptoir (meaty small plates) in 2009 and L'Avant Comptoir de la Mer (fishy small plates) this January. To Demorand, he is the bistronomie's undisputed godfather.

"Yves helped that generation take the power," Demorand says. "They saw that if he could do it, they could do it. When Yves finally understood he would never get a star, even though his food was worth it, guys were like, 'Fuck you, Michelin. The music is loud, the place is crowded, we're alive, and this is what we do now.'"

Merlu with curry butter, a dish served at Le Servan. Photo: Adam Erace

After a solid decade to mature, what does a neo-bistro look like in 2016? "A good example," says Rose, "is Le Servan."

The restaurant sits on a nondescript corner, boasting big windows on both sides. Crackled pillars support ceilings layered with ornate crown moldings. On either end, a globe light drops from a shimmering mother-of-pearl coffer like an incandescent cherry. There are only 38 seats, and by the entrance, an electric fuchsia orchid nodded to each new arrival, many of whom the apologetic staff turned away. Others, regulars presumably, popped by for a quick chat and glass of Pet-Nat. One gentleman brought a bouquet of flowers. Another came with a tottering bulldog, who promptly flopped onto the mosaic tile floor by his owner's tangerine Nikes.

Katia and Tatiana Levha are the sisters and first-time restaurateurs behind Le Servan. Katia runs the front of the house, managing a small team of servers sporting navy aprons over acid-wash joggers and black 501s. Tatiana, who spent two years working under Alain Passard at Paris's vegetable temple, L'Arpège, runs the back of the house, a snug open kitchen overlooking the bronze-clad bar and effervescent dining room.

There are a couple things that make Le Servan exceptional. First, it's run by two women in a country whose culinary hierarchy is historically and currently dictated by men. "The industry, but not only at the upper end, is heavily dominated by men," says Tatiana, with the optimistic footnote: "It's changing; cooking schools are filled with young girls who want to cook." (Still, of the 17 featured chefs at February's Taste of Paris festival, only one was female. Women were also underrepresented among the chefs, spirits professionals, and artisans the 11th-annual Omnivore festival that took place in March: one woman for every eight men.) Two, the cooking puts a Southeast Asian imprint on French preparations, with the élan of nowhere else in Paris. A founding principle of the neo-bistro movement, the food at Le Servan is extremely personal. The Levhas' father is French and mother is Filipina, and the sisters grew up between France, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

"It was about doing something that resembled us and reflected what we loved and what we knew and thought [was] good," Tatiana said in 2014, when she was invited to speak at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen only four months after Le Servan opened. "You feel like you're showing yourself to everyone, showing the most intimate things about yourself."

At lunch, that cross-cultural perspective is on full display. Funky chile sauce warmed duck heart croquettes. Fraise de veau, the feathery calf intestine lining popular in Lyon, came shaved in tagliatelle-like ribbons and tossed with lemongrass, cilantro and mint. An aurora of curry butter glittered beneath a block of exquisite merlu. Tatiana wasn't sure people would get it, but "knowing traditional technique and French cooking was very reassuring," she said during her MAD speech. "If worst came to worst, I could always go back to doing a beurre blanc."

Chef Daniel Rose's La Bourse et La Vie, which debuted in September 2015. Photo: Courtesy La Bourse et La Vie

As neo-bistros have ascended, bistro-bistros have festered. That the traditional bistro is dying is somewhat of a false narrative: Go to any arrondissement in Paris and you'll find plenty. It's just that the food at many of them is not very good.

"We're not just talking about the tourist traps near the Eiffel Tower," says Tramuta. "At many of the bistros in Paris, there's a good chance the fries are frozen, the ingredients industrial, and whole dishes might be simply thrown in the microwave." For those that don't cut corners, the traditional braises and roasts that anchor their menus take more hours, manpower, and money to produce. "Labor costs are super high here, and some restaurateurs are faced with the dilemma of having to cut elsewhere," she says.

When neo-bistros began repopulating defunct cafes, cobbler shops, and épiceries around the city, Parisians could suddenly have a significantly better meal for not much more cash than at a "traditional" bistro. "It shifted people's expectations."

And expectations are shifting again. "I love the smoked mackerel with a strange radish from a local grower with something-I-learned-at-Noma, but how about a great steak and some amazing fucking French fries?" Demorand asks. "People want freedom from set menus, from 'Let me take you through this journey through the chef's mind.' We're fed up with that."

"People want freedom from set menus, from ‘Let me take you on a journey through the chef’s mind.’ We’re fed up with that."

This is one reason the pendulum is swinging back. Last year, esteemed Paris writer Alexander Lobrano wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "Traditional bistro cooking in Paris is making a sudden and rather unexpected comeback with the recent opening of some excellent new places where hard-working young chefs are proudly serving up classic bistro dishes again, often with a twist all their own."

Among them were Benoît Duval-Arnould at Le Bon Georges in the 9th arrondissement, Christophe Philippe at L'Amarante near the Bastille, Thierry Dufroux at Bistrot Belhara in the 7th, and Daniel Rose, who opened La Bourse et la Vie in September.

La Bourse et La Vie —€” like Chez Adrienne will when it reopens this summer —€” lives in the bones of an ancient bistro of the same name. The globe lights, brass-and-glass bar tower, and 1820s milk chocolate moldings wrapping the mirrored walls are holdovers of the previous resident, painstakingly restored by Rose's architects. At 28 seats, personal space is at a premium. Eating the pot au feu, one of the signature dishes, requires serious coordination; one wrong move and a diner would send the long-handled copper pot of veal, creamy root vegetables, and herb-strewn bouillon hurtling to the floor. Fortunately, that doesn't diminish the experience.

Rose echoes Demorand's ennui: "I wanted to return to a simple menu, to make things that I learned in cooking school —€” but making them delicious and exciting [by] using the best ingredients."

The compact menu is forthright and old-school (oyster gratin, duck a l'orange, chocolate mousse) but maintains an aura of luxury thanks to the fine ingredients, the precision with which they're cooked, and the gold-rimmed china that makes everything look elegant in an un-showy way. Lobrano distinguishes La Bourse from a traditional bistro with the tag "bistro de luxe," a bistro that specializes in the cuisine bourgeois, "more refined, delicate, and likely to make use of luxurious produce than its ruddier and more rustic gastronomic sibling," he wrote in a flattering fall review.

"The decor is very soigné, but I resist the bourgeois label," Rose says. "The steak frites is the same price as the steak frites at the original La Bourse et la Vie, which was a gross place."

This menu is designed for long-term stability. "I spent nine years changing the menu all the time at Spring," Rose says. "It was a really bulimic creative process. As soon as we made something I liked, I took it off. It was a mark of courage. At La Bourse et La Vie, the menu will be the same in 50 years. It's liberating."

For Rose, this might be personally rewarding, but it's also a shrewd business move. "I knew in some ways, this was going to be a new part of my career," he says, referencing his recent semi-relocation to New York as part of his two-pronged deal with Starr. (In addition to restoring and reopening Adrienne in Paris, the unlikely duo will debut Le Coucou, a 90-seater with ambitions of being a more energetic Lutèce or La Pavillon, at the new Howard Hotel downtown.) "The food at La Bourse et La Vie is not something Daniel Rose needs to cook; I might not be here, but that's okay," he says. "My goal was to create food that I didn't need to have my finger in."

"Parisians are just looking for familiar things as the world becomes crazier."

In this way, La Bourse et La Vie has a tinge of the major culinary trend informing our own country. Yes, the concept is more upscale, more expensive and less scalable than an $8 Fuku sandwich, $4 Minero taco, or $10 Dizengoff hummus, but the goal is the same: to create something anti-creative, something easily replicable by someone other than its creator.

There are many reasons for the resurgence of traditional bistro cooking in Paris: lack of quality options in the category, chefs burnt out from the endless pursuit of creativity, and the desire for something new —€” even if that something new happens to be something very old. But the need for comfort, the kind derived from homey food and the esprit de corps generated by eating it together in public, may be the trend's strong, silent motivator. In times of tragedy and strife, comfort food does what its name commands. To many in France, comfort food is beef bourguignon, cassoulet, and pot au feu.

In the aftermath of the November 2015 terrorist attacks, Parisians flocked to their neighborhood cafes and bistros, old-guard and neo-, seeking comfort, community, and routine. Their presence was a big fuck-you to those that would infringe upon their national pillars of liberté, égalìté, and fraternité.

It's why new old bistros will continue to flourish in Paris, why Chez Adrienne will play to a packed house when Rose and Starr debut its resurrection this summer. Tramuta encapsulates the sentiment: "The world has moved far from a traditional value system. Parisians are just looking for familiar things as the world becomes crazier." Aren't we all?

Adam Erace is a freelance food and travel writer and host of Great American Food Finds on Food Network. He lives in his hometown of Philadelphia with his wife and pair of zany Chihuahua mixes. He tweets and grams @adamerace.
Lead photo: Nicola Vigilanti/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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