I spent much of my life learning French. From eighth grade through college, I devoured French language, literature and conversation classes. And when I finally had the good fortune to visit France for the first time after my high school graduation, I devoured French food and beverages. And while cocktails were about the furthest thing from my mind, I did enjoy my share of Schweppes et Pamplemousse (grapefruit juice and tonic water, to this day one of my favorites) and biere panaché (also known as a Shandy, another favorite).
But by the time I had developed a budding interest in cocktails, my dreams of enjoying Sidecars, Bloody Marys and Mimosas in the city that supposedly created them were dashed by the reality of tourist-trap bartending: manufactured and bottled juices and mixes, sloppy technique, and overpriced pale imitations of the classics. I was convinced that Paris’ time as a drinking destination had come and gone.
Cocktails were never really a French thing, anyway. Most of those well regarded Parisian cocktails were a result of American Prohibition, as the great barmen fled the States to ply their trade overseas. But I could see changes for the better were happening when I visited in 2009. Suddenly there was a small handful of dedicated bars watching what was happening around the world and determined to embrace the cocktail renaissance. That first wave of craft-obsessed cocktail bars like Experimental Cocktail Club and Curio Parlour, and even older bars like Le Forum and Buda Bar were putting out cocktails the likes of which I had never had the pleasure of experiencing in the city before. It wasn’t huge, but the seeds had been sown.
I didn’t get to visit Paris much over the next five years, until last October when I brought my girlfriend to eat and drink with her for a week in the city I fell in love with so many years ago. While I was away a Renaissance in French food continued to blossom, as a young generation of chefs ditched some of the fustiness and tradition of French cuisine and actually looked outside of the country for inspiration. Simplicity, modern design, heirloom ingredients and farm-driven dishes found their way into restaurants. And, as has happened in other thriving food scenes, that set of sensibilities eventually ventured into the bars. Unlike a decade ago, many cocktail programs are thriving in Paris, especially around neighborhoods like South Pigalle and Le Marais. Here is a short list of the places that are spearheading a new sort of French Revolution in the beverage world.
LE MARY CELESTE
Part cocktail bar, part oyster bar, Le Mary Celeste—with its loud music, tall windows that gaze upon a busy side street and an attentive staff—is that annoyingly wonderful neighborhood spot you love so much that it becomes impossible to get into once it’s discovered as a destination.
A proper Tiki bar can be a tricky thing to pull off. While kitsch is inherent in the theme, it can be overdone, or, tragically, underdone. But to hit that sort of balance in a city like Paris? Nearly impossible. Somehow these wizards manage to balance the feeling of the bar as well as they balance their cocktails.
We originally planned only to stop in at their front-end business, a tiny shop serving some of the best tacos on the continent and perfect blended Margaritas. But once we were lulled into the bar, a barely hidden spot nestled in the back, I found a cocktail bar that rivals anything I’ve ever been to. With a brilliant agave spirit selection (of course), we eventually lost track of which city we’d be stepping out into once we left.
PAS DE LOUP
Pas de Loup is that little gem you almost don’t want to tell everyone about, yet you’d feel too ashamed if you were somehow responsible for every visitor to Paris not getting to experience the place. It’s hard to make a real distinction between the world-class cocktails, the understated and perfectly executed food, the warm and friendly service (another new trend in Parisian drinking and dining) and the deep yet playful wine list, because everything comes together in the symphony only a flawless restaurant can do. During our short stay, we returned three times.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.
MORE UNDERRATED DRINKING CITIES, ACCORDING TO BARTENDERS