Situated in the north of the city at the edge of bohemian Montmartre, Pigalle flourished as the city’s nightlife hotspot during the late 19th-century Belle Epoque; the “beautiful era” of supreme extravagance and joie de vivre lived out at places scandalized at the time for their “shameless indecency.” On a given night at the Moulin Rouge, Le Chat Noir, the Cabaret of the Incoherents or the Café of the Decadents, aristocrats rubbed shoulders with artists, courtesans, musicians, dancers and the whole gamut of outcasts. Pigalle became the capital of pleasure…in all its forms. The area’s narrow side streets began to fill with maisons closes (legal brothels).
Inevitably, the underbelly of Parisian society surfaced in the 1930s along with the 177 bordellos and over 2,000 prostitutes. Following the Liberation of Paris in 1944, American GIs flooded the city and infamously nicknamed it “Pig Alley”–a mispronunciation that was highly representational of what the area was becoming; a place of third-rate entertainment and easy fixes. By the 1970s, the area had gradually decayed into a gaudy red light district overpopulated with seedy sexy shops, peep shows and time-worn prostitutes–that is, until now. A recent wave of cool cocktail bars, boutique hotels and revived historic cabarets has given fresh life to this dilapidated district.
“Ten years ago Pigalle was nothing like the hip nightlife destination that it is today,” said Forest Collins, Paris’ leading bar and cocktail expert behind the 52 Martinis. “And that’s largely due to forerunner bars like Glass and Dirty Dick who opened the door for many more trendy bars, boutiques and restaurants.”
Bartending in Paris since 1998, American Scott Schuder instantly knew he’d found the right place for his own bar when he arrived in 2012 in front of the wooden facade of a dingy hostess bar on Avenue Frochet, a street descending from Place Pigalle and entirely lined with ill-frequented girlie bars. One of those dives was already acquired by his friends at the hip Marais cocktail bar Candelaria, soon to become the sopsticated haunt, Glass.
Schuder fulfilled his dream of a modern-day Tiki bar and kept the location’s original name, Dirty Dick. First opened in 1934, the previous Dirty Dick was owned the Corsican Mafia who, by then, controlled much of the area. During the renovations Scott discovered a huge false ceiling in the storage room which was most likely used for stowing drugs or even people during WWII as the Corsicans were involved in the French resistance. Little remains of its former self, though its Hawaiian shirt-clad bartenders, 1950s pinup girl sunset mural and colorful rum punches to share were instrumental in reinvigorating the area’s sex appeal.
Maison Souquet–the private mansion was home to a stylish brothel from 1905 to 1907– was once managed by a Madame by the same name. It then served as a regular hotel until it was transformed into a five-star boutique hotel in 2015. Star interior designer Jacques Garcia (Hôtel Costes, La Réserve) has exquisitely recreated a Belle Epoque “temple to hedonism,” using a collection of decorative objects exclusively from the era. The hotel features 20 rooms, including six suites, but its opulent bar and secret garden courtyard are open to outside guests for a seductive drink.
A similar refurbishment has occurred at Madame Arthur, the city’s first drag cabaret dating back to 1946. It was purchased and restored in 2015 by its next door neighbor, the Divan du Monde, previously known as the Divan Japonais, it was one of the top concert hall-cabarets of 1860s and the birthplace of the strip tease. Today, Madame Arthur is the closest show in the spirit of the golden age of Parisian cabarets. Although, in true modern form, the cancan dancers have been replaced with glittery bearded queens, kilt-wearing accordion players and a one-armed Venus de Milo. The talented troupe wows a bustling crowd with their sassy takes on French classics twice nightly Wednesday to Saturday at 9pm and 11 pm.
Few of the other new bars that have replaced the street’s hostess bars pay homage to their debaucherous past, save Lipstick where you can swing around a stripper’s pool as you sip craft cocktails or recline in plush bordel-esque loveseats. As did another hostess bar turned cultural hub–Lulu White Drinking Club. Opened in 2014 by the team of Little Red Door, also over in the Marais, this new sumptuous Art Deco bar took its name from Lulu White, a 1930s New Orleans brothel madam and procuress. “Setting up in Pigalle was a natural choice,” explained Anna Renaud, Communications Manager of Lulu White. “Not only because of its increasing return to popularity, Lulu also had connections with the underground kingpins of Pigalle.” Where Dirty Dick almost totally transformed its decor, this bar evokes the atmosphere of an early 20th century bordello with intimate booths, a marble and polished mahogany bar illuminated with glitzy lightly and adorned with a vintage absinthe fountain, though if you look up, you can see a “souvenir” of the venue’s former raison d’etre–a mirrored ceiling.
Back near Avenue Frochet, a different makeover was carried out on another former cabaret, Chez Moune, a lesbian ladies-only club opened in 1936. It was reopened in 2008 by Parisian nightlife kings Lionel Bensemoun and André Saravia (Social Club, Le Baron), making it one of the earliest instigators of the neighborhood’s facelift. Its old sign still hangs above the door, guiding hipsters and fashionistas down to its rough yet chic basement dancefloor.
What about the most famous Parisian venue of nighttime delights? The Moulin Rouge is also getting in on the revival action with its Bar à Bulles. Located atop La Machine du Moulin Rouge, a huge club occupying what was once the cabaret’s garden, its director Stéphane Vatinel sought inspiration from Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film on the cabaret when rethinking the space. One thing that struck him was that the Moulin Rouge really used to be a local hangout, a characteristic which has completely vanished in what is today a Vegas-like venue. The bar, which opened two years ago and is reached via the dark alley next to the club, now features a rooftop bar behind the spinning red windmill, a quirky bar-restaurant with custom lamps and mix-and-match furniture and a verdant rooftop garden section reminiscent of the garden bar which once sprawled here. Much to Mr. Vatinel’s pleasure, these spaces are populated mainly by nighttime revelers from the neighborhood.
These repurposed sexy venues are only the tip of the district’s metamorphic iceberg, one which doesn’t seem to be melting anytime soon. This past summer saw the arrival of the latest installment of the trendy Big Mamma Italian restaurant chain, Pink Mamma, four floors of stunning design complete with a secret cocktail bar in the basement and November everyone was talking about the opening of the mammoth Bouillon Pigalle, a revival of the great Parisian brasserie with 300 seats, found right in Place Pigalle. Plus, a number of other nighttime hotspots are set to pop up in the area in the coming months.
Are all of these sleek new places sucking the soul from the district’s veins? Some might think so, but according to Forest Collins “replacing the girlie bars with cocktail bars, is making the area “useable” once agai—a real, lived in, visited and experienced neighborhood.” A feeling which is echoed over at the Dirty Dick by Schuder: “The more the merrier, as long as it’s quality.”