The 11th arrondissement of Paris was the site of Bastille prison, making it significant in the French Revolution. For a long time, it seemed that period would be its only time in the sun. Sure, the innumerable present-day protests start at the Place de la République on the other end of the sprawling onzième, but what else is there to draw you to the area? Truth be told, there wasn't much for visitors.
Now, though, some of the most inventive addresses in Paris - restaurants, galleries, shops - are opening on these streets, leading some to call the 11th "the new Left Bank."
But there's nothing pretentious about onzième. With its edgy creativity, it feels more like Berlin than Paris. You have to search out these new hot spots popping up in this unassuming area, a pocket that tourists who stick to the familiar loop around the city centre have probably never seen.
THANKS: THE CONCEPT
Outside number 111 blvd. Beaumarchais, a Fiat 500 is parked in the middle of a courtyard. This is home to Merci, the concept store that has become the only real rival of the originator of the species, Colette, on the posh rue Saint-Honoré. The Fiat gives you a hint as to what the owners are showcasing: When I was there, it was covered in a Liberty print, and all the staff were wearing Liberty print aprons. (The little flower prints, in the form of clothing, houseware and fabric, were being showcased in a corner of the giant retail space.) Part of the store's charm is its architecture - it looks to be an old atelier with glass roof atrium, and a loft style set-up with a central staircase, loosely divided into departments: To the right is a used-book store/café, with a fabulous selection of literature in several languages and artfully torn sofas to perch on. To the left there's a children's section with brightly coloured cribs and too-cute kids' clothes (the store was founded by the owners of Bonpoint, the favourite line of baby clothes for the Saint-Germain-des-Prés set). You'll also find a furniture space with Vitra pieces and flea-market finds, Annick Goutal perfumery, beautiful coloured paper in the stationery corner, women's wear with cool labels (such as K. Jacques St. Tropez sandals, Isabel Marant and Paul Smith) and vintage clothing, many donated by French actresses, singers and models. Why? The store gives a hunk of its profits to charity; specifically a children's relief fund in Madagascar. 111 blvd. Beaumarchais; 33 (0) 1 4277 0033; www.merci-merci.com.
Lieu Commun was conceived by Matali Crasset - a former Philippe Starck protégé and current Paris design-world darling known for her monk-style haircut and aggressively playful, multipurpose furniture. You won't find a potpourri of cool items, but a thoughtful, in-depth selection of just a few design names (clothing and product) so you can truly get to know their work and hopefully see only a few degrees of separation between one designer and another in the store. Labels includes Finnish designer Klaus Haapaniemi, Dutch design collective Droog, and ethical Peruvian fashion label Misericordia, as well as some of Crasset's modular furniture. 5 rue des Filles du Calvaire; 33 (0) 1 44 54 08 30; www.lieucommun.fr.
You have to wander (or take the metro a few stops to Faidherbe-Chaligny) into the serious nether regions of the 11th to get to rue Paul Bert, as unassuming a street as they come, but which nevertheless was named the best food street in Paris by the influential group le Fooding. What's all the fuss? Le Bistrot Paul Bert, three of four other top-notch restaurants on the street, a great food bookstore and wine shop that offers tastings on Friday afternoons. Le Bistrot Paul Bert is a true bistro experience: mirrored walls, yellow smoked-stained ceilings, tiled floor, vintage French ads and the specialties du jour written on a roving chalkboard. The American culinary press lauded "the rue de la gastronomie" and, sure as Chardonnay, Gourmet magazine wielding tourists are now filling the tables, to the often amusing exasperation of the staff. Paul Bert has not quite become a victim of its success (the food is still good, the prices reasonable), but the key to enjoying it is to go at lunch. Not only is it less touristy, but there is an incredible lunch value menu (3 courses for $22). And the staff are more jovial and chatty at that hour. 18 rue Paul Bert; 33 (0) 1 43 72 24 01.
There are great bookstores all around the 11th, but in the spirit of rue Paul Bert, La Cocotte is a food-focused bookstore with recipe books and beautifully illustrated culinary travel books. 5 rue Paul Bert; 33 (0) 9 54 73 17 77, editorial.lacocotte.net
The young, enthusiastic sommelier Mikael Lemasle's Crus et Découvertes is also definitely worth a stop if you want to pick up a bottle or two. He also has wine tastings, usually on Friday afternoons. Call ahead to confirm as he closes for part of the afternoon (usually from 2 to 4 p.m.). 7 rue Paul Bert; 33 (0)1 43 71 56 79.
Pack your bags
Among the creaky, slanting-floor two-star hotels in the neighbourhood, there are a couple of weirdly themed but beautifully decorated new places to stay.
Hotel Gabriel 25 rue du Grand-Prieuré; 33 (0) 1 4700 1338; www.gabrielparismarais.com. Hotel Gabriel claims to be the world's first detox hotel - here detox means a crisply chic all-white decor and light-emitting wallpaper.
BLC Design Hotel 4, rue Richard Lenoir; 33 (0) 1 4009 6016; www.blcdesign-hotel-paris.com. Located next to the Palais de la Femmes, a refuge for women in distress, the theme here is "women." The all-white decor is punctuated with wall-sized images of a different woman on the streets of Paris on each floor with close up details (an eye, for example) in each room.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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