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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.

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.

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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.

"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.

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.

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.'"

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Photo by Adam Erace.


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