Most people come to Paris with the clear intention of hanging out in at least one café, sipping espresso and reading a serious book, people watching and munching on croque monsieur’s. But there’s another side to Parisian life, found in the bar scene. Like any respectable city, Paris has bars to suit all tastes, from classic hotel lounge bars to the multi-function internet bars, seedy beer joints to trendy fashion bars.
What is a French Bar?
This may seem like a strange question, and yet it’s very hard to find French bars that resemble their Anglophone (from English-speaking cultures) counterparts. This is because it’s rare for the French to drink without tying it in to another activity, like eating or live entertainment. Most French bars are located inside bistros, brasseries, cafés, restaurants, clubs, theatres, etc., and are therefore not really ‘just a bar’. The closest thing to a traditional French corner bar is the little, nondescript bar/café, full of old French men from the neighborhood. They’re usually smoking Gitanes and drinking Pastis or a half (pint) of lager around a zinc bar. And there’s usually one Turkish toilet in the back. These places are generally not filled with women, tourists, or even anyone from outside the neighborhood. And they are disappearing fast. If your French is good and you’re willing to put in an effort despite the probability of being snubbed, then this is your place. You’ll find them all over the place, usually named after the street they’re on, often looking like they’re closed.
If you’re looking for a bit of ambiance, the influence of the younger generations and foreign cultures has resulted in an unbelievable number of new bars, each trying to be the latest thing and attract the hippest crowds. Here are just a few types of Parisian bars to give you an idea of what’s available. They are all places I’ve frequented to some extent, so it’s not exactly an unbiased report, but I don’t want to recommend anywhere I haven’t been. I’m sure every expat has their own list completely different from mine.
Relaxed Bars When I just want to go somewhere without worrying about how I’m dressed, where the bar staff are friendly, and where I can have a quiet drink with friends or with a book, I want a casual, low-stress bar. L’Imprevu (8, rue Quincampoix, next to the Pompidou Center) has been a favorite of mine ever since it opened back in 1996. The décor is eclectic, with flea market finds arranged in tiny nooks. The Morroccan Room in the back is the best place to go if you’re looking for a dark, romantic corner. The staff may resemble refugees from the Gai Marais, but the clientele are mostly artsy characters and students. You can chat with people at the bar or bury your head in a newspaper here for five hours. No food, just clever cocktails and the best espresso I’ve ever had in Paris.
Another favorite relaxed bar is Harry’s New York Bar (5, rue Daunou, next to the Place Vendome). Harry’s is known worldwide as the birthplace of the Bloody Mary, the Sidecar, and the Blue Lagoon Cocktail among others. And since I’ve never liked Bloody Mary’s anywhere but here (very spicy, not too strong on the vodka, no celery or other frilly adornments — and NOT from a mix!), the 60ff seems to be a fair enough price. The interior, including the ceiling, is completely covered in a dark carved wood paneling supposedly brought all of the way from Cuba. With the large roomy leather booths and old US college pennants and memorabilia, it’s a warm and cozy place to spend a cold and rainy evening. It gets busy when the theatre shows and opera finish, but in the late afternoons it can be a very quiet place. My favorite bartender is Guy. He’s been there for 38 years, and yes, he’s French, but he’s also the friendliest barman in town. He’s equally welcoming and charming to the backpackers with their maps of Paris as he is with the French regulars from the neighborhood, handing out free postcards and helping everyone order a drink (there’s no menu). There’s also daily papers in English, if you’re feeling anti-social.
A Night on the Town à Deux
Whether it’s a special night out with a good friend or a romantic date with someone special, you can’t miss with these bars. Hemingway drank his fill in many Parisian bars, but none are so classy as the one that bears his name. The Hemingway Bar is at the back of the Ritz on Place Vendome. Dress well and stroll in, past the formal bar in the front lounge, through the gallery of posh boutiques, and into the intimate and elegant bar decorated with Hemingway memorabilia, old books and a working Phonograph. The champagne cocktails (about 110ff) are the best if you’re on a date, because they come decorated with a sprig of berries and a full-sized rose or exotic flower, depending on the season. Again, great staff, not snobby at all, they can mix you up whatever you like, even if it’s not on the menu. In such a tiny bar, it’s best not to gawk too much at the familiar famous faces.
Two other favorite bars similar in style are Sir Winston’s (on rue de Presbourg, near the Arc de Triomphe) and the China Club (rue de Charenton, behind the Opera Bastille). Sir Winston’s old English look is quite popular for live jazz brunches, but avoid meal times and you’ll find plenty of animal-print covered booths to snuggle into downstairs. At the China Club, pass up the bar and restaurant and head upstairs to the Fumoir, where you can recline in leather armchairs, smoke Cuban cigars and sip expensive whiskies in exotic French Colonial ambiance.
When Sleep Is Not an Option
Follow the British Eurostar crowd (arrive Friday night, leave Sunday afternoon) for a weekend that will take a month to sleep off. These are bars for heavy drinking, dancing, and flirting with a young international crowd. First stop is the Lizard Lounge (rue du Bourg Tibourg, near the Hotel de Ville), where you get a live DJ in the downstairs cave after 8pm (try the Lizard Juice cocktail). Around midnight head to the Café Oz (south end of rue St. Denis, at Chatelet/Les Halles), where Australian staff serve Australian beers and cocktails, and a DJ perched on a platform above the bar gets everyone dancing on the tables. When they kick you out of there, go one street over to the Cruiscin Lan (18, rue des Halles), where things really don’t pick up until 3am. It’s a tiny little Irish bar that has recently had a makeover, but the crowd at 4am is still the same. If you’re up in the Latin Quarter, the Fifth (56, rue Mouffetard) is a friendly student hangout and a good place to find drinking buddies for the night. Just around the corner is the late night bar Le Violon Dingue (northwest side of Eglise Ste. Genevieve), a real drinking bar full of hockey players and expats of dubious repute.
For those who are looking for something different, try one of the floating bars on the Seine. My favorite is the Guinguette Pirate (on the Quai François Mauriac, across from the new Bibliotheque National), an old Chinese junk turned into a cool place to dance the night away to live bands or DJs while the tourist boats cruise by. New hybrid bars are very popular in Paris, with the Web Bar (rue de Picardie, southwest of Republique) leading the pack. Forget nerds and sterile computer rooms, this bar hosts a full schedule of salsa nights, theatre performances, and art shows with an edgy-artsy crowd of Parisians.
There are so many out there, I could go on forever. Leave a message in the discussion forum or e-mail me if you’re looking for something I haven’t mentioned here (sports bars, fashion bars, wine bars, etc.). Happy drinking — and remember, if you’re not sure just order un demi!
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.