The rue Vieille du Temple is an ancient street in the Marais. Jeffrey T Iverson meets some of the local business owners intent on preserving its unique atmosphere
To step into 30 rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais, and pass under the circa-1900 façade, is to discover one of the smallest, most atmospheric cafés in Paris. The barman greets you from behind a tiny, horseshoe-shaped bar, lined with a handful of clients reading newspapers and chatting over espressos. The café is so narrow that as you step around to the rear room it feels as if you’ve stumbled into the dining car of a Victorian-era train. After crossing the exquisite mosaic floor and taking a seat at a dark wooden table under an Art Deco painting, you might order a duck confit or a bowl of onion soup. You take a piece of baguette from the basket – it’s still warm. By dessert, you’re reducing the best tarte tatin you’ve ever tasted to crumbs, and you realise the food must actually have been prepared – oh miracle! – from scratch! Looking up to the antique clock on the wall, you suddenly notice something oddly amusing – the hands are running backwards.
Where are you? Have you travelled back in time? Ask the owner, Xavier Denamur, and he’ll reassure you with a laugh. No, you’ve simply landed in Au Petit Fer à Cheval, opened 28 years ago as a “bistro for everyone” — locals, visitors, and all those who sometimes feel lost in the bustling French capital. “It was about creating, here in the middle of the city, a repère— a landmark, a place that allows you to get your bearings again, to remember where you are.” Denamur points to a photograph on the café wall of a great boulder overlooking the bay, once used by sailors to navigate, he says. “For me, a bistro needs to be such a landmark, a lighthouse in the city, a place which endures through time, where you can always find the same ambience, the same dishes, even the same people. A place you can almost feel part of a family. It’s about creating something perennial.”
And yet, paradoxically, few quartiers so exemplify the ceaseless changing of Paris as the Marais; so often has it remade itself through history. Successively the bastion of the Knights Templar, home to the aristocracy, the hub of Franco-Jewish life, and heart of the Paris gay community, could there really be anything perennial about the Marais? Perhaps so. Boasting more pre-revolutionary buildings, streets and alleys than anywhere else in the city, it’s true no other neighbourhood has better preserved the labyrinthine appearance of the Paris of the Middle Ages. But today, as designer hotels, hip boutiques and luxury brands seem to herald the Marais’s next transformation, as an open-air luxury shopping centre, a handful of charismatic entrepreneurs and artisans on one of its oldest, most quintessential streets – rue Vieille du Temple, running 855 metres from rue de Rivoli to rue de Bretagne – wants to show that the essence of the Marais is not just made of stone, but also of spirit.
When all the clothing shops north and south of rue des Francs-Bourgeois have shuttered down for the night, a flickering light and genial din continues to slip through the curtains of the restaurant at 64 rue Vieille du Temple. Founded in 1958, Robert et Louise is today run by the late founders’ daughter Pascale and her husband, François, who haven’t changed a thing. With its ancient stone walls and exposed beams, the restaurant exudes the timeless air of a French tavern, with giant rib steaks cooking over a real wood fire before everyone’s eyes. “Back when my father created the fireplace, we didn’t need a dérogation for this kind of thing,” says Pascale. “Today, the authorities turn a blind eye to it.” At least they haven’t tried to shut them down yet. “Oh là là, there would be revolution!”
If Robert et Louise seems untouched by the years, the surrounding neighbourhood tells another story. The aristocratic building boom sparked in 1605 by Henri IV’s creation of the future Place des Vosges left rue Vieille du Temple and the rest of the Marais littered with exquisite hôtels particuliers. One can visit the breathtaking courtyard of Hôtel Amelot de Bisseuil, built in 1657 at 47 rue Vieille du Temple, currently housing a Chanel outlet and soon to become a luxury hotel. At the corner of rues Vieille du Temple and des Francs-Bourgeois is the late Gothic tower of the Hôtel d’Hérouet, built around 1510. But by the 1960s, many such mansions had fallen into squalid condition after a century of abandonment.
“When my parents opened in 1958, the neighbourhood looked nothing like it does today,” says Pascale. “It was very working class and here on rue Vieille du Temple there was a pastry shop, a hardware store, a hat shop, a dye workshop, a hotel lodging immigrants… All the rear courtyards housed industrial activities – sausage makers, cardboard manufacturers, electricians. Today we’re the last of all of them to remain!”
One unique example of the street’s artisan past does remain, however – the lithography printing shop Atelier Clot, Bramsen & Georges. Founded on the Left Bank in 1896, Auguste Clot became the first printer in Paris to apply to fine art a technique hitherto used for advertising posters and Camembert labels. Clot would collaborate with the era’s greatest artists, from Munch to Matisse to Man Ray. In 1967, rejuvenated by the arrival of Peter Bramsen, a Danish lithographer, Atelier Clot moved to a larger space in an old courtyard factory at 19 rue Vieille du Temple. “Today, we continue to renew this history,” says Peter’s son, Christian Bramsen. “We still use stone, ink, water, paper and pressure, but step by step we’re making technical advances and printing in ways quite different from the way Clot did.” Currently, Atelier Clot is working with Danish artist Lars Nørgård on a world first – a 200x270cm original print which will become the largest colour lithograph ever made.
While Bramsen is focused on evolving his art, he’s well aware of the evolution going on outside his door too, where historic gay bars like the Bar Central and Amnesia have closed to make way for jewellery and clothing shops, and couture houses such as Karl Lagerfeld have opened shops just doors away. “Slowly, the street is being taken over by international brands, Chanel and Dior…” he says. “But we’ll resist! We’re not going anywhere.”
Bramsen traces the neighbourhood’s evolution back to the decision in 1964 by Culture Minister André Malraux to make the Marais the first “safeguarded sector” in a bid to save the city’s decaying heritage. “Everything changed after Malraux classified the area. The city and wealthy individuals started to restore all the run-down apartments and hotels. They made the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature , the Picasso Museum , the Pompidou Centre , the Carnavalet Museum [reopened in 1989]… Then many galleries began moving here from the Left Bank.”
Indeed, this cultural revolution inspired Renos Xippas to open one of the largest galleries in Paris in 1990 – Galerie Xippas, specialising in French and international contemporary art, at 108 rue Vieille du Temple. But it is also what drew the restaurateur Xavier Denamur, who from 1990 to 1998 bought and created one rue Vieille du Temple address after another until he was owner of Au Petit Fer à Cheval at no 30, La Chaise au Plafond at 10 rue du Trésor, Les Philosophes at 28 rue Vieille du Temple, La Belle Hortense at no 31, and Étoile Manquante at no 34 – five cafés and restaurants instilled with distinct characters but a common mission.
“I saw that this street had great potential and was a place that I could tell a story, one about bringing the French countryside to the heart of Paris,” says Denamur. That not only meant abandoning industrially prepared ingredients and dishes in favour of quality, pesticide-free, artisanal produce from small French farmers, it also meant importing a kind of village ethos to this cosmopolitan Parisian street.
“In Paris, there are many businesses that are there just to take advantage of tourists. But in a neighbourhood like this, if you can have a few leaders who are respectful of their clients and keep the soul in their businesses, with simple decency, transparency and authenticity, then others will come along and do the same.”
And they have. In 2014, two chocolatiers in their 20s, Edwin Yansané and Arthur Heinz, launched their flagship store at no 17. Edwart Chocolatier has since conquered the Paris scene with their highly original creations and vision of chocolate as a vehicle to taste the flavours of the world, from Syrian anise and African baobab fruit to Tasmanian pepper. “Ten years ago, there were still more food shops than luxury boutiques here, unfortunately we’re losing some of that authentic spirit of the Marais,” says Yansané. “With what we’ve created here, we’re trying to bring some of that back.”
That desire is shared by Danilo Cerchiaro of Pozzetto, perhaps the first genuine Italian gelato makers in the City of Light, opened at no 16 in 2014. (Their strawberry sorbet is so good daily Le Figaro named it the best in Paris, beating France’s greatest brands.) “What I most love about this street is the village spirit,” he says. “The business owners are all very tight-knit.”
So, when Brigitte Tapon – owner of À La Ville de Rodez, a legendary delicatessen dedicated to the gastronomy of Aveyron and Auvergne founded in 1920 at no 22 – confides to her neighbour that she’s worried about the soaring rents, word seems to get around. “There is a real fierce desire among everyone that she never leave,” says Danilo. “Her shop represents what’s really important, the value of products at once very simple and very noble.”
Today, Pozzetto buys Brigitte’s excellent jambon blanc to pair it with their homemade focaccia. Xavier Denamur serves her andouillettes, magrets de canard, and rillettes to his clientele at Les Philosophes, and the team at Atelier Clot purchase meats and wines from her for their lunch almost every day. Brigitte insists she’ll not be leaving yet, and will carry on as long as she can pay the rent. “It would be a shame for this to disappear, for all the exceptional products this place offers, but also for what it means to the neighbourhood. It’s a place where people often come just to buy a slice of ham, but stay and chat 20 minutes. You can’t get that at the supermarket. They need that, and it’s a part of my job I love.”
BOUTIQUES AND RESTAURANTS
Robert et Louise, 64 rue Vieille du Temple, Tel. +33 (0)1 42 78 55 89
Opened in 1958 to feed home-cooked meals and honest wines to a working-class clientele, miraculously this beloved restaurant has remained untouched by the transformation of the Marais. Reminiscent of a medieval tavern, Robert et Louise is a bastion of traditional French fare, where giant rib steaks, cooked over a wood re, are served with goose fat potatoes.
La Belle Hortense, 31 rue Vieille du Temple, Tel. +33 (0)1 48 04 71 60
An homage to l’ivresse des livres (the intoxicating power of books), this wine bar/bookshop hybrid is the most personal creation of Xavier Denamur, rue Vieille du Temple’s charismatic, bibliophilic restaurateur. Take a seat at the zinc bar, or slip into the intimate back room, a peaceful refuge from the lively street, and peruse some French poetry over a glass of rouge or a plat du jour.
À La Ville de Rodez, 22 rue Vieille du Temple, Tel. +33 (0)1 48 87 79 36
Since 1920, this renowned delicatessen has supplied Parisians with the most delectable products the Aveyron and Auvergne regions have to offer. The charming décor hasn’t changed in decades, nor has the quality of the perfectly-aged ham, charcuterie, Aubrac beef, the Laguiole, Salers, and Tomme cheeses, and the divine foie gras and truffles. A gastronomic institution.
Atelier Clot, 19 rue Vieille du Temple, Tel. +33 (0)1 40 29 91 59
Founded in 1896, this legendary printing shop was the first in Paris to dedicate the technique of colour stone press lithography to fine art, collaborating with the era’s greatest artists, from Renoir to Rodin. Today they continue to draw top international contemporary artists. Discover their work in the workshop’s gallery, where a flurry of original prints are for sale.
Edwart Chocolatier, 17 rue Vieille du Temple, Tel. +33 (0)1 42 78 48 92
Founded in 2014 by Edwin and Arthur, two chocolatiers in their 20s, Edwart has rapidly conquered the palates of the most exigent chocolate lovers in France, winning awards for the quality and originality of their creations. Matching chocolate with Madras curry, Madagascan pepper, Syrian green anise, Japanese whisky and African baobab fruit, Edwart is a tour du monde of flavours.
Pozzetto, 16 rue Vieille du Temple, Tel. +33 (0)1 42 71 49 18
Behind this charming Italian café is a real histoire d’amour – that of an Italienne who moved to Paris for a Frenchman, but who couldn’t give up her other true love, gelato. Unable to find an authentic version of her native ice-cream, she gave up her job in finance to bring true Italian caffè and genuine gelato to France. Le Figaro has declared Pozzetto’s strawberry sorbet “the best in Paris”.
From France Today magazine