Paris has layers. The first tier is Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d’Orsay, etc. the Must-Sees, the monuments. This is the easy stuff, positioned across Paris’s geography like giant boulders in a low field. On the second tier are the Michelined restaurants, notable to a different sort of tourist but famous all the same. On the third tier are the special places—restaurants, bars, smaller museums, cafés—that require a little legwork, and maybe some French, to ferret out. And in the fourth tier are the places where locals actually go, the neighborhood spots with bad signage and tattered menus that just happen to be perfect. Here’s the thing, though: If you work hard enough at tackling the third tier, you can start to make it overlap with the fourth.
Many of the city’s best bars are of the “speakeasy” variety, hidden behind unmarked doors or taco joints or pizza restaurants or grilled-cheese shops. Look beyond the gimmick; the Parisians have. The drinking scene here is so revved up, it’s begun to specialize. Take Mabel, for example—that’s the speakeasy behind the grilled-cheese shop. The proprietor of Mabel has dubbed his bar a “rum empire” and stocked it with the city’s best selection of that liquor. Bartender-owner Joseph Akhavan can be found behind the stick most nights, mixing and stirring and eagerly recommending both spirits and concoctions.
Mabel owes at least some debt to Candelaria, the speakeasy behind the taco joint. Though it was founded by two Americans and a Colombian, the bar has become firmly rooted in the city’s bobo drinking culture.
It’s worth the hype, with its Latin American spin on mixed drinks (think: fine mescals; drinks paying homage to Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico; Gabriel García Márquez quotes on the menu).
A few blocks away, the bar Andy Wahloo has a fake-out front door—you enter through a sprawling interior courtyard before ducking back into the street-adjacent barroom. A glowing, kitschy ’70s-Moroccan decor sets the mood—the mood being “how far can I unbutton my shirt before I cross the line from rakish to sleazy”—but the focus here is firmly on the drinks. The bartenders are attention hogs, alternately lighting things on fire, squeezing whole oranges along the overturned blade of a knife, and filling bell jars with infused smoke. It’s a hell of a show, and it makes up for how impossible it is to score a seat in the courtyard during the warmer months.
If it’s still warm out, and outdoor drinking is a must, Hôtel Particulier is the place to find yourself. First, though, you have to find the bar, which is accessible behind a locked gate on a steep drive on a curving hillside road in Montmartre. So cherished is access to Hôtel Particulier’s cascade of terraces that if you hang around its gate during the day, you might hear a tour guide describe it as a kind of holy-grail drinking spot. I hate to ruin the myth, but just press the intercom and wait. The gate will click open. Take a left at the boulder, ring the bell at this gate, and ask the host for a table outside. There aren’t any bad ones.
Perhaps this is all too theatrical for you. That’s fine. Here’s something more straightforward. Enter the Ritz Paris, on the Place Vendôme, and follow the long gallery to the end. As far as you can get from the main entrance are a pair of bars: The Ritz Bar to your right and the Hemingway Bar to your left. Take a left. Here, Colin Peter Field, maybe one of the finest barmen in Europe, mixes classics as they’re meant to be mixed, with precision, a kind of Bond-like lack of stress, and gentle helpings of charming anecdotes.
Across the river, Castor Club, a favorite of the cool-kid set, is hidden, in a very chic way, behind a wood-paneled facade with a single slat window. Depending when you arrive, you may need to wait a bit—the narrow space inside can hold only a couple dozen people, and the doorman doesn’t let it overfill. This can have its perks. As I waited for a barstool, a taxi sped by and clipped its side-view mirror on a metal post at the edge of the sidewalk. The mirror bounced across the pavement, narrowly missing a group of women in line. A man from another group went over to the taxi driver. “You almost hurt those girls!” he yelled in French. He asked the women if they were okay, and the two parties merged. Say what you want, but it’s better than “Come here often?”
For dinner, swing by Hero, a Korean-inspired place on Rue Saint Denis, for spicy fried chicken and kimchi. Restaurants that skew away from things we identify as French are part of the culture too. If you want to know how people eat, go online and see what’s popular for takeout. Over the course of my meal, four delivery guys picked up orders.
If you’re not in the mood for Korean, keep going north to Marrow, a new hot spot helmed by chef Hugo Blanchet. The namesake specialty is baked in pita dough, so the bone itself arrives in a peelable crust. Sinking your teeth into that crust, and chewing it from the bone, may be one of Paris’s most viscerally pleasurable sensations. And that’s saying something.
Most high-end restaurants take a pass on the cocktail list, opting to focus on wine. Not Marrow. Bartender—and partner—Arthur Combe is one of the city’s best mixologists. Combe’s Vieux Rectangle deserves a place in the pantheon of new classics. I ask him where I ought to head next and he rattles off a list that would take a strong drinker a week to accomplish. “What’s your favorite?” I say. He replies: “I spend a lot of time at Castor Club, because it’s near where I live and open late.” I mention the line. “The doorman is renting my apartment from me,” he says. “Tell him you know Arthur.” I make a mental note.
No one has ever accused Paris of skimping on decadence, so why stop at pita-encrusted bone marrow? At Ellsworth, off the Palais Royal, it’s possible to eat a balanced meal that begins with foie gras; progresses to veal sweetbreads; and ends on soft, almost-liquid egg yolk raviolo, topped with truffles. For a less inventive menu—that is, steak—Clover Grill, on Rue Bailleul, is the current contender for the city’s best meat. You can see it dry-aging in a trophy case between the dining room and the kitchen. The play here is to order something cut for two.
You can get surprisingly far by foot in Paris. Les Halles is my favorite center point. Beginning here, a 30- to 40-minute walk could bring you as far north as Pigalle or as far south as Le Jardin du Luxembourg; west to the beginning of the Champs-Élysées or east to the Bastille. You’re looking for pockets of noise, for the bubbling up of crowds outside of late-night bars, for the kinds of cafés that act as quick docks for the sidewalk smokers. Novels and memoirs and screenplays have all been written about Paris at night—there’s a reason. The city doesn’t so much sleep as change shifts. The late-night crowd has its own turf, and you can really only find it by looking for it at street level.
Two pieces of advice. One: Don’t be afraid to wander into and through the city’s green spaces. Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th Arrondissement is home to Le Pavillon Puebla, which is really more like an old caretaker’s house that happens to serve drinks and play music. Revelers gather on a large terrace nestled among the trees, often right up until the moment it closes, at 1:45 A.M.
Two: If you happen to walk by the Palais de Tokyo, the contemporary art museum along the Seine, know this—it is open until midnight every night except Tuesday; its newest resident is Les Grands Verres, a restaurant and bar from the folks behind Candelaria and Hero, and it serves drinks until 2 A.M.
It is 2AM. Head to La Mano, on Rue Papillon, and try to make it through the line outside. If you do, you’ll be greeted indoors with one of the city’s best dance parties. The crowd here is the sort that likes to overpay for booze as long as the DJ is good—and he really is, spinning Latin-influenced jams and setting the tone by dancing his heart out at the front of the room. But there are other, less crowded options. I found myself in SoPi (South Pigalle) very early one morning, hopping back and forth across its main drag of bars, Rue Frochot. Dirty Dick—a divey tiki place—closes at 2 A.M., but Glass, across the street, is open till 4 A.M. L’Entrée des Artistes, around the corner, is also open till 5 A.M. on weekends.
12 P.M. START ALL OVER. I know how this sounds. Who would waste half the day sleeping? But think about the inverse: Who would waste half the night sleeping? When so many places come alive after midnight, can you afford to doze through it? The deep night handicaps the city for you, thinning out the tourists, closing the attractions, and redirecting the energy toward a few beacons of light and noise. You just have to walk around.
But, sure, we’re not vampires. Any café can fulfill the requirements for petit déjeuner—coffee, croissants, eggs—but my favorite croque madame is at La Palette on the left bank. Vegan spot Café Ineko has the best pregame espresso, and a table out front nabs you a nicely framed view of Rue Gravilliers. There are worse places to spend an afternoon, recharging with coffees and maybe the evening’s first glass of rosé. Just don’t stay too long. There’s a lot left to do when it gets dark.