04 July 2011

bon courage: frenchie wine bar opening, 75002

At the opening party of 2ème bistro Frenchie's bar à vin spinoff on the night of La Fête de la Musique Insupportable, a wine industry friend and I amused ourselves by placing mock bets on how long it will be before the intended informal no-res bar becomes a small, slightly expensive restaurant with a difficult booking policy. (In other words, another Frenchie.)

Were it to happen, it would be through no particular fault or avarice of the excellent Frenchie team. It's just a familiar pattern in the Paris restaurant scene, nicely illustrated by 1èr restaurant Spring's short-lived Buvette bar à vin, which has now been more profitably repurposed as another dining room for the unflaggingly popular restaurant. Quality places in Paris shoot for informal and wind up sporting tastevins, for a number of reasons.

The wine bar concept itself, as Anglophones know it in other major cities, just isn't very native here. Probably due as much to a tradition of wine-as-meal-accompaniment as to whatever national timidity makes long mingleable bars of any kind somewhat scarce here. For wine bars there is the additional challenge of remaining solvent without selling comprehensive meals, usually in set formules, which latter schemes are so prevalant here presumably because they have proven successful at the otherwise tricky feat of getting Parisians to spend real money at restaurants. We are all aware of the infamous French reserve, that je ne sais quoi; it seems also to manifest itself in the population as a total dearth of largesse.*

The result: in Paris you have sprawling cafés with totally uninteresting wine on offer, and tiny restaurants with excellent wine on offer, and very little in between. What few wine bars one encounters** rarely attain a good balance between the wine and the bar, with one or the other element notably lacking (usually the former). Knowing the standards there, I'm certain the wine will stay tight at Frenchie bar à vin. Their challenge, no small one, is to remain a bar. Bon courage!

* Places I Would Consider Actual Wine Bars, off top of head

1. Le Baron Rouge (but the wines are nothing to get excited about)
2. Aux Deux Amis (but the service is unforgivable)
3. Le Garde Robe (shines, but partly due to lack of competition)
4. Café de La Nouvelle Mairie (but the bar is all of an arm's length long) 
5. Chair de Poule (but the wines are exclusively cheap and cheerful, and the staff are not wine people; the natural wine just happens to be there) 
6. Le Cave Café (see #5) 
7. Le Rubis (see #1, only moreso)
8. La Bodeguita du IVème (see #4)
9. L'Avant Comptoir (too cramped and uncomfortable)
10. Les Pipos (service occasionally indifferent, just totally unambitious)

...Etc. Etc. The list continues a bit further, along with the list of crucial flaws.

** Tina Brown had a wonderful line (questionably) defending New Yorkers during the financial crisis: "There is a name for New York minus the excess. It's called “Philadelphia." (Incidentally, my hometown.)
6, rue du Nil
75002 PARIS
Metro: Sentier
Tel: n/a


  1. Props to Philly, my new home town, to which I intend to contribute an escalation in excess. But...

    I think the "wine bar," even elsewhere, is mutable. Le Comptoir (no Avant) is a "wine bar" in the hours between lunch and dinner, even though there's no bar. Lots of Parisian places are like that; Le Garde Robe isn't a "wine bar" during lunch or dinner, in the way that the popular conception thinks of the term; they serve food, they serve wine, they act like a restaurant (with occasionally wretched service, which I guess makes it authentically Parisian), and then once everyone leaves they turn back into a "wine bar" for a few hours. That's no different than how Terroir NYC works, for example. Or The Ten Bells. The "pure" wine bar concept is exceedingly rare, by these standards; Terroir SF might be one of the few or only in the US.

    It's probably a definitional issue, but you're also right that the lure of the profits of food and closure kill many a great wine bar (to the profit of the owner, usually). From the rental in the 15th to the heart of the city I walk past a half-dozen self-identified "wine bars"...Vin Sobres (one of the most layered wine puns I've ever encountered), Au Sauvignon, Avant Comptoir. La Crèmerie, Bacchus & Ariane, Fish, etc. ... and not one of those places resembles any of the others in motivation or ethos. It's kind of fun, even though it's hellishly confusing for a foreigner, because the expectations at each place are different.

    But here in Boston, there are no wine bars. None. A few places that call themselves that, but they're restaurants and have never been anything else. So if Frenchie's wine bar can remain, for a time, a wine bar...even if it eventually becomes Frenchie Nord...that won't make it a Not Wine Bar, necessarily. At least, that's my view.

  2. It's so true that there is a dearth of real (at least what we consider real) wine bars in Paris. The best I've found is the relatively new wave of cavistes that have some tables (vs. bistrot a vins). For example, le Cave du Miroir. I went there for the first time last week. It's small, but a nice place to pop into for a glass of wine.

  3. I went to le Frenchie for the first time on Friday. It is a nice place with a good atmosphere and decent wines (sometimes a bit overpriced though). However - the service was... really Frenchie. The staff was rather friendly most of time, however they didn't seem to be up to speed on Friday. They forgot half of our orders almost each time. When they didn't forget our order - it took quite a long time to finally be served. The restaurant was full and there seemed to be organisational issues going on in terms of who does what etc.

    At some point two friends joined our group. We asked a waiter behind the bar for two more glasses to share our bottle of wine with them. The answer we got was:
    - "the two remaining glasses I have are still hot'.
    - I replied: 'great - but I don't need warm glasses to drink red wine, I just want normal temperature glasses'.
    - staff: 'well this is all I have for now'.
    - I said (with a French sense of irony): 'well give me two plastic cups then, we will drink your wine in plastic cups'.

    Then - one of the waiters who overheard the conversation seemed to feel slightly embarrassed by the situation and went across the street to the other side of the restaurant and brought back two normal glasses.

    The morale of the story is that I was not impressed by the lack of professional standards of Le Frenchie service. I did get a poor typical french customer service experience in a rather charming atmosphere. In this sense - le Frenchie is a typical average parisian bar.

  4. @Thor: for me the crucial difference is, no one goes to boston expecting there to be a plethora of inviting wine bars. whereas droves of tourists arrive to paris every day in search of the near-mythical great wine bar, little suspecting that the myth is largely of their own invention. i'll concede, however, that to some extent i am just spoiled and i don't often enough spare a thought for those of us toughing it out in Boston or Cardiff or, for that matter, Philadelphia, where state-run liquor stores are the norm... How are you even surviving??

    @alessandra: heard nothing but good things about cave du miroir so far, i have to pop in and check it out soon.

    @gino: were you in the wine bar or the restaurant? a shame about that experience. if it was the brand-new wine bar it would be almost forgiveable. if at the restaurant i imagine it would be anomalous. (i'm convinced that the popularity of frenchie and certain other expat-intensive paris restos is partly rooted in how they accurately channel excellent stateside meals, service-style included.)

  5. The thing is, though, if said near-mythical wine bars actually existed, even in droves, they'd be well-known and impossible to get into, for tourists and locals alike. So be careful what you wish for...

    Haven't had to survive Philly yet; the move is in a few months. But the key survival trick is that NYC is a short train ride away. Where am I going to go from Boston...Hartford? ;-)

  6. @aaron - I was in the wine bar! Anyway - I will give it another try and if things have improved I will report. And if not - I will report as well!