13 January 2014

hidden in plain sight: willi's wine bar, 75001

I should clarify by explaining that Willi's Wine Bar, the pioneering Paris wine destination founded in 1980 by British expat Mark Williamson, is only hidden to people like me. For the past four years I've worked a few blocks away from the bar, and until the other week, I'd never been tempted to step inside.

I am, it turns out unreasonably, disinclined towards restaurants known for tote bags and wine-art posters. The children's-book storefront font alone is enough to turn stomachs. Willi's, from the outside, appears to be a wine bar for people who only drink wine when they visit Paris.

Actually, it looks a lot that way from the inside as well. Williamson's decades-long indifference to cool is reflected in the clientele, which I'd wager consists primarily of Paris' least-informed Anglophone tourists and expats, family vacations and business trips whose organisers may have breezed, once, through a Lonely Planet guide from 1997. So upon finally dining at Willi's the other night, I was fairly gobsmacked to discover that Willi's' regulars are, if anything, more informed than me. All this time they've been enjoying, in a friendly, unfussy environment, Paris' greatest Rhône list.

There are some caveats.

My friends and I were lucky enough to visit when Williamson himself was there, and so benefitted from his excellent advice in pursuing what turned out to be a fairly opulent 2001 Rhône horizontal. The rest of the staff were well-intentioned, but evinced little in the way of wine knowledge or floor presence, a particular shame because a wine list like Willi's deserves some navigational aid.

Williamson's thirty-plus years of experience dealing wine in Paris shows. To put things in perspective, he started Willi's just 8 years after Kermit Lynch began working as an importer. Williamson had the good taste and the timing to get ground-floor allocations of wines from domaines Lynch later helped make world-famous: Auguste Clape, Thierry Allemande, etc. This is not to mention Williamson's deep, broad selections from other Rhônes stars: Domaine La Vieille Julienne, Domaine Jamet, Domaine Yves Gangloff...

This brings me to the other caveat. To really profit from Williamson's wine list, be prepared to drop at least 70€ per bottle. Perfectly lovely wines are available at much lower price points, of course, and the list also deserves credit for containing a lot of quality Champagne at kind prices. But 70-plus euros will get you wines worth many times as much.

My friends P and F had a bottle of Domaine La Vieille Julienne's 2001 Chateauneauf du Pape open on the bar when I arrived. I can be excused for wondering aloud where the hell one goes from there, after starting with Chateauneuf... Sagrantino ? Zinfandel ? Shiraz?

I was wrong there too. Despite it's 14.5% alcohol, the '01 Vielle Julienne was marvelously graceful, an expansive cape-flap of velvety black fruit and truffly savoury notes. Of the three wines we opened that night, it was in best form.

La Vieille Julienne's mainstream success, like that of Willi's Wine Bar as a whole, predates the real crystallization of Paris' natural wine scene. (Winemaker Jean-Paul Daumen's views on the emergence of natural winemaking are neatly expressed in this Vindicateur interview.) The domaine is nonetheless biodynamic and uses exclusively indigenous yeasts. Wines are lightly sulfured at bottling. Their Chateauneuf blend is 60% old-vine Grenache, with the rest being made up of Syrah, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Cinsault.

We followed this with a 2001 Auguste Clape Cornas, still austere and somewhat closed in comparison. Later, on Williamson' recommendation, we opened a 2001 Gangloff Côte-Rotie, a wine that after tasting he summarised by saying, "I'm disappointed, but you'll love it." He'd prepped us for something rather impactful, but we agreed the wine was showing a surprisingly lean and Burgundian profile.  I did love it.

With such wines on the table, I'm willing to excuse almost any cuisine. And Willi's wine bar's menu is indeed a bit odd, reminiscent of middling French-themed restaurants in London or New York. It contains croque monsieurs, a burger, and some pitifully amateurish crab-cakes, alongside more identifiably Parisian staples like duck breast and Charolais steak.

The latter was perfectly tasty, although despite my request that it be cooked saignante (rare) by French rather than American standards, it unsurprisingly arrived something more like the safe side of medium-rare. There were no French clients on the night we visited - the chef may have long forgotten how to cook for them.

A "lasagne" of leek and mushroom was way better than it looked.

But menu prices are more than fair for the arrondissement, and Williamson deserves great credit as a restaurateur for managing to serve a reduced menu between mealtimes and to be open seven days a week, both enormous challenges for anyone working within the confines of French labour law. Even more than thirty years on, Willi's remains refreshing in Paris for how much it behaves like a business that exists to serve food and sell wine, a true rarity in a city of countless superlative restaurants that close as often as feasible.

Oftentimes the fickle service hours and byzantine reservation hurdles of Paris restaurants are explained by the idea that chefs and restaurateurs are only human and need some time off. To expect that a restaurant maximise its potential is, we're told, just new-fangled globalist pressure that Paris is right to resist.

A place like Willi's proves that idea to be a complete croque monsieur. Williamson's bar predates contemporary chef-fetishism and the wholesale glamourisation of the restaurant industry. Prior to these media developments and the hype industry they've encouraged, restaurateurism was arguably more about providing a service than savvy press management. Williamson is indifferent to cool because cool wasn't a primary or even secondary motivation for restaurateurs of his era.

Hence Willi's Wine Bar, whose press strategy probably hasn't been updated since sometime in the early 1990's, and remains somewhat radioactive to present-day tastemakers. We're missing out.

On the other hand, it might be fortuitous that I waited so long to visit Willi's. I've had four plus years to digest the breadth of Paris' natural wine scene and to become, frankly, a little tired of wine lists that contain nothing grander than Pacalet or Ganevat or Hervé Souhaut, all of whose wines are invariably presented too young. I'm lately trying to graduate, as it were, to consuming less bottles, but better ones, and with this in mind I've realised that many of my heretofore favorite restaurants in Paris contain almost nothing for me.

There will, however, always be Willi's.

Willi's Wine Bar
13 rue des Petits-Champs
75001 PARIS
Métro: Pyramides or Bourse
Tel: 01 42 61 05 09

Related Links:

A more concise rendering of what I said above, in a 2012 piece by Patricia Wells.

A really superb 2010 interview with Willi's Wine Bar founder Mark Williamson at Find Eat Drink.

A laudatory 2010 piece on Willi's Wine Bar in Le Figaro.

Marie Z. Johnston, who, on the basis of her vociferous defense of archetypal tourist trap O Chateau in the commentary of this blog, has no clue whatsoever about wine, heartily endorses Willi's Wine Bar at Bonjour Paris.

Willi's Wine Bar squeaks into Alexander Lobrano's 2010 round-up of Paris wine bars for The Guardian, a piece notable mainly for containing very few actual wine bars.

A terrific 2010 interview with Domaine La Vieille Julienne winemaker Jean-Paul Daumen my friend Antonin at Vindicateur


  1. hahaha, I used to drink at willi's (where else can you get condrieu by the glass?), and juveniles and Fish, before I met you and you changed all that.

  2. my bad. but the list at willi's is way better than juveniles or fish... (although the food at fish is superior these days.)

  3. Pity to have missed this when in Paris last summer, but we drank well overall and it was nice to try different styles from what we see in Catalonia.


  4. Actually the food at Willi's is quite good and has gotten even better over the last year. So has Fish (and Semillon, the other restaurant in that group in the 6th), although I am not sure I would call Fish's food "superior" as one commentator above, although it's quite decent too. You really should explore the menu at Willi's though, which changes often. The cheeses available are decent too for a quick snack with your wine.

  5. Oh, and by the way, I actually think that most of the people working at Willi's are VERY knowledgeable about wine. One woman worked ion Sotheby's wine auction dept. Others all could talk intelligently about the wines. Mark is certainly a knowledgeable Rhone Ranger, but often I find our palates might go in different directions on other grapes, and often the staff here have admirable palates.