The future is looking bright for award-winning chef Thibault Sombardier.
Last year, under financial pressure from successive coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions on hospitality businesses, the owners of Antoine restaurant on the Right Bank — where Sombardier had won a Michelin star for his inventive seafood dishes — decided to sell the decade-old establishment, which had regaled everyone from French politicians to tennis star Serena Williams.
But on an afternoon in April, Sombardier struck a remarkably positive tone about the current Paris dining scene and his latest project, a chic Left Bank bistro called Les Parisiens.
“People are keen to discover the latest spots,” he said. “Things are going well in Paris. The crowds are out. I’m optimistic.”
“We’re looking at a lovely year,” he said.
It is a sentiment that one hears more frequently in Paris these days. Masks are off (except in hospitals and retirement homes), and proof of vaccination is no longer required in restaurants, bars, museums, concert venues and public transportation. (Updated information on coronavirus measures can be found on the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau website.) Pressing between the weekend crowds in the Marais or Saint Germain-des-Près neighbourhoods, you might almost believe that it was 2019 again.
New retail temples and art à go-go
The most long-awaited Paris project has been the rebirth of Samaritaine, a classic belle epoque department store perched along the Seine. Owned by global luxury group LVMH (whose CEO, Bernard Arnault, is France’s richest man), the 19th-century landmark closed in 2005 to address structural issues and wound up sitting idle for the better part of 16 years.
Unveiled in June 2021, the multibuilding, multilevel new version is a cathedral of consumption, encased in art nouveau and art deco detailing. If the idea of exploring the building’s more than a dozen restaurants, a five-star hotel (Cheval Blanc; doubles in May from around 1,450 euros, or about $1,500), a spa, a perfume atelier, a VIP lounge and scores of shops selling around 700 brands sounds too intimidating on your own, consider a 90-minute guided tour (15 euros, or about $16).
Not to be outdone, France’s second-richest man, François Pinault, last year opened his own magisterial establishment in a historical icon. Housed in the centuries-old circular building that was once Paris’ stock exchange, his new museum, known as the Bourse de Commerce-Collection Pinault (14 euros admission, or about $15), was renovated by Japanese architect Tadao Ando and contains works from Pinault’s vast holdings in contemporary art, including Sigmar Polke canvases, Dan Flavin lighting tubes and Urs Fischer sculpture.
Fashion mogul Agnes B. took a different tack, choosing a white modern building in Paris’ unfancy 13th Arrondissement to display her own extensive art collection, which runs the gamut from photographs by Man Ray to subway-style graffiti by Futura. Known as La Fab (7 euros admission, or about $7.50), the space is currently showing “L’Enfance dans La Collection Agnes B.” (till June 30), a look at childhood through paintings, drawings, photos, sculptures and installations.
real and virtual
Paris’ two marquee museums, the Musée du Louvre (17 euros admission, or about $18) and the Musée d’Orsay (14 euros, or about $15), are very much open.
Among the special exhibitions are “Yves Saint Laurent at the Louvre,” showcasing some of the French fashion designer’s most exquisite creations (through September 19) at the former royal palace, and “Pharaoh of the Two Lands,” dedicated to the 8th-century BC Nubian-Egyptian empire of King Piankhy (through July 25). Across the Seine at the Musée d’Orsay, “Gaudì” (through July 17) offers a wide-ranging retrospective of the Spanish architect though artworks, furniture and more.
And while Notre Dame cathedral remains closed for reconstruction after a 2019 fire, a virtual reality re-creation in the La Defense neighbourhood offers an alternative chance to visit the iconic medieval Gothic structure. Known as “Eternelle Notre-Dame,” the 45-minute “tour” (from 20.99 euros per ticket, or about $22) immerses visitors in fully digitised renderings of the cathedral from the Middle Ages up to the present.
Haute cuisine and gourmet street food
On the dining front, the loftiest new experience might be Les Ombres restaurant atop the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, which combines the skills of France’s biggest name in architecture and the nation’s most famous restaurateur. Conceived by Jean Nouvel and now run by the Alain Ducasse team, the avant-garde, glass-roofed dining room serves up a 110-euro (about $117) dinner menu of French classics (including white asparagus, foie gras and duck breast) amid the shifting natural light and shadows that Nouvel’s design accentuates. But the main attraction is the view of the Eiffel Tower.
Ducasse and other Paris culinary stars have also been busy creating new spots that attempt to elevate street food, fast-food and desserts. To assemble an affordable Paris-wide meal, try the signature item (15 euros, or about $16) at Yannick Alléno’s upscale grill (Burger Père et Fils par Alléno) and a superloaded croque monsieur (8.50 euros, or about $9) at one of the new Croq’Michel outlets from “Top Chef” judge Michel Sarran. For dessert, you can hit the Bastille district for sorbet and more (6.50 euros, or about $7) from Ducasse’s first ice cream shop (La Glace Alain Ducasse) and an oven-fresh choux (2 euros, or about $2.15) from Tapisserie pastry shop, the latest neighbourhood offering from Septime chef Bertrand Grébaut.
and cinematic stays
Big things are also afoot in the world of lodging, and not just the gargantuan new 957-room Pullman Montparnasse (doubles in June from around 280 euros, or about $300) or the 10,700-square-foot penthouse atop the 76-room Bulgari Hotel Paris (1,700 euros, or about $1,818) along fashionable Avenue Georges V.
Hotel Paradiso (from 170 euros, or about $182), owned by the MK2 movie-theatre chain, was conceived with input from local creatives — including street artist J.R., musician-director Woodkid and coffeehouse developer Marc Grossman. The property, near Place de la Nation, features 36 rooms equipped with video screens, high-tech projectors and a library of films. Additional entertainment awaits on the rooftop bar and in the private karaoke room.
Petite Paris: Indie, intimate and international
To find Paris’ smaller new gems, follow the scent of roasting vegetables and foreign culinary accents. In Bastille, you might just find yourself at a candlelit table, loaded with African-influenced pescatarian delights, at Persil. The menu from chef Kumpi Lo may feature Mikaté (Congolese fried dough balls of shredded cod with violet purée; 22 euros, or about $23) and a lush sweet potato gratin with truffle butter, cheddar and tofu (19 euros, or about $20).
Or you might end up in the dark confines of Stéréo wine bar, near Pigalle. Although not strictly vegetarian, the menu will win over carnivores with meatless morsels — roasted carrots with coconut curry (10 euros, or about $11); grilled pumpkin with honey, tahini, hazelnuts and pomegranate seeds (10 euros) — cooked up by Bangladeshi chef Swaran Joshi.
And if you can’t afford a round-the-world airline ticket, book one of the 31 colourful, ethno-chic rooms at Babel, whose lobby and restaurant in Belleville feel like a combination of a Rajasthan tent camp and a Moroccan tea salon (nightly rates in June around 135 euros, or around $144). After a meal of Middle Eastern hummus (6 euros, or about $6.40), Aleppo terrine (lamb, dried apricots, spices; 12 euros, or about $13) and Croatian wine, you might reasonably ask: Am I getting frequent-flyer miles for this?
“The Tower of Babel brought together all the nationalities of the world,” manager Johan Diony said on a recent afternoon. “This is what we are trying to do here at the hotel.” — NYT