Several times a year I put on my nicest suit and go hunting for cool places. I can spend entire evenings just opening doors without really knowing where I’ll end up. It can be a place someone has told me about, or an uninspiring doorstep that might brighten up later in the evening. It can also be a feeling, a mood — or just plain luck.
You get in, you have a drink, you get it wrong and you walk out. You get in, you have some food, you get it wrong and you walk out again. And again and again. Cool hunting is demanding. It requires stamina, resilience and a sense of adventure.
Like a gold digger, you rummage through piles of mud before unearthing the nugget — the one that makes you forget all the time you’ve spent trying to find it.
Although I’ve been cool hunting for years, it’s still pretty difficult to clearly define “the cool”. Because of its dynamic and volatile nature, I could quote Leonard Koren1 talking about the wabi-sabi2: “its lack of definition is only one aspect of its inherent incompleteness”. Well, quite.
But I think there are still a couple of common denominators to the idea of cool: namely authenticity and sincerity. I’m talking about the places where the menu hasn’t changed since it opened; about the places that don’t ask your opinion; about the places that don’t follow any concept or trend — whether that’s the food they serve or the plates they serve the food on. In short — the places where one can still be surprised.
There are some left in Paris. But for how long? Can Ramona’s paella in Belleville, or the P’tit Bar’s3 old countertop, or Rue du Mont-Thabor, or the dessert assortment at the Auberge du Quincy4 really survive the digitally-marketed, Instagram-determined good taste contest?
These rare, authentic and sincere places are facing extinction in large cities that have become theme parks only dedicated to entertainment. The culprit? Gentrification, and its inevitable surge in real estate prices that condemn new entrepreneurs to risk aversion. Customers are working like mad all week just to keep up with their rents, which obviously makes them less willing to indulge in random discoveries or new places — and much more likely to stick with the very standard satisfaction that they know. On top of that, numerous bars have closed because they were considered too noisy by the same downtown inhabitants. This affects every storefront, restaurant and bar. Places of cutting edge culture have slowly become places that merely satisfy. Today, owners might make a place appear “alternative” simply by singing boisterous French pop songs on the dance floor or hiring costumed dancers.
Downtown, in every major city, rent hikes have taken their toll. Places must be profitable with long queues in front of them or they’ll simply disappear — only to be replaced by the next wave of identikit, venture-backed, concept restaurateurs. So if you ever stumble upon one of the nuggets that is still standing, thanks to some inexplicable miracle, don’t just keep it to yourself. Share it with the right people, and try to enjoy it. After all, these are relics from times that are no more — portals to a lost world.
1Aesthetics expert and “a maker of deceptively modest books about deceptively modest subjects, like raking leaves,” according to The New York Times
2The Japanese philosophy that celebrates transience and imperfection. Under the principles of wabi-sabi, for example, a Bonsai tree would display snags and deadwood to evoke decay and the passage of time.
3A nine-metre-squared bar in Roquette, historically run by Madame Polo and her cast of cats and canaries. Grubby glasses and war veterans.
4Try the crème de riz aux raisins
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