Sacré bleu! | Monocle

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Last year, architect Joseph Dirand’s brasserie Monsieur Bleu opened in the Palais de Tokyo. With its gold-plated brass bar, frosted oblong art deco wall lights and vintage Lalique bas-reliefs, at first glimpse it is very much part of the Parisian vernacular. However, look a bit closer and you’ll spot rectangular light fittings hanging where gilt chandeliers should be. “Like giant lanterns, they fill up the space and disperse a warm, sexy light,” says Dirand.

Then you scan the menu: there’s pavlova and seabass alongside frogs’ legs and steak-frites. Monsieur Bleu is a new take on the traditional French bistro – and it’s just one of a spate of bistros reinventing the Parisian staple as the city reasserts its position on the international culinary and design landscape.

Across town is Restaurant Éclectic, opened earlier this year and designed by Tom Dixon. It’s been created with an industrial flavour that’s become the ordre du jour in the restaurants of New York and London in recent years. Dixon believes renewed appreciation of the neighbourhood’s unrefined 1970s buildings is a sign of the times. Accordingly, his design revisits Le Corbusier’s béton brut – the industrial functionalism of raw concrete.

In the centre of the semi-circular restaurant, a massive honeycomb of Dixon’s trademark amber lights hangs from a bare concrete ceiling. Along the centre of the bistro, a double-sided tan-leather banquette is punctuated with chrome bell lamps and paired with Dixon’s veined marble “rock” tables and aubergine Verner Panton chairs.

“The brasserie has survived because it is so easy to use with its expert formula of a short menu of broadly appealing dishes,” says Dixon, whose dose of English eccentricity adds to the eclectic flavour. “I wanted a mash-up of a Seventies-disco Paris plus a bit of British hardware.”

Where Restaurant Éclectic has a slight 1970s twist, architect and designer Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance has aimed to bring a dinosaur dating from the same era bang up to date. The Frenchman was charged with the renovation of Le Ciel de Paris, located at the top of the 210m tall Tour Montparnasse and built in 1973. “Despite having the best views in the city, it was like an old casino: sombre and marred by window joinery,” says Duchaufour-Lawrance. “The principle concept is the use of halo ceiling mirrors to create a sense of fluidity.”

These ufo-like orbs of shiny pewter in three sizes emit a warm bronze glow. Furnishings have the same organic, sensual form: mustard leather fauteuils bound in grey resin and a galley bar made from cast iron. The extraterrestrial ceiling of Le Ciel de Paris isn’t to everyone’s taste but it beats gilded mirrors and trompe l’oeil. “Until now, Paris dining has been dominated by big institutions or little intimate restaurants of zero architectural interest,” says Duchaufour-Lawrance. “A new wave has arrived from the US with more focus on the product.”

Dirand says Parisians are happily swallowing the new bistro culture that he and his cohorts have created. “Some tradition must stay,” he says. “A brasserie, no matter how modern, must remain a place of social mixing, whether you are a student in your sneakers or a lawyer in a suit.”

Café culture

It’s not just the bistro that’s having a spruce up. The Parisian café scene is also being transformed with the infiltration of seriously technical espresso bars-cum-roasters – and some great design. It shows that the French food-and-drinks industry is reconnecting with the rest of the world.

  1. Café Coutume
    Stainless steel, square white tiles, grid lighting, industrial plastic curtains and chemistry beakers set the espresso laboratory mood of this café (pictured below, middle). Cut Architectures tore down the false ceiling and walls to bare intricate plaster mouldings, crafted doors and a verrière glass roof. The lab benches sport coffee-making contraptions from Japanese siphons to a La Marzocco Strada.
  2. Café Kitsuné
    Café Kitsuné (below) has standing and sipping room only under the Palais Royal arcades, which has raised some eyebrows with the sidewalk-seat-friendly locals. Conceived by fashion duo Gildas Loaëc and Masaya Kuroki, the menu is equally minimalist: espresso and cookies al bar in true Italian style.

  3. Ten Belles
    Ristretto in content and form, Ten Belles (below and bottom) near Canal Saint Martin has a purist classroom allure: raw timber French doors, lofty ceiling, white walls, mini mezzanine and folding wooden chairs.

  4. Télescope Café
    Whitewashed ceiling beams and fading parquet floors infuse an airy transparency to Télescope Café. Tucked behind a retro beige and glass façade, the miniscule parlour’s large oak comptoir is flanked by a sprinkling of guéridon bistro tables, overhung with contemporary chrome and Victorian light fixtures. Great coffee, too.

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