The Belle Epoque, literally translated as the ‘beautiful era’ in English, marks a time of rejuvenation in the French capital towards the end of the 1800s. For the first time in history the people of Paris were war and revolution free, peace fell upon the city, which prospered with a never-before-seen building spree. In fact it is during these glamorous years, in 1889 to be exact, that the Eiffel Tower burst on the Parisian skyline and changed things forever. For the first time, regular people had money to spend, and with this newfound freedom came a fleet of some of the city’s most iconic dining hot spots including four of our favourites below.
This easy and buzzy brasserie started out in 1896 as a canteen with a very simple concept that survives intact to this day: to serve a decent meal at a decent price. It was so popular that regulars had their own napkin draw, which still line the walls. Fare-wise, it doesn’t get more traditional than Chartier’s tête de veau (veal’s head), tripes and escargots doused in garlic butter, as well as roast chicken and sea bass for tamer palates, and while the food is decent, it’s for the unrivalled atmosphere that tourists and locals flock to the restaurant seven days a week. Situated in the Grands Boulevards area, Chartier is a veritable time warp in all its Art Nouveau splendour of woodwork, giant mirror-windows and burnished brass fixtures. A team of endearingly abrasive staff elegantly dressed in black waistcoats and bowties upholds the Belle Epoque pretence. Their arithmetic, usually written down on the white paper tablecloths, remains an attraction, as does having to squash with your group of friends on a table with strangers. Chartier serves throughout the day and doesn’t take bookings so to avoid the queues diners should aim to go outside common lunch and dinner hours.
Le Grand Colbert
Named after Jean-Baptiste Colbert, King Louis XIV’s Minister of Finances also famous for his knowledge of French cuisine, Le Grand Colbert was originally built in 1637 as a townhouse that was acquired by the King’s minister in 1665. It swapped hands many times before being demolished in 1825 and being rebuilt into the current space. Tucked in a side street bordering the Palais Royal gardens close to the old Stock Exchange and a number of well-known Parisian theatres, the space became a hit restaurant that welcomed the stars in 1900. Renovated in 1985, the lofty space retains all its original elegance including an ornate mosaic floor that echoes the one of neighbouring covered walkway Galerie Vivienne. Stepping over the threshold is just like stepping back in time. It’s easy to imagine the jewel and fur-clad Parisian in-crowd getting out of their black voiturettes to dine in the Grand Colbert’s the luxurious surroundings lit only by the hushed golden glow of brass chandeliers, and punctuated by tall leafy plants lining the iconic bar that runs the length of the room.
© Le Grand Colbert/Facebook
La Closerie des Lilas
La Closerie was the first café to mark the turn of the Montparnasse neighbourhood’s transformation into the headquarters of Paris’ arty in-crowd from Jean-Paul Sartre to Picasso and Hemingway to Fitzgerald. When La Closerie first opened in the late 19th century as a ‘bal’ (a bar with a dance floor), it attracted the bourgeoisie until a few years later when French poet Paul Fort became a staunch regular. Today, the café is one of Paris’ most iconic and draws celebrities from across the world including Mick Jagger and Johnny Depp. Split in two spaces, the first is a gourmet restaurant adjoining a bright and light conservatory with comfortable red armchairs around tables dressed in crisp white tablecloths and set with polished cutlery. The second is a more relaxed and lively traditional brasserie and piano bar. Both spaces offer a cosy atmosphere infused with understated elegance, and an upmarket menu of French staples ranging from oysters to entrecote. For daytime dining, especially in the summer, I recommend the higher end restaurant and the brasserie for a more casual, romantically-lit evening meal.
© La Closerie
Having celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, Bofinger was established in 1864 by native Alsatian Frédéric Bofinger. The typical Alsatian brasserie opened just off the Place de la Bastille on the edge of the Marais neighbourhood in order to serve the Alsatian community that lived in the area and had been employed in woodworking and cabinet-making from the 16th century onwards. The first brasserie to serve beer on tap, it was the place to go for a casual hearty meal until 1919 when it underwent its first expansion and a glamorous Art Nouveau overhaul complete with tufted benches, bevelled mirrors and glitzy lights, symbolising a liberated Alsace that infused with joie de vivre. The Bofinger has its fair share of star-studded clientele from former French Presidents Georges Pompidou and François Mitterrand, to fashion designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaïa, and filmmakers Woody Allen and Tim Burton. And to this day the grand restaurant crowned with its delicate glass cupola still draws the crowds looking to brush shoulders with the pure essence of Parisian Belle Epoque glamour.