The cocktail renaissance is not driven by Americans, but one of them is playing his part.
The cocktail is back with a vengeance in the city of light
In the early years of the 20th century, a cocktail craze swept over Paris, spurred by the ever-increasing number of American visitors. Most of them settled in the Opera neighborhood. It swiftly became home to a number of first-rate bars: the Chatham, Henry’s Bar, or, later, Harry’s. Throughout prohibition, the trend spread all around the city. And then it died down… Today, though, the cocktail is back with a vengeance in the city of light. Unbelievable openings, first-rate watering holes, and a great barshow: cocktail geeks never had it better and Paris is fast becoming one of the world’s cocktail capitals. This renaissance is not driven by Americans, but one of them is playing his part.
Josh Fontaine, one of the owners of Candelaria (best cocktail bar in Europe according to Drinks International), Mary Celeste and Glass, came to Paris in 2008 for his Master’s Degree in International Relations. He needed a job, and the bar industry seemed a logical choice – he had been working in hospitality since he was 15, starting down the ladder as a stock boy in Connecticut and ending up bartending in New York. “I didn’t want to work in a nightclub. Cocktail-wise, there wasn’t much happening here. You had the Experimental Cocktail Club but I didn’t even know about it, there was no press. But then I saw it mentioned in the New York Times and that’s how I realized it existed. I went, had some drinks, liked the vibe and thought this was the kind of place where I wanted to work.”
When he joined the ‘Expé’, as it is known in France, the bar manager was Carina Soto Velasquez, a Colombian who had come to Paris to study marketing. “None of us thought ‘that’s my destiny, that’s what I want to do’. I really liked the service industry but never saw it as my long-term career”, says Josh. “But a few years later, with Carina ready to move on, we started talking about it. I didn’t see myself having to sit at a desk for hours, so I realized that maybe that job I thought I wanted to do wouldn’t make me as happy as my side-job in bars.” At this stage, neither of them felt like moving from place to place, working for other people. Bent on opening their own bar, joined by Adam Tsou, a New Yorker who worked at Astrance, a Michelin 3* restaurant, they started thinking about a concept.
“We thought ‘There are not many places in Paris so why don’t we come up with a concept that would be new, not too difficult to understand but a little bit of a shock when people come for the first time’. We wanted to do something that reminded us of our own countries, a place where we would like to hang. We wanted a really strong food program. Mexican, for example, because that’s something Adam and I missed from the US. We had a friend who’s a Mexican chef and he became a partner.” And that’s how Candelaria, the cocktail bar hidden in a taqueria, was born.
Of course, things were not that simple. “We didn’t have any money so we had to go to investors and friends and family and friends of friends and acquaintances. And then, we had to convince the bank on top of that. You put a lot of hard work into it and then hope people will come and like it.” With their friends and the following Carina and Josh had acquired over the years working bars around the city, they knew they would not have to start entirely from scratch. Still, the pressure was on. “The key is not compromising on what you’re doing. You cannot dilute the concept because people are getting nervous before the opening. You have to stick to your guns, make people understand why it’s interesting to be different.” And people did understand very fast: “It took off in the first few weeks. We never hired a PR person but we had a lot of press, all over the place. It’s a testament to the concept and the vibe”.
But beyond the taqueria and the Mexico-inspired drinks program, what was the concept? Well, for a start, no garters or moustache and loads of fun. “I like dive bars, I like rock ’n’ roll, I want to hear some cool unknown underground band, have a drink that’s surprising but not being in an atmosphere like you’re role-playing and you pretend it’s prohibition. I wanted it to be contemporary, with cool designs, works by young artists on the walls, people behind the bar who are not stuck up, wearing t-shirts and jeans but just as good as any bartenders. So when people come in, it’s not too intimidating. It’s fashionable, there’s lots of girls, a DJ in the corner jumping up and down, the bartenders look like they’re having fun, people are making out in the corner, it’s like an actual bar.”
The establishments opened by the owners of the Experimental Cocktail Club (among others, Curio Parlor and Prescription) had already changed the way Parisian bars looked – until then, for cocktails, it was 5 stars hotel or the chic surroundings of Le Forum – but they remained in a classic line. Candelaria’s opening in 2011 thus marked a sea-change.
The success of Carina, Adam and Josh’s first venture enabled them to expand. The following year, they opened Glass in Pigalle, where seedy bars are now making place for fine drinking. Opening until late, Glass offers great hot dogs, beers, cocktails on tap and music to make you dance the night away. A little over a year ago, they opened Le Mary Céleste, a restaurant with a strong bar program managed by Carlos Madriz. It’s a couple minutes walk from Calendaria in a part of town that has now become a cocktail hotspot, with Little Red Door, Sherry Butt or Grazie opening in the last couple of years.
The ever-expanding cocktail scene begs the question: is Paris in the midst of a cocktail bubble? Not according to Josh. “We’re far from the saturation point. The more bars open, the more people you touch and the more they get used to good drinks and nice service and good atmosphere. I don’t think quality of service goes out of style. You have to respect the public, and it’s not really a hallmark of French bistros or cafés.” But there’s another aspect that help explain the success of cocktails in Paris. It isn’t only novelty, hispterism, service or even drinks. It’s also about fair pricing. In a city where a cup of coffee can set you back 5 euros and a pint of bad beer 8 or 9 “when the cost for the bar is, like, 30 cents”, cocktails, around 12 euros, “with fresh produce, home-made syrups” become the value option. “You were never going to expand the cocktail scene with the prices at Harry’s or the Ritz bar”, concludes Josh. If 97% of the drinks they sell at Candelaria are cocktails, it’s because it’s a fun bar with great drinks at a fair price. Who would have thought it’d be that simple?
The drink Josh suggests cantineros try is called Talons Aiguilles and was created by Glass’ Christina Schneider.
30ml Havana Club 7 años
20ml elderflower liqueur
25ml lemon juice
1 kaffir leaf
40ml homemade pear cordial
Shake hard and quick, double strain over fresh ice into a highball and top with cahmapgne. Garnish with kaffir leaf.
The Mary Celeste, by Diane Yoon