Neighborhood Report: Canal Saint-Martin
Eating and drinking and keeping cool in Paris' 10th Arrondissement
You can find—breaking news!—good food, good wine and a good time all over Paris. But it's surprisingly hard to find a neighborhood with a high-density mix of everything you'd want to see, eat and drink in a day without having to sample every nondescript bistro and boulangerie in a ten-block radius. The neighborhood around the Canal Saint-Martin, though, is just the ticket. Built around a beautiful, gritty canal that's become a primo picnic spot, the area is home to a collection of casual, cool and consistently delicious establishments catering to the area's increasingly hip population.
Running through a corner of the 10th Arrondissement, the canal itself has that classic Parisian mix of the grimy and the gorgeous. It's a place where picturesque shade trees and wrought-iron pedestrian bridges share space with graffiti on concrete and public urinals, and where, almost every night, crowds of impeccably dressed youngsters plunk down right on the cobblestoned sidewalks lining the waterway for boozy picnics.
In the streets surrounding the canal, though, there are enough great coffee shops, restaurants, bars and épiceries to occupy a full day of eating and drinking. Ten Belles, east of the canal on Rue de Lancry, is one of the best coffee shops in Paris and a perfect place to start the day. Part of the new wave of serious cafés that have popped up in Paris recently, Ten Belles makes excellent espresso and pourover coffee with beans from the nearby Belleville Brulerie. It's the kind of no-frills place you might find in New York, a big improvement over the city's famously lame bistro espresso. But, bien sur, all this coffee nerdism means no Wi-Fi.
Now that you're hungry, walk across the canal to Du Pain et Des Idées, a fantastic neighborhood boulangerie. It's best to show up early if you want the chance to pick from the full range of escargots—pinwheel pastries, not actual snails—and the more experimental "idées," like rosewater croissants and a crackly pannettone revisité. But even if they're running low by the time you get there, the staple brioches, baguettes tradition and rustic hunks of pain des amis are all superb, with just the right ratio of crunch-to-chew. There are a few benches outside for immediate chowing (and a little Monoprix right across the street if you want to get some cheese), but you can always pop the bread in your bag for a snack on the go.
You could easily spend the afternoon shopping for nonedibles at the cute boutiques and eccentric thrift stores west of the canal, but better to reserve a block of time for Le Comptoir Général.
Hidden down an alley off the east side of the canal (you can find the open door at 80 Quai de Jemmapes), it's best described as an Africa-themed cafe, restaurant, bar, secondhand store and museum, all sprawling across two huge rooms, a connecting garden and a second-floor loft. It's designed to look like a third-world expat watering hole, and mini-exhibitions on display as part of its "Ghetto Museum" project—a "cabinet of sorcery" with voodooish relics, a corner display about a contemporary dinosaur hunter in the Congo basin—are scattered throughout.
At night, the bar is hopping, but I like to drop in during the afternoon, when you can grab a glass of bissap juice (made from hibiscus and better known as jamaica to Mexican agua fresca connoisseurs), wander in peace and try to wrap your head around its lovely weirdness. Walk in freely, though there is a loosely enforced "mandatory" donation box for entry (price: whatever you feel like paying).
Once dinnertime rolls around, the place you're looking for is Le Verre Volé, back up on Rue de Lancry. This bistro doubles as a cave à vin (i.e., a wine store) featuring a rotating selection of top-tier natural wines and seems to have taken the haute scruff aesthetic of the natural wine movement to heart—the chairs don't match, and you might be squeezed in a corner, but the food is on point. The menu changes daily, but highlights from a recent visit included an Iberian pork cutlet, breaded tonkatsu-style and served over a bed of greens and potatoes; lightly fried and amazingly tender little squids with a simple butter-lemon dipping sauce; and a melon gazpacho with buffalo mozzarella and jambon cru. Appetizers hover around €10 and plats range from €20 to €30, but they only charge a €7 corkage fee over the retail price of their bottles. Just tell your server your price range and vague wine preferences and let them take care of the rest.
For an after-dinner drink, walk away from the canal down to 50 Rue de Lancry. Le Cinquante has two big back rooms, but the low-key patrons always seem to squeeze into the front for their spritzes and shared carafes du vin—and the wine's better than what you'd find at a typical bar in the area, too.
Or, of course, you could always grab a bodega beer and join the locals down by the canal. You might even learn how to look chic while squatting on cobblestones.