No one does languor like the French. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in Paris and the lunchtime crowds are slowly making their way back to the office on Boulevard Raspail with the kind of insouciance only Parisians can muster on a weekday. A fierce sun is beginning to emerge from behind the blanket of cloud which has cloaked the city all morning, and a few rays settle on Restaurant Saint Germain. Once moody and enclosed, with heavy velvet drapes and oversized smoking chairs, this former conservatory was recently restyled. Sunlight now illuminates the new interior with sublime effect, dancing over the marble surfaces and falling through the restaurant’s pièce de résistance, a colourful fantasy newly painted on the glass ceiling by artist Fabrice Hyber.
If there is a more magical scene in Paris at this very moment, then I would be amazed. But, then again, this restaurant knows what it’s like to be the centre of the city’s attention. Situated in the smart sixth arrondissement, which lies at the heart of Paris’s famed Left Bank, Picasso and Matisse were once regulars here. Josephine Baker ate here and sang jazz in the adjacent bar (now named Bar Joséphine) while the literati (Hemingway, Camus, Joyce, Beckett, De Beauvoir) all walked through these doors when this part of town was the most exciting, most bohemian place to be in Europe.
And (whisper it gently) the good times are coming back to the Left Bank. The Hotel Lutetia, which houses Restaurant Saint Germain has just completed a four-year, $232m renovation. Its rebirth in the heart of St Germain des Prés is ushering in a new era for an area known for its affluence and traditionalism.
“It’s interesting that the Lutetia is at the centre of the Left Bank and has re-emerged at a time when the neighbourhood is beginning to evolve,” says Lindsey Tramuta, a Paris-based journalist and author of The New Paris, which examines the city’s shift from static and traditional to vibrant and creative. “Given its classic vibe, it’s been an area slower to change; it’s not had to. On the east side of Paris, there was a lot of opportunity for people to start businesses and for things to evolve. But now, as the Right Bank has become very saturated, especially when it comes to food, people who started on the Right are going over to the Left.”
Not yet in droves, perhaps, but change is afoot. Eight years after opening in what was an up-and-coming 10th arrondissement, Centre Commercial, a brand boutique owned by the founders of cult Parisian sneaker label Veja, opened in St Germain des Prés last December. Breizh Café, home to the city’s most celebrated crêpes, has done a roaring trade from the Marais for more than a decade. After expanding further afield in France – Saint-Malo, Cancale – and Japan, it unveiled a new space on the Left Bank, by the Odéon metro, late last year. Then, in what’s being touted as a major foodie boon for the Left Bank, there’s Beaupassage.
Opened in late August, Beaupassage was conceived by the Emerige Group and spearheaded by a who’s who of French chefs. An ancient Parisian passageway between Boulevard Raspail, Rue de Grenelle and Rue du Bac in the 7th arrondissement, the pedestrianised village features art installations, green space and a cluster of casual food offerings from some big names: there’s a restaurant and wine cellar by three-star chef Yannick Alléno, a street seafood restaurant by two-star Olivier Bellin, La Boulangerie by Thierry Marx (also a two-starrer), a cheese shop by Nicole Barthélémy of Barthélémy cheese maker’s, and even a “gourmet concept store” by celebrity pastry chef Pierre Hermé.
“By linking two plots of old Paris on the Left Bank,” says Emerige Group president Laurent Dumas, “we have the opportunity to revitalise a site deeply rooted in history, combining several centuries of architecture from the 17th-century Récollets convent to the industrial age and 21st-century architecture. We hope to give a new lease of life to this Parisian mini-district, and contribute with Beaupassage to the reinvention of Paris.”
It’s an intoxicating idea, but others concede the reinvention of this area won’t happen overnight. “Opening in the Left Bank is more of a challenge,” says Centre Commercial’s Roxane Cruchandeau. “But we didn’t want to open as everyone does in Le Marais. We came humbly with the desire to electrify the district while respecting its heart and soul. It’s beginning to evolve here, and there are new places opening all the time. We think it’s really going to change, which is why we wanted to be here.”
Despite the influx of innovation, the Left Bank – particularly St Germain des Prés – clings with ferocity to its intellectual, literary and philosophical heritage. Its two iconic coffee houses – Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots – leverage their association with famous artists and thinkers, and today attract hordes of tourists. The graffitied exterior of Serge Gainsbourg’s house on the Rue de Verneuil is an Instagram hotspot. Even Lutetia pushes the artistic angle: its press kit describes St Germain de Prés as a district beloved of those who appreciate “intellectual and literary encounters in the cradle of existentialism and jazz”. But is its reputation as a hub for creativity still accurate?
“A lot of the outside world associates St Germain with the great thinkers,” says journalist Lindsey Tramuta. “But that could only sustain itself for so long. It’s like saying that all of the artists are always going to be in one pocket of a city; it’s just not realistic. When people can’t afford a neighbourhood any more, they’re going to go out to the fringes, and that’s what happened in Paris.” But the Left Bank never lost its creative spirit. Studded with art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and shops, many people on this side of the Seine started mini revolutions with businesses that were, at the time, more in line with what was happening on the Right.
Internationally renowned jewellery designer Aurelie Bidermann is based on the Left Bank, as is well-known furniture designer Christophe Delcourt and the artist Frédéric Forest. And while the Right Bank is a magnet for foodies on the hunt for honest, inexpensive fare, some of the city’s greatest innovators are on the Left: chef Jean-François Piège, formerly of Hotel de Crillon, where he won two stars, opened his chic 20-seat restaurant Clover on Rue Perronet in the 7th at the end of 2014. With its produce-driven menu and refreshing, spontaneous fare, it quickly became a hit with serious eaters. Its stalwarts are now household names: Boulangerie Poilâne, purveyors of the world-famous Pain Poilâne; Eggs & Co., one of the first Parisian cafes to do brunch and a breakfast more substantial than coffee and a croissant; relaxed tapas bar Freddy’s; and its more formal and enormously popular sibling Semilla. These long-time Left Bank favourites have been joined by welcome newcomers such as Racines des Prés.
But in the beginning there was Yves Camdeborde, the chef credited with starting the “bistronomy” trend. In 2005, he bought a small 17th-century hotel in the 6th – Relais Saint-Germain – and opened Le Comptoir du Relais. Later, he created tapas bar L’Avant Comptoir next door and L’Avant Comptoir de la Mer (seafood tapas) nearby, all of which, according to Tramuta, are “Left Bank institutions”.
The Left and Right Banks differ in myriad ways – demographics, size, history – but what truly gives each its distinct energy is its architecture. Napoleon III’s vision to demolish overcrowded medieval neighbourhoods and modernise Paris had more traction on the Right Bank, where, during the late 1800s, the administrator Haussmann, who lends his name to this architecture, built wide avenues and boulevards, including the Rue de Rivoli, Avenue Georges V and a new Étoile around the Arc de Triomphe. On the Left Bank, despite successes like Boulevard St-Germain, opposition was fiercer. Indeed, the Lutetia stands alone as the only luxury hotel on the Left Bank.
“Napoleon wanted to do the same on the Left Bank, but it belonged to the church,” says Isabelle Bouvier, the Lutetia’s manager, noting that the hotel was built on the gardens of a former abbey. “So the Left Bank has kept these little winding lanes you can get lost in. That’s kept the authentic feel of the city, and you don’t necessarily feel the same when you’re sitting on a big avenue. It’s really one of the main reasons why visitors want to stay on the Left Bank. When you walk through the streets, there’s a lot of history and it’s very beautiful. You have a lot of places where very famous people have lived, from the French Revolution through to the Jazz Age. You can discover a lot by walking these streets.”
Reflecting this history and balancing it with modernity was especially important to the architect responsible for Lutetia’s renovation, Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Built by the Boucicaut family, the founders of department store Le Bon Marché, in 1910 (and originally used as luxury lodgings for the store’s wealthy clientele), the Hotel Lutetia was, by the early 2010s, a little rough around the edges. Still, the place had soul, and Wilmotte and his team were obsessed with retaining it. In Bar Joséphine, for example, they discovered an original fresco, painted in 1910 and preserved under six layers of paint. It took 17,000 hours to restore.
Elsewhere, the goal was to let in the light. Wilmotte changed the ground floor layout to create a sun-drenched internal courtyard, which connects the hotel’s restaurant, bar, library and main lobby. He scaled back the room count from 233 to 184, and, using a soft palette of blues and greys, brightened them up. There’s even a swoon-worthy basement lap pool, lit by natural light.
“We like to say the hotel has always been a mirror of its time,” says Bouvier. “Now, it’s contemporary, exciting but still with its own soul.” It’s something you could say about the Left Bank itself.