Where to Wine & Dine: Paris

by Chuck Hayward

Where to Wine & Dine: Paris

Post by Chuck Hayward | September 13th, 2011

While it may not be filled with glamor and celebrities as some people imagine, the wine industry is great for finding the best recommendations on all things gustatory: must-eat restaurants, the perfect espresso or that funky wine bar. Tips from winemakers or sales representatives make it seem as if I have my very own concierge when traveling.

Instead of keeping those recommendations to myself, I find it best to share. So when asked for suggestions in Paris, Sydney or Barcelona, I would have to sort through assorted matchbooks and business cards to compile a list. Over and over. Therefore, I decided it was time to come up with a permanent list that I could keep on hand and share with everyone who asks, as well as our blog readers. Bon voyage!

 The Wine Bars of Paris

Empty glasses and plates at Le Baron Rouge
Empty glasses and plates at Le Baron Rouge

Along with bistros, baguettes, the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, Paris also brings wine to mind.  While thoughts of old Bordeaux or Champagne in ice buckets occupy your thoughts on the flight over, the reality can fall short. Wine lists in many cafes only offer an appellation and a price without mention of a vintage or even a producer. Instead of the classics, today one comes face to face with the city's recent fascination with obscure reds and sparkling wines from the Loire. Not that it's a bad thing!

Parisian wine bars are meant for drinking, rather than tasting, and wines are usually moderately priced (what with everyone being broke). You'll be hard pressed to find the more academic, analytical type of wine bar in Paris where flights or small tastes are poured. That being said, a Parisian wine bar can be a great place to learn about wine, accompanied by small plates of food or cheese.

Willi's Wine Bar, picture taken from Willi's website

For many people visiting Paris for the first time, Willi's Wine Bar (13 Rue des Petits Champs) is a mandatory stop. The international acclaim probably comes from the fact that those who don’t know a lick of French can still find good wine without having to face the stereotypical snooty Parisian waiter looking down his nose at them. (In reality, those types of waiters are few and far between.) The long wooden bar provides a welcoming entrance to a large, airy room complete with tables in the back for the many lunchtime diners enjoying classic bistro fare. While the wine list has always maintained a strong focus on the south of France, you'll still find a well-selected assortment with a British sensibility, thanks to the choices of founder Mark Williamson.

Right around the corner is Juveniles (47 Rue de Richelieu) run by Tim Johnson, still a partner in Willi's. Also a retail store, boxes of wine line the walls of this modest, intimate room, along with a few small tables. And having the soul of a retailer means Tim is usually around to hold court and answer inevitable questions that arise. Once again, the focus here is on wines from southern France but the need to move product has afforded Tim the opportunity to cast a wide net. Therefore, you can find an intriguing selection from Italy and Australia, many of which are made specifically for Juveniles. And the very small kitchen churns out a series of tapas-style plates that match the wines perfectly, with Tim being the perfect guy to chat about wine or join you in a post meal prandial.

The bill of fare at Le Garde Robe

If you want to be au courant about the cutting edge wines being slurped down by locals, then get yourself to the centrally located Le Garde Robe (41 rue de l’Arbre Sec) on a narrow street near Les Halles. Deliciously cramped with a few small tables in the back, you can find a great introduction to the booming natural wine movement that has been sweeping Paris. There are some truly tasty wines being poured here along with some tres moderne labels that are downright New World in attitude.  The affordable wines I tried had soul and character, were very drinkable, and seemed to be less extreme in style than what is often seen in the States.  I'll be going back in order to keep the latest in French wine trends on my radar.

Typical Sunday afternoon crowd

My perfect wine bar, however, both in Paris and in the world, has to Le Baron Rouge (1 rue Théophile-Roussel), a few blocks east of the Rue de Lyon, which links the Bastille with the Gare de Lyon. If I were going to keep any wine bar a secret, it would be this little gem. Whoever buys the wine here has always maintained a keen eye for value and quality in their selection of crisp Loire whites, drinkable Rhones and Beaujolais, along with a broad smattering of spirits for the regulars. It is located near Place d'Aligre, where a bustling market takes place every Sunday. In fact, Sunday is the best day to go, as the market goers spill into the bar after making their purchases.

Oysters at Baron Rouge

Baron Rouge has regularly called out to me for almost two decades. I usually arrive before 11am, grab one of the few tables in the secluded corner and park myself there until we are all thrown out or too buzzed to continue. Here you see the real Paris pass in front of you as locals, young and old, single or in groups, stop by for a quick glass of wine, a small cheese platter and a quick chat with friends after shopping. Others stop by to refill a plastic container with wine straight from the spigot of the old casks along the wall. Quiet at first, the energy level swells until it becomes so crowded that latecomers are forced to place their platters of freshly shucked oysters on the hoods of cars parked outside.

All packed in the corner of Baron Rouge

It's always been easy to make friends with those nearby as the whole experience transforms into an unforgettable afternoon in Paris, ruined only by the 3pm bell that clears everybody out. I have never left here without smiling and laughing during my entire stay.  Incroyable!!