I discovered La Vielleuse after a star-crossed love affair and continued to hang out there after the assignation had sputtered out. This café at the corner of the Rue de Belleville and the Boulevard de Belleville has delivered some remarkable people into my life, and I don’t know of another place in Paris that so reliably serves up so much guileless mystery for the price of a coffee. Ten years ago, ducking in out of the rain after a spat, I sat at a table here, ordered a coffee, and fitfully read an Italian novel a friend had just written. Very quickly I became more curious about the people around me, who must have been speaking at least a dozen languages. After I closed my book, the woman with the green eyes and the blouse of elaborate gold embroidery at the table next to me said, “Excusez-moi, Monsieur, vous venez d’où?” Connecticut didn’t seem to have any exotic resonance in that large room, but maybe because she’d changed countries so often during her own lifetime, Margaretta, a textile designer, was intrigued. “An American in Paris,” she chirped, in English, and then, “Didn’t Mark Twain live in Connecticut?” (He did, in Hartford.) Born into an Italian-Jewish family in Algiers, she’d lived in Turin, Israel, and Uruguay before settling in Belleville some 20 years ago. “Of all the places I’ve ever lived, this one is the kindest for people who’ve had disrupted lives,” she explained, filling me in on the shaggy details of her own—from her family’s expropriated textile factory in Algeria to her sour stint in Italy as a seamstress. “Et donc,” she said, “Belleville est chez moi [Belleville is my home].”
Margaretta also told me about a fabulous kosher couscous place, now gone, and about Lao Siam, one of the best-value Asian restaurants in Paris, which is how I first learned that this part of the city, generally ignored by food guides and the mainstream French press, actually is home to quite a bit of good food.
If I went on to glean the names of many of the best restaurants in the 19th and 20th arrondissements through conversations at La Vielleuse, more recently it’s the chatter at the unselfconsciously funky Aux Folies that has propelled me toward some seriously good dinners. Every night this compact café is packed with a churning crowd of folks who’ve ditched their easels and keyboards long enough to catch up with friends over a glass of red wine.
While the signboards along the Rue de Belleville still read as a uniquely alluring global menu—Cok Ming, Le Caire,L’Iliade, and Welcome Pizza, among others—two excellent restaurants tucked away in side streets, Le Baratin and Le Chapeau Melon, show how Belleville is changing. At Le Baratin, Argentinean-born chef Raquel Carena (see “Smooth Operator,” page 118) serves inventive contemporary bistro dishes with flavors inspired by Argentina, Morocco, India, Mexico, Spain, and many other countries. Her chalkboard menu changes almost daily, but dishes like cod ceviche, lentil soup with foie gras, salmon marinated with olive oil and lemongrass, and duck with citrus—along with homey desserts like a cloudlike panna cotta—offer up a delicious take on the way Parisian bistro cooking is being subtly reinvented by chefs whose outlook is reflexively cosmopolitan.