Down at the end of the arcade on the Rue de Rivoli is the Hôtel de Crillon, a long, 18th-century aristocratic town house on the Place de La Concorde with a colonnaded facade commissioned by Louis XV. The building looks worthy of housing a parliament, so it is all the more shocking when you walk down the marble gallery of the hotel to find a crimson velvet bar the size of a pillbox. It’s like finding the heart of a mouse inside a whale.
Given its size and location, I was almost surprised to find the little chamber hopping on a weekday night around ten, conversation gently blanketed by the languid tinkling of a black baby grand piano. I sat at the mosaic-mirror-encrusted bar (the work of French sculptor César) where, to my left, two male models sniffed at a 100-year-old bottle of Rémy Martin and, to my right, a 75-year-old Chanel-swaddled woman sipped rosé Champagne. Obviously, I ended up in conversation with the lady. She told me I had nice legs and advised me on seasonally appropriate stocking choices. In an increasingly casual world—one where “dressing for dinner” means throwing a kaftan over a swimsuit—the sumptuous fabrics and chandelier lighting of the palace bars encourage a rare bit of dress-up.
The Hôtel Raphael, at the western end of the Champs-Élysées, just south of the Arc de Triomphe, bears the cultured touch of its art-collecting founder (note the Turner in the lobby). The Raphael’s downstairs bar, with its sea of radiant, cherry-colored velour sofas and glistening oil paintings, should go in the Rolodex of anyone planning a Parisian tryst. Especially a really illicit one—the downstairs bar is never packed. A second bar, on the roof, offers 360-degree views of the Paris skyline; in the summer, Right Bank Parisians meet in the private bays separated by topiary hedges and sweet-smelling fruit trees.
Anyone on a dedicated hunt for chic Parisians need look no further than the Hôtel Le Bristol. The Bristol bar breaks from a pattern of intimacy in palace bars and instead offers grandeur—theater in the round. A ring of pink marble columns surrounds a circular marble bar at the heart of a flotilla of brocaded pastel armchairs and love seats. It’s sort of like a Roman bathhouse where you bathe in Cognac and power instead of thermal water. Politics and posh seem to have begotten one another at this most princely of palace bars. French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s camp has made the Bristol its preferred retreat. On a recent Monday night, I had to elbow my way past stacks of paparazzi at the front door. Someone at the bar whispered the name of a certain famous French actress with a Coast Guard dinghy for lips. I never saw her, though the cops-and-robbers act of a French rock star with a sizzling Marlboro on his lip getting politely chased around the bar by a steward with an ashtray was ample entertainment. (The smoking ban, enacted in January 2008, is taken very seriously.)
Head bartender Thierry Hernandez’s “palace of tomorrow” at the Plaza Athénée offers futuristic, multi-textured cocktails—a deconstructed Piña Colada, for example, which entails eating a foamy coconut meringue and then spraying rum with pineapple extract from a tiny vaporiser into your mouth. If the elegant lady at the Crillon scolded my bare legs, she’d surely balk at the alcoholic pineapple Binaca—even Hernandez admitted it targets the younger crowd. The smoky blue glass bar that responds to touch with a glowing internal light (I felt like I was setting my cocktail down on ET’s dying chest), the portable plasma-screen menu, the liquor coaxed into gelatinous slivers and frozen Popsicles—embrace it or pooh-pooh it, you can’t deny Hernandez’s genius for sparking conversation.
The Plaza Athénée was for me, as it is for many, a gateway to the palace bars. Last year, my sister, who works in fashion, dragged me there for her 24th birthday, so I had to swallow my protest that it was going to be expensive and completely ridiculous. It was both, and I’ve never looked back.