Parisian Walkways: Rue du Bac in the 7th Arrondissement
Towards the top of this famous 7th arrondissement street, near its metro station, a new culinary corner has been forming. Jeffrey T Iverson heads for what they are calling Beaupassage…
In the summer of 2018, a shiny new food court was inaugurated in a Paris 7th arrondissement passageway connecting boulevard Raspail, rue Grenelle and rue du Bac. Sounds banal, right? Only this project wasn’t imagined by some anonymous entrepreneur but by of a group of French chefs holding about 17 Michelin stars between them. Here there are restaurants, luxe lunchtime delis, bread, pastry, wine and butcher’s shops, all created by the likes of Yannick Alléno, Anne-Sophie Pic, Thierry Marx, Olivier Bellin and Pierre Hermé.
This new foodie haven has been named Beaupassage. Were this any other part of Paris, such an opening would have come as a bombshell – and a commercial godsend for a neighbourhood. Yet in the rue du Bac quartier, these days it seems the opening of a handful of addresses by celebrated chefs simply comes as par for the course.
As the French weekly Le Nouvel Obs recently put it, “Over the years, rue du Bac and a few surrounding streets have come to form a veritable golden triangle of gourmandise.” As home to much of the Parisian political and financial elite, it’s not surprising that the 7th arrondissement would have businesses catering to deep-pocketed connoisseurs. But today, the growing concentration of fine-food addresses in a relatively small area around rue du Bac, bolstered by a massive 2013 renovation of the luxury supermarket La Grande Épicérie, has earned the street a reputation as an epicurean destination in itself.
For Julien Yoël of Le Bac à Glaces, an artisan ice cream shop founded in 1955 at 109 rue du Bac, the street’s evolution has been striking. “When I was young, rue du Bac was not such a busy shopping street,” he recalls. “But since La Grande Épicérie was renovated we’ve really seen a change: it’s transformed into a truly gourmet street, with top pastry chefs arriving and the opening of many great food addresses.” Indeed, as any visitor can discover today simply by hopping off the Line 12 metro at the stop named for this street, rue du Bac boasts a rich history and myriad delights. It’s a place where French culture and savoir-faire are cherished, where the old meets the new, and sustenance of so many kinds can be enjoyed.
Stretching 1,150m from the Seine to rue de Sèvres, rue du Bac is a street whose name hearkens back to an era before this swathe of the Left Bank was built over.
Around 1550, a bac, or ferry, was established on what is now the quai Voltaire to transport blocks across the river for the construction of the Palais des Tuileries. The path leading up to the ferry from the south became known as Le grand chemin du Bac. Yet it wasn’t until the 17th century, when the French nobility began to migrate across the Seine from the aristocratic quarter of the Marais, that rue du Bac and the rest of the future 7th would welcome the construction of all the resplendent urban mansions that line its street today. And through the years, whether they’ve remained in the hands of ancient noble families, been acquired by upstart bourgeois, bequeathed to the Church, confiscated by Revolutionaries, or transformed into museums, official residences of ministers or embassies, these hôtels particuliers have remained the backdrop for political, cultural and financial dealings between the powerbrokers of every era.
Take the Hôtel de Salm-Dyck, formerly known a Hôtel de Ségur, built in 1722 at 97 rue du Bac. Between 1786 and 1798, the historian and woman of letters Madame de Staël lived and held a regular salon here.
Further up, at 46 rue du Bac, sits the Hôtel Jacques Samuel Bernard, completed in 1744 for the son of Louis XV’s primary banker. Here in 1831 was founded Maison Deyrolle, an institution dedicated to natural sciences and pedagogy which amassed fabulous collections of seashells, fossils, insects and mounted animals. Open to the public, Deyrolle became a source of inspiration for artists, including André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Jean Dubuffet and Georges Mathieu. Still today, its strange and beautiful curiosities make it one of rue du Bac’s most iconic addresses.
Yet the street’s most visited site is at No. 140, in the former Hôtel de Châtillon, bequeathed to the Sisters of the Filles de la Charité in 1813. Today, the convent is a pilgrimage site for Christians, who come to see its chapel, known as La Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse, where in 1830 the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Sister Catherine Labouré.
Yet for all the movers and shakers that have called it home, rue du Bac has not always been a bustling commercial street. The historian Jacques Bainville painted a tranquil portrait of the area in the 19th century: “Rue du Bac, rue de Babylone, rue Vaneau and rue de Varenne form a vast block made up of former aristocratic residences, convent buildings, apartment buildings, a gymnasium and a handful of antique dealers and religious booksellers. The aromas from a chocolate factory waft over the chapel of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris.” That fragrance, it seems, was a foretaste of sweet things to come for rue du Bac, for two centuries later the same manufacturer evoked by Bainville is still titillating chocolate lovers on rue du Bac. Founded in 1819 at 126 rue du Bac, Foucher still sells its chocolate pralines and confections a few doors down, at No. 134.
Foucher owes its remarkable longevity in part to the creation a block away of one of the great marvels of the mid-19th century. Le Bon Marché, the world’s first department store, was opened by Aristide Boucicaut in 1852 at the corner of rue du Bac and rue de Sèvres. This revolutionary creation inspired Émile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames and brought visitors from all around the world. As proof of its influence on this one quiet quartier, by 1887 Foucher was offering its clientele international delivery on all orders.
One and a half centuries later, Le Bon Marché has proved that it’s still a powerful magnet for the rue du Bac neighbourhood. In 2013, La Grande Épicérie, the food-related wing of the famous department store first created in 1923, was reopened after two years of sweeping renovations as a three-floor luxury supermarket. Bringing together more than 25,000 of the finest products of French gastronomy in a scintillating setting of black granite, oak and steel, it become an instant epicurean Mecca for Parisian food lovers. It may bear no resemblance to Les Halles – the former riotous open-air food market that Zola used as the location for his earlier novel Le Ventre de Paris – but Le Figaro nonetheless insists that, “La Grande Épicérie has definitively relocated the belly (le ventre) of Paris to the Left Bank – with less cheeky banter, and more cashmere”
For Jean-Philippe Chillet, owner of the charming caviar-and-salmon-themed boutique Rose & Perle, opened in 2019 at 27 rue Varenne, La Grande Épicérie’s revival is part of a wider evolution. “All over this neighbourhood we’re seeing more and more métiers de bouche, food professionals, opening up new shops,” he says. “There are fishmongers and butchers of the highest quality, but also chocolate makers and pastry chefs, so this environment was a natural fit for the kind of boutique I wanted to create.” Chillet left his job in finance not long ago to follow his dream of becoming a fish professional, and it was his cousin, who recently founded the gourmet coffee roasting shop La Brûlerie de Varenne at 44 rue de Varenne, that tipped him off to a tiny boutique available on the corner of rue de Varenne and rue du Bac – next to the chocolatier Jacques Genin.
The renowned supplier of chocolates, caramels and petits fours to palace hotels makes for a prestigious neighbour for a tiny start-up like Rose & Perle, but Jacques Genin is himself actually a recent arrival to the neighbourhood. In the year following the reopening of La Grande Épicérie, rue du Bac welcomed three new boutiques dedicated to haute pâtisserie and other sweet delicacies: Jacques Genin at 27 rue de Varenne, Angelina (famous for its hot chocolate and Mont Blanc pastries) at 108 rue du Bac, and Des Gâteaux et du Pain at 89 rue du Bac – the second boutique of one of the current darlings of the French pastry world, Claire Damon. Named best in-store pastry chef at the 2018 Relais Desserts awards, Damon’s cakes are as divine as her golden croissant, which was named among the best in Paris by Vogue magazine in 2019.
The trio joined other sweet boutiques such as a Dalloyau (inventor of the Opera dessert), located at 63 rue de Grenelle, and a Chocolat Chapon boutique, opened at 69 rue du Bac by the cacoa bean hunter, roaster and chocolate mousse-maker extraordinaire Pascal Chapon. And 2018 saw the return of pastry maestro Philippe Conticini, formerly of La Pâtisserie des Rêves, with his new boutique at 37 rue Varenne, Gâteaux d’Émotions, while Maison Boissier – undisputed specialist of the marron glacé since 1827, proposing different crus to reveal the flavour differences between chestnut terroirs – also opened a boutique at No. 77. This year, rue du Bac even got its first vegan cookie shop: the Dodo Cookie Co at No. 95.
In the words of Nouvel Obs, all this amounts to “a concentration of boutiques sucrées as yet unrivalled in Paris”. Which is why in 2015 rue du Bac launched its sweet tooth festival: Bac Sucré. Every spring, the pastry, chocolate and other gourmet shops of the neighbourhood open their doors for ateliers, tastings and demonstrations for the public. As exciting as it is to taste all the dernier cripâtisseries, for some epicures rue du Bac’s most refined pleasures remain those offered by its most seasoned institutions – those whose dedication to excellence over decades has earned them the patronage and respect of an eminently discerning clientele. Take Ryst-Dupeyron, a wine and vintage spirits specialist which for decades has been selling the most exceptional old Armagnac and mythic Bordeaux at its 79 rue du Bac boutique. The ambience in this beautiful wood-panelled boutique is warm and infectiously jovial. “Ours is a privileged quartier, surrounded by government ministries, with the Prime Minister’s residence just nearby,” the owner Françoise Richard-Ryst reflects. “We’re very lucky to work in such a pleasant neighbourhood, and to have such a faithful clientele.”
Indeed, where else in Paris could one find a fromagère like Nicole Barthélémy, 51 rue de Grenelle, supplier of the most exquisite cheeses to every French president since 1973? Or a butcher like Roger Yvon of Boucherie de Varenne, 33 rue de Varenne (just up the street from Hôtel de Matignon), who has delighted prime ministers, marquises and bons vivants of every stripe for more than 40 years with his meticulously prepared meats and poultry? His secret? “What keeps us going is the pleasure we get from working with such products, and the pleasure of sharing them with a clientele that appreciates them!”
BOUTIQUES, GALLERIES AND RESTAURANTS
FOUCHER: 134 rue du Bac, Tel. +33 (0)1 45 44 05 57
This renowned chocolate and confectionery shop has delighted the residents of rue du Bac for 200 years. Today offering both century-old recipes and modern creations, Foucher is loved not only for its confectioned almonds, pâtés de fruits and chocolate pralines sold in elegant gift boxes with the original art deco designs, but also for its macarons and hot chocolate – the latter of which is said to be among the best in Paris.
LE BAC À GLACES: 109 rue du Bac, Tel. +33 (0)1 45 48 87 65
This rue du Bac institution has been churning out their ice cream à la française since 1955. Today the shop also offers crêpes and salads, and the flavours have evolved, but the leitmotifs haven’t – handmade, natural ingredients, and the minimum amount of sugar possible, be it for their salted butter caramel, pistachio or matcha green tea ice creams, or for their strawberry and mint, apricot and ginger, and almond paste sorbets.
DES GÂTEAUX ET DU PAIN: 89 rue du Bac, Tel. +33 (0)1 44 39 74 10
“My pâtisserie is principally based on fruits and, more generally, vegetables of the highest quality.” Claire Damon’s award-winning Des Gâteaux et du Pain offers many different examples of the chef’s creativity, sensitivity and obsession with the most impeccable raw ingredients. From her pastries of pure fruit flavours to her perfectly crispy, chewy, buttery croissants, there’s plenty of passion in every bite.
ROSE & PERLE: 27 rue Varenne, Tel. +33 (0)6 25 56 05 73
Jean-Philippe Chillet’s boutique is très petite, but as he says, “caviar doesn’t take up much room!” Indeed, Rose & Perle (pink and pearl) refers to his fine Label Rouge salmon, prepared by one artisan smoker in Brittany, and his exceptional caviar, which is imported directly from a producer who has farms from Iran to Italy. Be it sardine, tarama, blini or champagne, Chillet sources every product with love.
MAISON RYST-DUPEYRON: 79 rue du BacTel. +33 (0)1 45 48 80 93
This wine and spirits shop is arguably the premier Armagnac retailer in Paris, with vintages that date back to the 1800s. But far more than that, Ryst-Dupeyron is also your go-to address whenever you need an exceptional bottle of something for a very special occasion. The warm, cultivated staff happily share advice and samples. And if brandy doesn’t fit the bill, a mythic Bordeaux, rare whisky or vintage Port surely will.
BARTHÉLÉMY: 51 rue de Grenelle Tel. +33 (0)1 42 22 82 24
Even in a city full of famous fromagères, Nicole Barthélémy stands apart. Since 1971 she has rigorously selected and aged a stunning diversity of cheeses for a clientele of absolute devotees – including the Élysée Palace, having supplied every president of France since Giscard d’Estaing. The serious sales team can be intimidating, but every chèvre, Comté, Mont d’Or and Brie in this tiny boutique is guaranteed to be out of this world.
Read up on the other Parisian Walkway series here.
From France Today magazine
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