Parisian Walkways: South of Pigalle, the Trendy District Known as SoPi

Parisian Walkways: South of Pigalle, the Trendy District Known as SoPi

For years, most Parisians really only saw the 9th arrondissement as the place to go if they wanted to shop at Galeries Lafayette, buy an antique at the Hôtel Drouot or attend the Opéra National de Paris. The rest of the quartier, especially south of Pigalle, was largely overlooked, even snubbed. A decade ago, it was hard to imagine that the 9th bore witness to one of France’s greatest art scenes and, for over half a century, was perhaps Paris’s most fashionable quartier.

Today, thanks to an infusion of ‘bobos’, entrepreneurs and chefs, the area to the south of Pigalle and Sacré-Coeur, which was home to some of the most famous artists of the 19th-century ‘romantic’ era, is on the rise. The media has dubbed the area ‘SoPi’.

“We used to call this neighbourhood ‘la Nouvelle Athènes’,” says Catherine Sorel, spokesperson for the area’s musée de la Vie romantique (16 rue Chaptal). “Today it’s very trendy to talk about ‘South Pigalle’, as we’ve seen the opening of concept stores, boutiques by young designers, bistros and hip restaurants. There’s a resurgence of interest in the 19th century and the history of La Nouvelle Athènes.”

After years in the shadows, the spotlight is again shining on these storied streets. And as ‘South Pigalle’ has come to represent all that is hip and dernier cri in Paris, the area’s rich past as La Nouvelle Athènes is also being rediscovered. Today, south of Pigalle, all that’s old is new again.

One herald of this transformation came in 2006, with the opening of Hôtel Amour (8 rue Navarin) by a pair of famous restaurant entrepreneurs, the Costes brothers, and the creators of the Paris nightclub Le Baron. The wildly successful hotel, a former maison close (brothel) near the old Pigalle cabarets, embraced the area’s racy 20th-century reputation. At the time, opening the pricey boutique hotel seemed as risqué as it did risky. Less than a decade on, the area’s first five-star luxury hotel, the Maison Souquet (10 rue de Bruxelles), has just opened in a former “Belle Époque pleasure house”.

“There’s a strong sense of identity here, people like to trumpet the fact that they’re from the 9th, that they’re from SoPi,” says Steve Sérèmes of Mesdemoiselles Madeleines (37 rue des Martyrs). “We’re very much in France, but people are also very aware of global trends. There’s this fashion in SoPi to borrow from what’s happening in New York and around the world.”

Cocktail Bars have popped up with names like Pigalle Country Club (59 rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle), a nod to the Buschwick Country Club in Brooklyn. When residents don’t refer to the neighbourhood as ‘SoPi,’ many call it ‘South [pronounced sows] Pigalle’. The owners of the hip concept store L’Oeuf (9 rue Clauzel) even trademarked a South Pigalle line of streetwear in 2008. Buvette, (28 rue Henry Monnier), one of the area’s hippest restaurants, serves revisited French bistro classics and boasts Brooklyn-esque décor. It was opened by American chef Jody Williams and modelled after her Greenwich Village restaurant.

This willingness to update something as sacrosanct as French gastronomy is shared by many of those who have put SoPi on the map. Les Commis (51 avenue Trudaine), which opened in 2012 just off the picturesque Rue des Martyrs, creates gourmet ‘meal kits’ of fabulously fresh products.

“There’s a clientele here who have a certain spending power, are very educated in culinary terms and are open to new ideas,” says founder Clément Chanéac. “It’s often used as a kind of a ‘test neighbourhood’, to try out new concepts in gastronomy.”

Food concept trendsetters abound on the Rue des Martyrs, such as Café Marlette (No 51), a café-boutique with a popular terrasse that’s dedicated to gluten-free breads and pastries. This past year, Steve Sérèmes opened Mesdemoiselles Madeleines, dedicated to France’s famous shell-shaped sponge cake, where the sweet and savoury recipes change seasonally.

“The Madeleine is emblematic of France,” he says Sérèmes. “I didn’t invent anything, I just updated it.”

So numerous are these single-product shops that French food critics are calling Rue des Martyrs “La Rue du Monoproduit”. The ‘rock ’n’ roll ice-cream shop’ Glazed (No 54) offers such combinations as Campari, balsamic vinegar and orange sorbet, while Popelini (No 44) has updated thechoux à la crème with flavours like apricot & rosemary. La Chambre aux Confitures (No 9), a dazzling shrine to gourmet jams which opened in 2011, arguably launched the street’s sweet-toothed, food concept boutique trend.

“The Rue des Martyrs has become a crossing point between the Grands Magasins district and Sacré-Coeur,” says founder Lise Bienaimé. “Tourists come here for a gastronomic tour.”

Another SoPi street to take a decidedly gastronomic turn is the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, especially since the 2011 opening of Causses (No 55), an example of a new breed of delicatessen, selling fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses and gourmet dry goods. Walking up the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette from the Place Saint-Georges, with its iconic statue, theatre and bustling brasserie terrasse, one soon comes upon L’Affineur Affiné (51 rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette). Created by an innovative young couple, this welcome twist on the traditional fromagerie offers an array of perfectly-aged wares which can be purchased to-go or enjoyed in their tasting room / restaurant. Across the street, En Vrac (No 48) opened this year, introducing bulk fine wine sales as an ecological, low carbon footprint alternative to estate-bottled varieties.

Continuing past Causses, the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette becomes the Rue Chaptal, where another revolution is taking place. The Musée de la Vie Romantique and its secluded garden teahouse have long ranked among Paris’s best-kept secrets, but no more.

“We’re seeing a whole new population coming to the museum,” says spokesperson Catherine Sorel. “There’s almost a kind of neo-dandyism– it’s fashionable to be interested in the 19th century and these artists.”

The Musée was originally the home of painter Ary Scheffer, a prominent artist whose Friday-evening salons drew the crème of Nouvelle Athènes’ intellectual and artistic society, including George Sand, Chopin, Delacroix, Ingres, Lamartine, Liszt and Rossini. The building was constructed in 1830, during a three-decade boom which saw the entire neighbourhood created. In part, the nickname of La Nouvelle Athènes referred to the architectural style employed, which drew heavily on motifs from antiquity.

“People found a new art de vivre here, totally different from Paris, which had become terribly dirty and suffocating,” says Fabien Leborgne, who leads the Musée’s Nouvelle Athènes ‘street tour’. “During a very short period, artists flooded Nouvelle Athènes, looking to create ateliers.”

By 1870, the area boasted 180 artist ateliers. Today, numerous buildings bear the names of such past residents as Renoir, Van Gogh and Gaugin, and large, north-facing rooftop windows still dot the neighbourhood’s rooftops.

Among the few period ateliers open to the public is that of Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, who André Breton hailed as the forerunner to Surrealism. The recently renovated Musée Gustave Moreau (14 rue de La Rochefoucauld) boasts a magnificent staircase and an entirely new floor featuring more of the master’s artwork.

A new artistic hub seems to be emerging around these museums as three galleries dealing in 19th-century art have opened in recent years.

“The 19th century was one of the most rich in terms of movements in painting,” says Virginie Botte of Galerie Johann Naldi (33 rue Chaptal), “so we’re not competitors, we complement each other.”

Galerie Johann Naldi focuses on Romanticism and Fin-de-Siècle, Galerie La Nouvelle Athènes (22 rue Chaptal) is dedicated to Romanticism and Classicism, while Galerie Chaptal (No 7) offers drawings, late 19th-century Symbolism and École Allemande. The three galleries are constantly collaborating and will mount simultaneous exhibitions to coincide with the Musée de la Vie Romantique’s next show, Visages de l’Effroi, which opened on November 3.

“We want to recreate a little cultural hub,” says Botte, “to give a new dynamic to Nouvelle Athènes.”

So what do these gallery owners share with the area’s new grocers, wine vendors and food entrepreneurs?

“We’re making something new with something old,” says Sérèmes of Mesdemoiselles Madeleines, “using the neighbourhood and its history as a springboard.”

Auguste Rodin said, “Je n’invente rien, je redécouvre.” (“I invent nothing, I rediscover.”), but SoPi unquestionably proves that, through investigating its past, Paris is reinventing itself.


Causses, 55 rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, Tel: +33 1 53 16 10 10

Imagine if the delights of a Paris street market– raw milk cheeses and butter, meats and charcuterie, impeccable fruits and vegetables, fresh-baked breads – could be found in one shop, alongside craft beers and wine, and a deli overflowing with nuts, olives, spices and oils. Causses is a grocery shop unlike any in France.

En Vrac, 48 rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, Tel: +33 1 44 63 06 01

To create this next-generation, eco-conscious wine and spirit shop, Thierry Poncin revived a long neglected approach – selling it ‘in bulk’. Huge vessels of eau-de-vie line the walls and aluminium tanks of vin are perched atop roughly-hewn logs, allowing clients fill their bottles with wines and spirits from small producers from across France.

Galerie La Nouvelle Athènes, 22 rue Chaptal, Tel: +33 1 75 57 11 42

A new generation of gallery owners is determined to see the area now known as SoPi recognised as a mecca for lovers of 19th-century art. At Galerie La Nouvelle Athènes, works by famous and forgotten masters of the Neoclassical and Romantic periods fill a charming space which evokes an 1830s salon.

L’Oeuf– South Pigalle, 9 rue Clauzel, Tel: +33 1 40 16 41 39

In recent years, some of Paris’s most fashionable boutiques have emerged around the Rue des Martyrs, and L’Oeuf’s three stores on the Rue Clauzel are exemplars. Creator of the ‘South Pigalle’ brand, L’Oeuf is adored by the trend-conscious for their chic street wear and shoes, plus the collections of furniture and decorative art.

Mesdemoiselles Madeleines, 37 rue des Martyrs, Tel: +33 1 53 16 28 82

The Rue des Martyrs’ most recent food concept store has dared update the most emblematic of French cakes, namely Proust’s beloved Madeleine. The tiny, shell-shaped sponge cake is seasonally re-imagined in multiple sweet and savoury versions, such as raspberry and rose, fennel and blackcurrant, and lemon basil, feta and pine nut.

La Chambre aux Confitures, 9 rue des Martyrs, Tel: +33 1 71 73 43 77

Founder Lise Bienaimé has put a fresh face on French confiture with recipes so good (apricot and lavender, raspberry with Champagne) that their uses hardly end at breakfast. ‘Orange Exotique’ marries brilliantly with sesame-breaded shrimp, while ‘Fleur de Géranium’ creates a divine cocktail when mixed with lime, vodka and Perrier.

All photos taken by photo by Jeffrey T Iverson.

From France Today magazine

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A native of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and a graduate of NYU’s Institute of French Studies and School of Journalism, Jeffrey T. Iverson has called Paris home since 2000. His stories of maverick chefs, enlightened winemakers and prolific artists have notably appeared in France Today, Time, Centurion and Departures magazines.

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