Algerian butchers meet African barbers rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in Paris

The long and bustling rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis is one of the most historic streets in Paris, but it is very discreet and rarely features in guidebooks or concierge recommendations.

It surprises locals and tourists alike as it symbolizes the modern reality of the City of Light – a vibrant and cosmopolitan melting pot of nationalities, religions and cultures. Joining the teeming crowds that fill the restaurants, cafes, food outlets and eclectic shops of the street from morning till night reminds me more of multi-ethnic London at its height than Paris, where historically every community of Immigrants remained loyal to their own neighborhood.

But here, in a few minutes, you come across an Algerian halal butcher, Syrian, Kurdish and Turkish snacks, Indian curries and African barbers, but also old-fashioned French fromageries and fishmongers, as well as traditional 150-year-old shops. . old brasseries serving oysters, crabs and prawns, and cool, contemporary bistros that have recently sprung up, welcoming chic young Parisians who are suddenly drawn to this newly fashionable neighborhood.

The entrance to Faubourg Saint-Denis is at the imposing Porte Saint-Denis, marked by an imposing victory arch commissioned by the Sun King of France, Louis XIV, to commemorate the glorious victories of his army. Faubourg means “beyond the bourg”, outside the city walls or gates, and there are still 14 of these distinctive neighborhoods in Paris, from the exclusive fashion boutiques lining the Faubourg Saint-Honoré to the artisan furniture workshops of the Faubourg Saint Anthony.

It seems incredible to imagine today, but the Faubourg Saint-Denis was originally part of an important Roman road leading into northern France, when Paris was known as Lutèce. It later became famous as part of La Voie Royale, a grand processional route that royalty traditionally took, returning to Paris after their coronation in Reims, then leaving for their final resting place at the Basilique Saint-Denis, where the kings of France are buried. . The last monarch to travel along the Faubourg was Queen Victoria, on her way to the 1855 World’s Fair after arriving by train.

Thus, until the end of the 19th century and the creation of modern Paris by Baron Haussmann, it was an upscale and affluent district lined with jewelry, textile and porcelain merchants. But a whole different world awaits the adventurous traveler today who descends the narrow Faubourg towards the Gare de l’Est.

My evening visit begins at the trendy John Circus, a bustling pizzeria where Italian bartender Andrea Conti enthusiastically says, “Seriously, I don’t think there’s another street in the world that can be made up of so many different nationalities , immigrants, refugees . Turks, Kurds, Syrians and Greeks, Chinese and Afghans, Moroccans and Senegalese, Indians and Pakistanis, all work side by side.

“You will find the best kebabs, curries, chorba soup from North Africa, mafe and yassa from West Africa, classic French cuisine and, of course, Italian. Except that here, our excellent pizza maker, Rana, is originally from Bangladesh, while our owner, Alex, is French. But it’s typical of the Faubourg Saint-Denis.

While John Circus is part of a new generation of addresses on the Faubourg, the same sense of a welcoming global community is emerging in other more established venues. Eyyup Ulas runs the historic Derya restaurant, which has been open since 1988. Walking into the crowded dining room, with everyone feasting on hearty plates of mezze and juicy lamb skewers, I feel like I’m from return to a traditional tavern in Istanbul’s bohemian district of Beyoglu.

The only surprise from this mainstay of Turkish cuisine is that the owners are actually Kurds, but when they opened, it was not the time to promote their Kurdish roots. “We are friends with everyone here,” Ulas says. “The Turkish kebab stalls, the new wave of Kurdish restaurants, even the Greeks running the Grand Café d’Athènes just up the street. Conflict is for politicians and here, in the Faubourg, everyone is friends with each other.

Ali Mokaden has been serving his couscous and tajines on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis since 1975. Photo: John Brunton

A few doors down, the hole in the wall Sidi Boussaid is probably the smallest restaurant on the whole street, and its Tunisian owner Ali Mokaden has been serving his couscous and tajines since 1975. over the years. If you can believe it, a long time ago this was a European quarter with Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians alongside the French.

“It used to be a bustling mall with shops and businesses, whereas today it’s becoming more residential, wealthier and new hipsters prefer Japanese noodle bars and Mexican tacos over restaurants like mine But I still wouldn’t live and work anywhere else.

An address not to be missed on the Faubourg is Le Daily Syrian, with three different outlets. Owner Ahmed Al Batin came to France from the Syrian town of Nawa, near the border with Jordan, and opened his first place 10 years ago.

“For us, this eclectic street was the ideal place, lively and full of different nationalities, a melting pot of cuisines from around the world, with a clientele open to new tastes. Our first place was therefore dedicated to falafel, with the aim of educating French foodies that falafel is not a Lebanese or Israeli invention but originated in Syria. Then we opened a place dedicated to grilling, and more recently a vegetarian and vegan Syrian restaurant.

This last canteen may be in a former halal butcher’s shop, but despite the meat fangs hanging from the tiled walls, the tantalizing menu offers za’atar patties with hummus, fava ful and labneh, broad bean and chickpea salad, tabbouleh marinated turnips and smoky stuffed eggplant.

“I chose to come to France as an entrepreneur, because I was convinced that this country welcomed people from all over the world, regardless of their religion and politics,” says Al Batin. “And in our restaurants, I have always tried to give work to refugees who are trying to survive here, not just from Syria but from all over the Middle East.”

Peppers street art Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis.  Photo: John Brunton

Despite this kaleidoscope of global cuisine, there are still many historic places dedicated to classic French cuisine. Julhes is a deli to die for, perfect for homemade bread, macaroons, artisan jams and honey, while Taka & Vermo has dozens of irresistible cheeses. Queues line the street outside the Belle Epoque Bouillon Julien, which serves timeless dishes such as egg mayonnaise, beef consommé and duck confit, while for seafood and sauerkraut, the opulent Art Nouveau Floderer was one of the first brasseries to open in Paris in 1871.

It was then that another wave of refugees swept over Paris, when Alsace was annexed by Germany and the displaced arrived at the Gare de l’Est, just next to the Faubourg Saint-Denis. The Brasserie is nestled in the Cour des Petites Ecuries, once the royal stables and one of the many courtyards and mysterious passages of the Faubourg.

Directly opposite is the intriguing Passage du Désir, while Passage Brady is now an unofficial “little India”, home to restaurants, spices, incense and textile shops. The Passage du Prado is the oldest passage in Paris, created in 1785, with a glass roof and ornate Art Deco embellishments added in 1925. Once an exclusive shopping arcade, the Passage is now dominated by African hairdressers and nail salons and beauty, and is packed out all day as revelers get ready and preen with hair extensions, outrageous wigs and funky beard trim.

Although one enters the Passage du Prado from the Faubourg, the exit is just under the arch of Louis XIV on one of Baron Haussmann’s Grands Boulevards, lined with majestic theatres. Every fashionista’s favorite Parisian department stores, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, are just up the street. And while you can always sip an espresso here at the zinc counter of a classic French cafe, I spot several shisha lounges and even a cool new Haitian restaurant.

Even the Paris of Baron Haussmann is no longer the prerogative of the French bourgeoisie, but rather evolves in the same direction as the cosmopolitan Faubourg Saint-Denis.

Updated: June 01, 2022, 08:58

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