Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Le P'tit Bar Paris - no relation to Le Petit Bar Peterborough

I took my first week away from Le Petit Bar (pretty pleased to be able to have gone, considering we're still in our first year!) and went over the pond.

Roland and I were in Wales for three days and Paris for three days.

Vising family in middle Wales - a very hobbit-y and beautiful land, populated mostly by sheep - and enjoying some real ales at proper British pubs and some lovely food. We lunched with Roland's family at a fantastic hotel bistro on a scenic lake - I can't remember any place names... they're all in Welsh, which, to me, is a crazy language (not a lot of vowels). I had braised Welsh lamb shank and Roland had a trio of local sausages. It was very much comfort food, but very well prepared with carefully selected, mostly local ingredients. Roland's lovely mum made us a lovely shepherd's pie and had a pile of Welsh cheese in for us to try.

In Paris we saw some sights - walked around the Arc de Triomph, visited the Basilica de Sacre Coeur, toured the Musee d'Orsay - and ate some nice food, particularly at Bistrot Paul Bert. But what I really want to tell you about is Paris' own Le P'tit Bar.

It is hard to find the right words to describe Le P'tit Bar. My experience there was truly surreal... Le P'tit Bar is the most unbelievable bar I've ever been to. I had no idea it existed until after opening our Le Petit Bar in Peterborough - the establishments are completely unrelated. As soon as I learned of its existence it became a destination.

I don't have any photos because the proprietress, Mme Polo, didn't seem too keen when I asked if I could photograph her space. You can find photos of this crazy little place on line and I suggest you check them out.

Le P'tit Bar is a dive bar in the 11th arrondissement, or the Bastille; a somewhat trendy area of the city known for its restaurants and bars. Roland and I stayed in this area, and Le P'tit Bar was just around the corner from us. This little, very very little, bar is no more than a quarter of the size of our Le Petit Bar. The sign has mostly peeled off the awning outside and we would have missed it if we didn't know exactly what we were looking for.

At the time of our arrival there was already one patron at the bar - a fairly intoxicated, somewhat slobbery French fellow - and, so, only enough room left for Roland and I. Seriously. Only enough space for three bodies, plus Mme Polo, her canary and her cat (!). This visit was an experience...

It's very dark inside Le P'tit Bar. And very narrow. Mme Polo tends the bar wearing a pink sweater. She is very small. She is 90 years old. She has been operating Le P'tit Bar seven days a week, from 2pm till 2am, for more than sixty years. She opened the bar with her late husband in the 50s. She is perched behind the bar surrounded by personal belongings. Bags of things. Stacks of paper. Photos. Clothes. Mme Polo might be a hoarder. And it appears she literally lives in her bar.

Her cat, a large male Siamese, is rubbing against the French fellow, looking for attention. Cat jumps up, walks along the bar, and sits on an old-school tape player where, as Roland jokes, "il fait le DJ". The bar top is not very clean. There is just enough room for the three of us to stand at the bar. We take up the length of it, and there is minimal space to even turn around. Cat is DJing and the canary is in his cage behind us. The space smells. Like cat pee, animals, drunks and poor hygiene. Beside Canary is a pile of baguette pieces. I think maybe Mme Polo is drying them to feed to Canary. Beyond the drying baguette is a pile of more of Mme Polo's things, including her dry cleaning still in its plastic bags.

Over the narrow zinc bar is a thatched roof - tiki style. Liquor bottles hang empty behind the bar and (this is for real) Mme Polo is drying Cat's hairballs on these bottles. The bottle labels appear to be from the 70s, and every glass in her bar is very dusty. We have read warnings online to only order bottled beer as "Mme Polo does not like to clean very much".

Lying on the bar, rolling in a sticky pile, is a collection of empty beer bottles. Roland picks one up and says he'll take two. Mme Polo pulls herself up off her seat behind the bar and disappears for five minutes behind a curtain. She returns with two bottles of Belgian beer for Roland and I, and one for the French dude. Dude takes a liking to Roland and wants to get Roland's opinion of Celine Dion. Using our best French we tell Mme Polo she and her bar are famous. She agrees and tells us she meets lots of Canadians, Americans,  Australians... Mme Polo and Le P'tit Bar have become an attraction for tourists looking for something off-the-beaten-path.

While we are in Le P'tit Bar a young guy stops at the window and looks in. It's clear there isn't any space for anymore patrons.

We chat with Mme Polo and Dude, and it's really quite charming, despite being also mildly disgusting. Dude is a bit too drunk and gets a little angry when Mme Polo says he can't have another. He remembers all her old cats, he says, and I start to feel badly for Mme Polo; she's probably dealt with this dude for years, day in and out. We ask her if she's tired, working her little bar non-stop on her own. There isn't anything else she wants to do.

I wonder how she stays open. Only enough room for three bodies at a time. Charging 3 euro for a beer. It's obvious time, and the health inspector, have forgotten about Le P'tit Bar. I do not imagine it is frequented by many locals, with the exception of Dude, and probably a few more dudes like him. You won't find Le P'tit Bar in guidebooks or suggested as a hot spot on many well recommended websites. Ninety-year old Mme Polo has stamina, that's for sure. Much more than I have. It's all very remarkable.

We down our beers and leave. One is enough. As soon as we are out the door the young guy and his pal, who have been waiting on the street, take our place at Mme Polo's bar.

Le P'tit Bar, 7 rue Richard Lenoir, 11e


  1. What a beautiful piece of writing, Shannon, and how amazing a discovery this must have been!

    I do have to add: glad the resemblance of the two bars is in name only! (gag!)

  2. This was a really enjoyable and humourous read, Shannon. It felt like a holiday in itself.