There are many good reasons to go to Paris in the middle of winter, as long as warm weather isn’t what you’re after. Flights are cheaper. Lines to get into museums and other popular attractions are shorter. Outdoor photos, with the constant backdrop of a silver-gray sky, turn out dramatic and interesting. On my recent early January visit, it was cold and rainy, but the damp weather gave me the perfect excuse to find a lot of places to warm up. Of course, one can spend days inside the city’s world-class museums, but: 1) I have a museum time-limit—my attention expires after a couple of hours; and 2) I need to walk aimlessly and extensively in a city in order to get the feel for it. The best times I had in Paris were in the places that not only had good food and drinks on the menu, but that I felt comfortable lingering in for as long as I wanted while I avoided going back out into the cold.
My husband and I stumbled into Bespoke in a haze of jet lag on our first evening in Paris, unsure if we needed breakfast or dinner. As soon as we took a seat at the bar, we realized we had come to the right place. The bartenders greeted us and took the time to explain each of the signature cocktails listed on the menu. At one point the entire wait staff huddled behind the bar and did a shot together, as if to kick off the busy night ahead. The customers and waiters alike all seemed hip and attractive, but the overall feeling was casual and completely unpretentious. We ate at the bar, which I’m not always happy to do, but there was such a flurry of drinks being mixed, delicious-looking food being served, and cheerful conversations happening in a mixture of languages that we were able to sit back and let the happy energy settle in and welcome us to Paris. Also, the wall at the end of the bar, which is lit up with the restaurant’s name, is entirely lined with brown leather belts. I don’t know why it’s like that, but like everything else here, it works. Casual food makes up the menu; we ordered the fried chicken sandwich and hand cut sweet potato fries with a side of barbecue sauce, both simple and delicious. Map
The back room of this neighborhood restaurant near the Centre Pompidou is an ideal spot to warm up over a hot drink or a glass of wine. The décor seems intentionally old-fashioned and feels something like being in your friend’s hippy parents’ finished basement. Exposed beams are painted red to match the velvet sofas, and contrast with a palm tree motif that shows up in wall photos and thick palm-tree printed curtains. The global décor, such as a wood-carving of an African woman serving as the base of a lamp, adds to the effect, as does the jazz music playing softly in the background. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to grab a seat by the fireplace. I stopped here for a glass of wine before going to dinner elsewhere, so did not sample anything on the menu; however, the food reviews are very good. Le Quincampé also offers a popular afternoon tea menu and a selection of French artisanal beer. Map
Le Comptoir Général
Located along the Canal Saint-Martin, this restaurant and nightclub has a colonial air to it, like a European outpost in old Rangoon or Phnom Penh. Upon entering, the long hallway is lined with red wallpaper and colorful paintings of people with intense gazes. The hallway then opens up into a number of separate spaces that deserve the attention of a museum tour; in fact, in addition to their restaurant and nightclub status, Le Comptoir Général advertises itself as a “concept store;” souvenirs one might see at a bazaar in the Middle East are on display throughout the huge warehouse-like building. The spacious main dining room is filled with communal tables, and green vines wind their way along the glass ceiling and walls. The menu is inspired by global street-food. A few steps further down the hallway reveals a second and even larger room, with eclectically decorated alcoves that it looks like someone had tons of fun putting together. The customers looked comfortable and relaxed, most of them settling back into the gently worn sofas and chairs, sipping from large coffee cups. Jungle plants seemed to be growing all around me and fringe-lined lamps hung down low and dim, creating an intimate atmosphere. The chipped paint and peeling wallpaper only added to the shabby chic charm. I went to Le Comptoir Général on a Sunday afternoon and while it was busy, there was plenty of seating still available. Reservations are recommended. Evenings the place turns into a nightclub and can become crowded. Map
Pain, Vin, Fromages
My husband and I arrived at this fondue restaurant promptly for our reservation and were led downstairs into a dining room lined with smooth light-colored bricks and a low, arched ceiling, creating a cave-like coziness. We are not well-versed in this food genre so followed our waiter’s advice and ordered the Fondue savoyarde, a mixture of cheeses, white wine, and spices. For dipping, he recommended Assiette de jambon de bayonne (plate of mixed ham), and that, along with the basket of cubed sourdough bread and a bottle of their low-mid priced wine was a richly delicious and filling meal that warmed us up from the inside out. The day we went had been a particularly raw and chilly one so the snug atmosphere and the pot of bubbling cheese in between us was a welcome warm-up. By its nature, fondue is a time-consuming meal: all that dipping of bread and meat into melted cheese—so we were good and warm—and very full—by the time we left. Reservations are necessary, especially on a weekend. I emailed my reservation request (firstname.lastname@example.org) the week before I arrived in Paris, and my email was responded to immediately. Map
Le chocolat chaud, the decadent hot chocolate that is ubiquitous in cafés around the city, is reason enough for braving Paris’ cold winter rain. I had my first taste at Angelina, whose posh golden interior hasn’t changed since the café opened in 1903, and whose formally dressed waiters were exceptionally helpful and friendly. I ordered the pudding-like chocolat l’africain, which was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. I also had the Parisian breakfast, which arrived at the table on an elegant two-tiered silver platter with a selection of pastries, including a pain au chocolat that melted in my mouth. Map
My next hot chocolate stop was purely an indulgence. Unlike at Angelina, where I went under the pretense of “needing to eat breakfast somewhere,” I went to Jacques Genin solely for le chocolat chaud and I wasn’t disappointed. The texture was more velvety, less pudding-like than Angelina’s but it was no less wonderful. The side bowl of whipped cream was thick and light at the same time, and infused with vanilla beans, giving it the same speckles you see in all-natural vanilla ice cream. I couldn’t handle any more sweets other than my drink, but Jacques Genin is known to create some of the most exquisite chocolates and desserts in Paris. As soon I walked in, there was a sweet chocolate scent permeating the air; follow that smell up the winding staircase, which leads to the chocolate laboratory where the magic happens. The café, which is bright and comfortable with a trendy feel, is also known for its delectable desserts. Map
To (mis)quote Ernest Hemingway, “there is never any ending to [the cold damp chill in] Paris [in January]…” But on the bright side, there are a lot of excuses to find comfortable places with good food and good vibes to warm you up.