Clarence Goes to Brunch: Rose Bakery, Le Bal Café, and Marcel

When I first lived in Paris for a semester back in 2002, I stayed with a lovely family in a very residential part of the 17th arrondissement.  My memory of Sundays in that part of town is pretty bleak, with all restaurants and shops closed and tumbleweeds rolling across the streets. After ending up at the McDonald’s on the Champs-Elysées on more than a few Sundays, I became an obsessive Saturday market shopper. Better to have a full fridge than starve on Sundays, I reasoned. So you can imagine my surprise when I moved in to my Marais apartment a year and a half ago and discovered that my new neighborhood was quite the bustling affair on Sundays.  It is literally as if someone sent out a city-wide memo saying that the areas around my street is the only place to be on a lazy Sunday.

I joke a bit – there are many neighborhoods around Paris that have finally gotten with the program on Sundays, much to the delight of the people that live here and the people that visit. You’ll still be hard-pressed to do much shopping on Sundays, and the grocery stores that tend to be open in central Paris aren’t usually the nicest ones. But increasingly restaurants are offering something new and exciting:  American-style Sunday Brunch!

I’ve been unabashed here before in declaring that I love all things brunch. Fancy brunch, buffet brunch, boozy brunch, greasy spoon brunch – you name it, I’m in. Paris was remarkably slow to catch on to brunch as a concept, especially compared to cities like New York or Berlin where there has been veritable brunch culture for decades. While there are a lot of great places for brunch in Paris, you should be prepared for a few things. Number one, brunch isn’t nearly as boozy an affair as it is in the States. Remember all the things we’ve said about the French and their inability to make proper cocktails and their phobias concerning spicy food? This means that if brunch for you means Bloody Marys (let’s hang out!), you’ll probably be disappointed. Number two, if buffet brunches are your bag (hey Berlin readers!) be prepared to drop a serious chunk of change for a likely underwhelming spread. None of this delightful Kreuzberg nonsense where you pay eight euros and eat lox and mackerel rolls until you can’t move. We’re talking 28 euros a head without the coffee here in Paris, and the turnover you might expect in the cheese/charcuterie/smoked fish/cocktail shrimp platters is never quite what you hope it will be. I’m a buffet brunch strategist, dear reader, and you’ll never catch me filling up on bread.

Those caveats aside, you can certainly get a great bite to eat with friends on a leisurely Sunday morning these days in Paris, France. I say morning because the French seriously can’t imagine showing up to a restaurant on a Sunday before noon. Arriving at 11:30 at any of the places I’m about to name will secure you a large, handsome table by the window or the good-looking stranger reading the newspaper (FYI, he’s probably British).  Arriving at 12:03 will mean a long, testy wait in a line stretching down the block, likely in the rain, because that’s how those things always work out, am I right? This is seriously the best advice I can possibly give you about dining out in Paris.  Get to brunch at 11:30 a.m. (or noon on the nose, as many places offering “brunch” aren’t open in the morning) and dinner at 7:45 p.m. and you’ll rarely have trouble getting a table, even at the most popular places. The French are ridiculously rigid about their eating schedule, and you’re not. Have a leisurely drink from your prime table, watch the impatient cue form, and revel in all the wisdom that Keeping the Bear Garden in the Background has brought to your life.  You’re welcome.

Another strategy for a great brunch is to frequent the handful of establishments run by British ex-pats in town.  Rose Bakery (I like their Marais location at 30 Rue Debelleyme, 75003 Paris, Métro Filles du Calvaire, but they now have three locations around Paris) is the mamma of this movement. Husband and wife team Jean-Charles and Rose Carrarini started it all in a tiny space in Montmartre, where they dish up market-fresh salad plates, vegetable pizzettes, and savory tartes alongside egg-based dishes and yummy baked goods on the weekends. There is probably no space that could be better described as ground zero of bobo chic in Paris than their second location in the Marais, which I like because it has a bit more seating in a brightly lit space with a ceiling of ancient whitewashed wood beams. I’m not a tea-drinker, but I’m told that these Brits know how to properly brew a cup of tea (something my English friends are constantly complaining about in Paris). My favorite part: the fruit crumble of the day, served piping hot from the oven with a generous bowl of crème anglaise. Last week when I visited this little beauty was filled with tart rhubarb and sweet apples. One serving is a hearty dessert for three people. I’d call this and a cup of tea a nearly perfect lazy afternoon.

English breakfast traditionalists should head to the delightful Le Bal Café (6 Impasse de la Défense, 75018 Paris, Métro Place de Clichy) housed in the amazing contemporary art space of the same name.  After you take a leisurely brunch in the achingly hip cafe, you can an afternoon of it by visiting the current exhibition (currently a wonderful photography show featuring heartstopping work by Emmet Gowin and Alessandra Sanguinetti) and browsing the carefully curated bookshop.

Run by Willi’s Wine Bar veterans Anselme Blayney et Ivan Kouzmine, Le Bal Café will scratch every English breakfast itch you might have in style with its sausage rolls, Welsh rarebit, kippers with toast, kedgeree, and of course a “classic English breakfast” with over-easy eggs, crisp bacon, and tomatoes. The clear winner at Le Bal, however, is their amazing scones, which will make a convert out of even the most scone-skeptical (yours truly included). Additionally, Le Bal is credited by some people in the know as serving the best cup of coffee in all of Paris. I’m not going to get into the details of why this might be so, but if you want a long lecture on the difference between robusta and arabica beans and the proper roasting duration and temperature and how the French are generally doing it all wrong, you can certainly contact my boyfriend. He gave the nod of approval to Le Bal’s cuppa, and as a coffee philistine, I also thought it was delicious. Plus they did that pretty thing with the foam on the top!

I’m such a prole.

Finally, should you find yourself in Montmartre, might we recommend a visit to newcomer Marcel (49 avenue Junot, Paris 75018, Métro Lamarck-Caulaincourt). Even if you don’t find yourself in Montmartre, this might be a lovely place to visit if your only impression of that part of town involves the seedy sexclubs and the tourist hoards that surround Sacre-Coeur. The post neighborhood around Avenue Junot is an entirely different affair, and Marcel is a well-executed riff on the formula that Rose Bakery brought to Paris.

Their menu features another traditional English breakfast (this time with oven-roasted tomatoes and some dreamy sausages in addition to the bacon), eggs Benedict, and an assortment of nice sandwiches. B sampled their Ruben, which isn’t really a Ruben in any classic sense of the word and needs about triple the pastrami and some proper sauerkraut. Not that anyone with any decision-making ability in such things is reading this, but if they were, there you go.

The clear winner of the spread (god, I’m so competitive!) was the perfect, oh my lord, I haven’t eaten one of these for nearly two years, thank you sweet girl, BaLT. I live for a proper BLT, people. The combination of toasted white bread spread with mayo, crisp bacon, tartly sweet tomatoes, and crunchy lettuce is my Ur-sandwich. Add avocado and I’m reduced to a quivering heap of joy. You don’t see these in Paris, and you certainly don’t see them looking like this.  The dessert we ordered (fromage blanc with salted caramel and an apple crumble) wasn’t spectacular, but I didn’t care. I’ll be back for a the BaLT. Tomorrow.

So that’s about it as far as my brunch recommendations for Paris, though you might want to revisit my reviews of Le Loir dans la Théière and Breakfast in America if you have a hankering on this lovely Sunday morning.  We’re off to our favorite market instead today, something I can’t wait to tell you about when I’ve got enough pictures assembled to make a post.  I’d love to hear about your favorite way to spend a Sunday in Paris (or wherever this might find you).

Happy Sunday, dear reader.

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