Eating through Paris's Canal St Martin

I had my first passing encounter with the Canal St. Martin back in March of this year when I was in Paris for the day with my French-speaking expat friend Angela.   We started our day having coffee at the Hotel du Nord (102 quai de Jemmapes), the epicenter of this popular bohemian neighborhood.   Engrossed in conversation, I don’t remember much about the coffee but I do remember taking pictures of the beautiful tile floor and mentally recording that this was Angela’s favorite neighborhood in Paris.  I determined then to come back. 

This past Thursday was that day.  My impression of the 10th arrondisement up until Angela’s swoon was that it was home to two of Paris’s main train stations – the Gare du Nord and  the Gare de ‘Est – and therefore best to be avoided.  Tis true that there’s a lot of unsavoriness around those quarters, but a quick walk east from the Gare de ‘Est through the Jardin Villemin lands you right in the heart of the happening section of the 4.5 km long Canal.  I first headed north on the Canal towards Place de Stalingrad, but unless its exercise you’re after – that would be the wrong direction.  Everything worth seeing in the neighborhood is tightly compacted south between Rue Des Recollets and Rue Du Faubourg du Temple and straddles a few streets deep on both sides of the Canal meaning you have a nice manageable area to master.   (The goal posts are Boulevard de Magneta to the east Rue Saint Maur to the west.)  It was my lightest walking Paris day and truly the only day where I never got lost.

In the spirit of truthiness, the waterway itself for me was honestly a little underwhelming.  The still operational hydraulic life bridges were a fun throwback to a different time, but there’s something very sad and angst producing about non-moving water.   With traffic whizzing by on both sides of the Canal, even with the bordering of trees in fall colors, it’s loud and a bit scruffy by day.  Unlike along the Seine, I saw no lovers on a midday stroll.   On the plus side, it’s less crowded than many other parts of the city and though home to a hipster crowd (especially at night with bars and clubs) it’s not overrun by them.  It’s a neighborhood in that sweet spot of gentrification where everyone still seems welcome and beauty remains in the eye of the beholder.


However, what might be lost in visual appeal is more than made up for in food options.  Nowhere else in Paris have I seen more cool coffee shops, bakeries, ethnic eats, traditional bistros, and chic bistros clustered so close together.  It felt a bit like the fashionable Shoreditch area of East London, albeit a smaller footprint with less curbside appeal.  I researched where to eat and drink from several local Paris blogs and sampled a lot.   There really aren’t any sites or museums to see in the area – so you won’t feel any guilt about missing something when you’re hanging out in your third café.   There is also boutique shopping in the neighborhood notably around Rue Beaurepaire and Rue de Marseille that I casually checked out, but any peek at my closet would prove I gravitate towards chasing another coffee shop over shoes any day.

Here’s what I sampled :

Ten Belles (10, Rue de la Grange aux Belles).  It’s a minor let down when your first destination is even smaller than described and across the street from a laundry mat, but any place that announces where your coffee beans are from (mine were from Kenya) deserve a second look.  On that second look, I spotted some homemade scones on the pint size service counter and killer granola (high praise from this granola snob) on the table I almost took down while standing in line.  Not necessarily a place for journal writing, it is definitely, definitely a place to throw around your bean knowledge and nibble on whatever they are serving.  Chez Adele (10, Rue de la Grande aux Belles), a well-lived in spot for live music is next door as is the Pink Flamingo (67 Rue Bichat), a late night pizza joint where the most popular pizza is called “L’Obama.”  Quiet for most of the day, you could tell that come evening this corner would be hopping.

Holybelly (19, rue Lucien Sampaix).  Porland has come to Paris.  “Is it local?” you ask yourself. According to the menu, not just fresh and local, also nothing frozen or microwaved.   BAM to France’s industrial food reputation!  Serious coffee + serious breakfast.  And when I mean serious breakfast I don’t mean soft boiled eggs and toast.  I mean pancakes and eggs with sides.  I didn’t eat because I was still digesting my scones but was so profoundly moved seeing the hearty pancakes lathered in butter and real maple syrup and smelling authentic bacon that I accidentally oversugared my cappuccino.  Conveniently opened on weekends for hangovers.  Closed Tues and Wed.  Be prepared to hear an abundance of English.  Bob’s Juice Bar (15, rue Lucien Sampaix.)  Just a few doors down the street from Holybelly is this organic juice bar that also serves food.  Go for the juice (so I hear), not the ambiance. 

Du Pain et des Idées (34, rue Yves Toudic ).  You know you’re at the right bakery when there’s a queue at an off peak time and a couple of Japanese tourists in front of you.   I skipped the delicious looking and varied loaves of bread in favor of the spread of pastries including pinwheels filled with pistachio and thin crusted seasonal apple tarts (to take home I might add, lest you think you I went all oompa loompa.)   This place is clearly an institution and their uncommon selection of pastries explains why.   Worth crossing town for if you’re looking to expand beyond pain au chocolat.

Craft (24, rue des Vinaigriers).  On the other side of the Canal from Ten Belles is this coffee shop/co-working space.  Coffee was above average but the place is really all about plugging in your laptop and paying 3 euros per hour to so.  Great for road warriors who need to get work done, but less appealing for those who want to cozy up with a book or friend.  If you’ve come to Paris to eat healthy or run a marathon, Sol Semilla (23, rue des Vinaigries) – a vegan superfood restaurant across the street looked v. good.

Liberte (39, rue de Vinaigriers).  Different than most French bakeries, Liberte is a swanky year old bakery situated on a corner with small platoon of bakers working in an open mostly white industrial kitchen.  There’s something to love about bread baking on site.  It was hard to choose what to bring home between the breads, loads of pastries, and stuffed savory breads but settled on their grainiest loaf and a per kilo chunk of their house crusty bread.  You know you’ve lived in Europe for a while when you request a specific piece (not the end, please) that suits your fancy.   Also tried their chocolate loaf which looked amazing but only tasted so-so.  More savory options than Du Pain et des Idees.   If fast food is what you’re after, right next door is The Sunken Chip (39, rue des Vinaigriers), Paris’s first British run fish and chips shop.

La Chambre aux Oiseaux (48, Rue Bichat.)  Cozy like your grandmother’s living room complete with heavy wallpaper and mismatched mugs for an afternoon cup of loose tea.  Crisscrossing this spot several times during the day and landing in the late afternoon when I need a comfy chair to rest in, it was always full of women chatting and MacBook screens glowing.  They also have a nice looking simple breakfast menu along with their own house jams and open early.

Philou (12, rue Richerand).  Given all the cafe options it was hard to settle on a lunch spot, but Philou was one the places that consistently showed up on all the blogs.  A traditional French bistro using seasonal ingredients, Philou is a neighborhood favorite and now I know why.  I ordered the three course Menu du Midi for 19 euros which came with: a petite mushroom quiche and small perfectly dressed salad with herbs, the best beef burgundy I have ever known, and a crème caramel with a compote of apples and touch of mint.  Not only delicious but also perfectly sized.  Nice service too which in Paris is not a given.  Cross town for this one.  Last minute booking worked for me.

Le Petit Cambodge (20, rue Alibert).  Continuously open through lunch and dinner, this is a great spot for take away Cambodian noodles which I did for dinner on the train.  Packed at lunch everyone orders the bobun (similar to a Vietnamese Bun Bo Xao noodle salad with a few less herbs) for a well spent 10 euros.  I had read about the passion fruit/hazelnut tart at the gluten-free bakery next door, Helmut Newcake but then decided against it.  If you’re not gluten free already I reasoned, no sense starting in Paris. 

Two other places I didn’t try but you won’t miss given their prime real estate and blog chatter are Chez Prune (36, rue Beaurepaire) the café  that put this neighborhood on the map and L’Atmosphere.  Another popular spot I’d read a lot about and went to have a late afternoon glass of wine is Le Verre Vole (67, rue Lancry).  Unfortunately for me, I was sent away (though kindly I might add) as they are a restaurant/wine shop but not a bar.  Watching a woman peel potatoes at one of the tables, I wished I could stay and help.   Had I known Le Verre Vole wasn’t a bar, I may have stayed on the other side of the Canal near Le Petit Cambodge  to sample a cocktail at Le Zelda (6, rue Bichat) which opens at 6pm.

And there you have it.  A day of very good eats.