More than the rustic façade of this understated restaurant lets on, the Hôtel du Nord isn’t your average Parisian bistro, but is a rare piece of French film history. The discreet restaurant sits self-satisfyingly on the picturesque quai de Jemmapes that lines Paris’ Canal Saint Martin in the 10th district. Forget Chez Prune, the young in-crowd’s favourite hang-out – it’s got nothing on this gem.
Immortalised in the collective memory by Marcel Carné’s film of the same name in the 30s, the building’s history actually dates all the way back to 1885, when it was a hotel that was more than a little rough around the edges. Every morning, the head housekeeper would shake the used bed sheets out the window, giving the hotel the affectionate nickname of hôtel des poux volants (hotel of flying flees). Good thing it was totally refurbished when it became a restaurant.
When French film director extraordinaire, Marcel Carné, released his romantic melodrama in 1938, the Hôtel du Nord became a well-loved historical monument and although the film was mostly shot on a film set, some scenes were actually shot right in the restaurant. The adaptation of Eugène Dabit’s novel of the same name stars a French ‘cockney’ prostitute, a pimp and a couple of star-crossed lovers who are about to carry out a suicide pact. However, things take a surprising turn – and not necessarily for the best…but we don’t want to spoil it so that’s all we’ll say. As a result of the film’s worldwide success, the hotel was listed as a heritage building in 1989. It closed down in 2005 and was reopened as the present-day restaurant.
Cited in every Paris guidebook under the sun, we expected the restaurant to be one of those crowded Boho-chic hangouts for trendy types rattling on about philosophy and film studies, but we walked right in on a Saturday evening and were seated soon after we had a couple of generously-mixed Gordon’s and tonics at the bar on the lower floor of the restaurant – and best of all, the Parisian Boho crowd was well at bay.
There are three main areas to the place: the terrace that lines the canal, the bar area with its black and white chequered tiled floors mingling with zinc and wooden table tops paying tribute to 1930s Paris, while up a couple of stairs leads to the chic yet informal restaurant to the back.
We were led up the steps to a table dressed in a crisp white tablecloth and adorned with well-polished silver and glistening wine glasses. The décor, a contrast to the neat rows of tables, acts as a subtle reminder of the place’s cinematic history. Aged posters of the film cast hang on the walls, which otherwise boast a coat of peeling paint, and at the risk of sounding like a Boho wannabe, we liked the peeling paint – it gave the restaurant its irresistible shabby-chic charm. While our waiter busied himself lighting tea lights on the tables, we let the soothing soul music and warm glow of the low lighting wash over us, the bustling capital nothing more than a faraway din.
We felt at home straightaway, and if it wasn’t for the good-looking staff, we could have easily forgotten that we were sat in one of Paris’ most fashionable venues. Once we had taken in our surroundings and muttered how jealous we were of the couple lounging at the low table, set up by a cosy distressed leather sofa, we turned our attention to the menu.
Although the menu isn’t the most expansive, everything on it, from the burger to the scallops, is prepared using quality produce and is cooked to a high standard. Feeling light and healthy, every mouthful is divine. The elaborate wine list, a recap of all the best French wine-producing regions, is also worth checking out.
We appreciated the laidback, yet friendly and efficient service. The uplifting music provided the perfect contrast to a setting that could very easily have fallen into the snooty category, but instead, the owners have got the balance just right. The menu is full of French classics, all cooked to perfection. Price-wise, it’s not your Maccy D’s around the corner, but at about £40 a head, it won’t break the bank either. Hôtel du Nord is an institution among Parisians in the know; its cosy cosmopolitan atmosphere and crowd combined with an old school Parisian charm and finesse makes it one of the city’s perle rare, which comes very highly recommended. Fin.
Hôtel du Nord, 102 quai de Jemmapes, Paris 10. Metro: Jacques Bonsergeant (line 5) and République (lines 3, 5, 8, 9 and 11). Open daily from 9:00am until midnight. Website.