When you can buy American muffins and hot dogs and a Starbucks caramel latte to go in Paris and order it all in English, are you in Paris anymore?
This is a question I pondered yesterday as I strolled around le Marais sud — the fourth arrondissement, south of la rue des Francs Bourgeois. I remember when this part of the Marais had local flavor, when the cafés were not overpriced and the food was good, when you could pop into a grocery store and buy a small bottle of water for less than €1.50, when the falafel at L'As du Falafel didn't come back to haunt you later.
Back then, some Parisiens de souche (people born and bred in Paris) told me that the neighborhood had changed greatly, that it had — for better and for worse — become hip, globalized, un-French. Many of these people liked this about the new Marais, enjoyed the convergence of foreigners and locals. They did, however, note that rents were rising rapidly and driving local businesses away.
As le Marais became more popular with foreigners, especially les Américains, tailors and cordonniers (cobblers) were indeed replaced by high-end fashion chains and pricey shoe stores, and boulangeries and boucheries by American diners, American delis and Starbucks. The Marais is now the city's third most expensive quartier for real estate (after the 6th and 7th arrondissements) and it is the first-choice location for young Americans buying apartments in Paris, yet I still come across compatriots who fail to notice the monumental transformation the neighborhood has undergone, or their own complicity in that change, even as they complain about the high prices while adding, "at least there's a Starbucks."
Now, actually, there are two. They are located, bien sûr, within blocks of each other.
Lest I come across as a self-hating American basher, let me stress that for years I defended the Marais from other foreigners in France who accused it of "being too American." It may be impossible to throw a stone in the fourth arrondissement without pelting someone with an American accent but it is also impossible not to graze the shoulders of Swedes, Germans, English, Japanese, Israelis and just about every other nationality on Earth.
I am with les Parisiens de souche who enjoy the pluses of the new Marais — the mixture of cultures, the fabulous boutiques, the daily street-fashion parade, the whole lively, global vibe of the place. What I don't like is the food.
With the exception of the tea salon Le Loir dans la Théière I cannot think of a sit-down café or restaurant south of la rue des Francs Bourgeois that merits the exchange of hard-earned cash for food and drink. The last time I went foolishly against my "no restaurants in le Marais sud" rule I was unceremoniously presented with an English menu, even though the waiter spoke to me in French, and then tortured in slow motion by a €33 prix-fixe meal that began with a kir that tasted as if teenagers had made it with Kool-Aid and moonshine behind a tool shed in Utah, that took a turn for the worse with a meager chicken stew that was so salty I found myself gulping wine (our carafe of water had long since been depleted despite our pleas for replenishment) and that ended with a fondant au chocolat that I suspect was purchased at the frozen-goods grocery store Picard. (Le fondant was the best part of the meal.) It did not escape my notice that the restaurant was only half full on a Friday night, and that 90% of the patrons were born in the U.S.A.
So what to do about the horrible dining situation in le Marais sud? Head north. And leave your latte behind.