Last fall, I happened to be in Paris during fashion week, and happened to be staying at the Westin Vendome, just across from the Louvre. Neither the fashion week timing nor the hotel’s location was really planned, but it put me squarely in the middle of cobblestone streets littered with legs covered in opaque black tights, black leather ankle booties, miniskirts and black wool dusters. Colette had an Hermes scarf collaboration, and Zack Posen was showing in the ornate ballroom at the Westin. Big business, no matter how it was mixed with small-scale enterprise, was in the air.
I hadn’t been in Paris since high school, and had been so busy in New York before leaving, I barely planned a thing. I was more than thankful to find a Yelp foodie list that introduced me to Le Chateaubriand and Inaki Aizpitarte. The place isn’t a hidden gem: in 2010, it was Restaurant magazine’s 11th best restaurant in the world and T Magazine profiled Aizpitarte for the 2011 Men’s Fashion issue. But despite Aizpitarte’s growing visibility, his bistro Le Chateaubriand is tucked away in the 11th arrondissement. It’s a fitting choice, though, because the neighborhood isn’t the most glamorous, or the most scene-y, but it feels like it’s part of a real city rather than the one seen on postcards.
The whole draw of Le Chateau is the set menu. 65E gets you five courses: no options, take what you’re given. I showed up without reservations around 9 30pm, and was told I’d be the last seating of the night. I had a glass of rose out on the sidewalk, vaguely shivering with a bunch of French hipsters, and was seated with a fresh glass and a switch to red after about 15 minutes. The green bean and goat cheese salad with olive oil parsley puree was super-clean and has stuck in my mind for months, and the raspberry dusting on dessert was also something new. In short, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
But aside from great food, the contrast between the 1e (with Hermes at Colette and the proliferation of labels) and the 11e couldn’t have been more stark. The atmosphere Aizpitarte has cultivated at Le Chateaubriand feels indicative of what’s happening all over the world in small but palpable ways: creatives doing their thing with the intent of making it accessible to a particular though not elite crowd. And this new casual, new communal, new intentional model is bringing people closer to our neighborhoods and the neighborhoods we visit. It’s bringing us closer to food and closer to local. But it’s also creating a new diversity of models for entrepreneurs to adopt. It goes beyond the idea that if you build it they will come–by underscoring the value of building a model that invites people to partake in and shape the experience.
It’s the counterbalance to big business, and lucky for us all, it’s being executed by lots and lots of small scale enterprises with surprising consistency and depth.