SSeveral years ago, a series of fortuitous events caused me to temporarily swap houses with a stranger. The fortuitous exchange made me discover a district of Paris which I had never heard of and which I then revisited many times. Compact enough to explore on foot yet large enough to regularly reveal new treasures, its unrefined charms, the eclectic array of local residents and, perhaps most importantly, the range of delicious and affordable food to be found all blew me away. captivated.
Straddling four boroughs, Belleville has a rich history steeped in worker rebellion. Its former residents were among the staunchest supporters of the Paris Commune, and when the army of Versailles came to reconquer Paris in 1871, they faced some of the fiercest resistance in this dynamic city. piece.
The neighborhood’s most recent battle is in the news: the fight against creeping gentrification. While largely successful in withstanding the drastic changes felt in the neighboring 18th arrondissement, plans to add six more stations to the metro line on which Belleville sits, combined with preparations for the 2024 Paris Olympics, are expected to speed up the process.
Belleville has long been a gathering place for immigrants. Armenian, Greek and Polish communities came to settle before the Second World War. Sephardi Jews from Tunisia and Algeria soon followed. In the 1970s, Chinese and Vietnamese migrants arrived and now cohabit with various communities in North and West Africa. A little over a century ago, it was considered a particularly “Parisian” part of Paris, with more than half of its inhabitants born in the district. Now, more than a third of its inhabitants come from outside metropolitan France. This dynamic mix makes it one of the most interesting places to eat in the capital. The diversity of the inhabitants of the district can be found in the shops that line the boulevard de Belleville. The shelves are stacked with edible delights from around the world. Toothy lamb heads spin beneath roast chickens outside halal butcher shops. Storefronts groan with boxes of Chinese cabbage, cassava, okra, yams, plantains and a host of chili peppers.
Home to the city’s second-largest Chinatown, Belleville offers endless dining options. Among the most authentic is Belleville Tower Presentation Street. The star of the show in this ominous canteen is undoubtedly the soup. Lamian the wheat noodles are expertly stretched to order like a cat’s cradle, before being quickly blanched and added to a long-simmered aromatic broth, reminiscent of ginger and star anise, and adorned with beef, duck or tender pork.
Amid a handful of hip newcomers on the 20th arrondissement side of the boulevard sits a cluster of restaurants and cafes catering to Tunisia’s Jewish community. long-standing institution Chez René and Gabin attracts a loyal following, especially on Fridays, when a take-out business is organized in preparation for Shabbat. The menu features familiar Sephardic staples such as shakshouka (spicy eggs and peppers poached in tomato sauce), sitting alongside lesser-known daily specials like mloukhia, a bright green herbaceous casserole of braised beef, and l ‘akoud, a slowly simmered and subtly spiced tripe. Stew. Although the snack signature, a traditional Tunisian sandwich, is a best-seller for good reason, an arguably better version can be found across the street.
The ubiquitous queue at di-napoli testifies to the enduring popularity of this hole-in-the-wall, home to one of the culinary bargains in this notoriously expensive city. The small team works tirelessly behind the tiny counter, delivering an incessant stream of orders, abundantly filling the sandwiches with tuna, or the ground beef with a méchouia, a tomato paste and peppers, and making fine omelettes on the cast iron griddle with a scarlet a spoonful of fiery harissa.
A little further towards Ménilmontant stands the bright yellow facade of Caribbean specialties. While Covid has temporarily closed the adjoining restaurant, the shop does a thriving trade in French Caribbean ready meals, with large queues to receive special orders of stuffed suckling pig, Creole glazed ham and fricassee lobster, as well as other items. unique to the islands.
Halfway up Rue de Belleville is a community pillar that has been in operation for over 30 years. The dining room perpetually filled with Lao Siam hosts an eclectic crowd of devotees.It stands out among a slew of fairly forgettable Thai restaurants by staying true to the family roots, offering a selection of hard-to-find Thai and northeast Lao dishes such as nem thadeua, a grilled rice salad with fermented pork, homemade sai oua, a spicy sausage sprinkled with turmeric, lemongrass, chilli and combava leaf.
So far, Belleville’s defiant disposition remains – for how long it’s hard to say. The collective view of the community seems to be that no matter how many natural and organic wine grocers set up shop, the strong spirit of multiculturalism will endure.
This pocket of Paris retains its appeal in part because it is devoid of the mass tourism that characterizes the city’s most popular areas. Far from Fox News’ incredulous assertion that the neighborhood was a “no-go zone”, it continually reveals its various charms. On the benches outside Moncoeur Belleville, beers are sipped at sunset. The children of the district play football, the Eiffel Tower is visible in the distance after the park of Belleville. Women in traditional West African dress sell foil-wrapped pastels (doughnuts) from a bench for a few euros. Definitely Paris, but for now always with defiance Belleville.
Christopher English is a writer and private chef