It's been said that Manhattan is an island somewhere between the United States and Europe, and for many French New Yorkers, that couldn't be more true. The abundance of steak au poivre and pastis at NYC restaurants and bars only strengthens the case, but perhaps the greatest testament to l'expérience française in New York is the City's enthusiastic adoption of customs that some consider more old-world than new. These include eating outdoors in gardens and on terraces; savoring cuisine, wine and espresso during meals that go on for hours; and shopping for specialty foods and other goods at quaint neighborhood stores.
Manhattan isn't the only borough that embraces a French lifestyle; now more than ever, Brooklyn—especially Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill—is looking increasingly Parisian. Many French families have flocked to the area since PS 58, the Carroll School, added a French dual-language program to its curriculum, and the burgeoning French populace has prompted local shops like Staubitz Market to bolster its offerings with more Brie, French bread, jambon de Paris and the like.
This year, Bastille Day—the anniversary of the storming of the fortress-prison in Paris on July 14, 1789, which marked the start of the French Revolution—falls on a Thursday, and celebrations are happening on the holiday and on the preceding and subsequent weekends. July 10 brings two major celebrations. The French Institute Alliance Française hosts its annual Bastille Day on 60th Street festival, a family-friendly street fair with live music, authentic cuisine and dancing from France and other French-speaking countries. French-inspired musical acts like Veveriste and Banda Magda, as well as classic cancan dancers, will perform on the main stage throughout the day; guests can also see French vintage cars, try their luck in a raffle, shop for handmade wares and grace their palates with pairings of national pride: wine and cheese. Brooklyn's Bastille Day celebration, a merguez-sausage-grilling and Ricard-drinking extravaganza, also falls on July 10. Carroll Gardens' Bar Tabac runs the event, which features sandy pétanque (French lawn bowling) courts on Smith Street, a portion of which will be closed to traffic, for the biggest tournament of its kind in the United States. Also beginning on July 10, a selection of French restaurants, including Benoit and Financier Patisserie, will offer special prix-fixe menus for $17.89 (continuing through July 17). Visit frenchrestaurantweek.com for a list of participating eateries.
For Francophiles who insist on raising a glass in honor of liberté, egalité and fraternité on July 14, there are a few options. Patrons at TriBeCa's Cercle Rouge can play pétanque on the street outside the restaurant. And Sofitel's Gaby Restaurant hosts its own Fête Nationale with cancan dancers, live music, French cocktails and amuse-bouches, from 5 to 9pm. Expect French festivities at lively SoHo restaurant-bar L'Orange Bleue and the charming Parigot.
From Parigot, simply head west on Grand Street to continue the party and take in more of French Manhattan. Make reservations or drop in and try to snag a table at L'Ecole, the restaurant of The French Culinary Institute, where you can “grade” up-and-coming chefs on a multicourse meal. (This is one of the most affordable ways to enjoy a proper French dining experience in NYC.) For a more casual dinner, keep heading west on Grand to any of the following late-night venues: Lucky Strike (the creation of Pastis owner Keith McNally), Felix (where hoards of SoHo shoppers and French locals tend to spill onto surrounding sidewalks from the interior) or Café Noir (a sexy nighttime spot with French-Moroccan inflections).
But don't just take it from us. The following suggestions came from a handful of New Yorkers from Paris who have no problem finding authentically French experiences in the City.
Antoine Karl, DJ: “When I want really good French food—and it hurts me to say this—I go to an English place, Balthazar. They probably have the best French food that I know of in New York City. When I want a really French experience, I like Antibes Bistro on the Lower East Side. There's also Le French Diner on the Lower East Side. The owner passed away not too long ago. It's very sad, but the place has a new vibe—a new revival around the people who took over. And, of course, there are French Tuesdays: every Tuesday, a group of guys round up about a thousand people to get together at a different venue—it's a little posh, but it's really French and fun. Whenever you feel lonely and away from the community, you just go there. But the bottom line is, when you want to feel French in NYC, you drink pastis, sit outside and have café forever.”
Kouider Zioueche, maître d' at Pastis: ”Central Park is beautiful. You could go have a picnic and spend the day over there. I live in Carroll Gardens. It's a very French area. When I need to go to my butcher, I have one I know very well. When I need to get bread, I know exactly where to go. And there's this cheese place on Smith Street called Stinky Bklyn, where I find everything I want.”
Melody Coup-Jambet, manager at Bar Tabac: “I mostly like to go to the French places in the neighborhood, of course, like Robin des Bois. They have a very nice garden, and the people are very welcoming and friendly. Sue Perette is a very nice new French place with nice people. And then you have Bacchus on Atlantic. They also have a nice garden—I got married there! We don't have many gardens in Paris—just terraces—so in New York, we like to enjoy the green outdoor spaces. Fort Greene Park and its surrounding restaurants feel like home, and NoLIta—Elizabeth Street, Mott Street, Spring Street—is a very French neighborhood. Cafe Gitane is a cool place to have a quick lunch, but it's more Parisian to just sit down somewhere and stay there for at least two hours. You can do that here [at Bar Tabac] when it's not Friday or Saturday night.”
Charline Bauer, photography assistant: “I feel at home at Le Bateau Ivre on 51st Street. It means 'the drunken ship.' Everyone there is French. They have hundreds of different types of wine, champagne, and the food is really good: French onion soup, foie gras and escargots. I also like Brooklyn Heights close to the waterfront and the Brooklyn Bridge. All the buildings are like Parisian buildings, and there are small shops and grocers.”
Adrien Levet, finance: “I like to go to Jean Claude in SoHo. It's a cool place close to where I used to live. I would bring all my dates there.”