In Paris, I knew there were a few things I had to eat. French onion soup, croissants, the famous Berthillon ice cream—well, twist my arm. If I had to stroll the winding streets of the French capital with a cup of vanilla ice cream, so be it. But I knew I couldn’t leave the City of Light without tasting another dish: falafel.
Shops selling the Middle Eastern staple line the bustling Rue des Rosiers—“street of the rosebud” in French. The twisting, narrow street in the Paris neighborhood called the Marais, or “the bog,” marks the heart of what was once the thriving Jewish quarter.
Though the Marais has recently become trendy (the modern art mecca the Pompidou Centre makes its home there), some Jewish life remains, especially in the restaurants and markets that pepper the quarter.
For many, the culinary highlight of the “pletzl”—Yiddish for “little place” as the neighborhood is more fondly known among Parisian Jews—is the falafel battle, duked out among several competitors. The best known is L’As du Fallafel, where the proprietors chat and sling chickpea patties and the standard accoutrements—hummus, tahini, cabbage and more—while noisy throngs eat in the elbow-to-elbow restaurant…and on the cobblestone street outside. Shawarma also makes an appearance on the menu, for the staunchly carnivorous, as does Goldstar, Israel’s native and ubiquitous beer.
Elsewhere on the street, restaurants Mi-Va-Mi and Chez Marianne dish out variations of the Middle Eastern classic, each with its own twist—Mi-Va-Mi’s falafel comes with a mild tomato salsa-like condiment, while Chez Marianne’s is heavy on the eggplant.
Ashkenazi favorites have also long been cornerstones of the Rue des Rosiers. For decades, the kosher restaurant and delicatessen Jo Goldenberg served up Jewish gastronomic staples like herring, goulash and chopped liver. Fabienne Lips-Dumas, a French filmmaker living in Washington whose late father owned the still-operating restaurant Les Philosophes in the Marais, recalls that Goldenberg’s “was an institution” that served as a meeting place for the community. The shop closed in 2008 and, in a sign of the times, was re-opened as a clothing boutique in 2010.
Other multi-generation establishments persevere including the Jewish bakery Sacha Finkelsztajn, which has been in business since 1946. Offering confections like rugelach and cheesecake, as well as traditional deli sandwiches, the store has garnered loyal followers, who champion the fact that its current owner has not strayed from the recipes perfected by his grandfather, the original proprietor.
In many ways, the Marais mirrors Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood: bearded men in black hats and tzitzit rub shoulders with too-cool hipsters in a district that blends the old world with the new. Trendsetters may have claimed the neighborhood for their own, but the flavors of traditional Jewish life remain—and have maybe even become a little hip themselves.