This is the bar that sets the standard in every category and against which I measure every bar that I have visited since discovering it…
82 rue de Charenton, 75012 Paris, France
I moved to Paris in 2013 and previously either hadn’t been in cities with big cocktail scenes or hadn’t taken advantage of the ones that did exist. I was 28 at the time, and I think many of us spend our early to mid-twenties being relatively indiscriminate in terms of what we drink, not to mention the fact that craft cocktails aren’t easy on the wallets of students and young professionals. (I opted for cheaper housing in Paris so as to have more disposable income for things like wine and cheese.) Anyway, I didn’t really start going to cocktail bars until I moved to Paris. My friends and I checked out a few of the ones that you’ll hear about in various online sources (Prescription Cocktail Club, Experimental Cocktail Club, Candelaria, Marie Celeste, Sherry Butt, Little Red Door), and they’re good, but none really jumped out at me as places to visit regularly. I used to go to the Prescription Cocktail Club relatively often because of its proximity to my law school, but I was frustrated by the fact that the bartenders, despite being very good at their jobs and always friendly, never seemed to remember me.
That is in large part why I ended up becoming a regular at Le Calbar despite the fact that it was more of a hike from where I lived. My friend and I enjoyed our drinks (and the view of the bartenders, who wear boxer shorts rather than trousers) the first time we went, and the drinks were a little cheaper than those at PCC, so we went back again – and the guys at Le Calbar remembered us despite not really having had any prolonged contact or conversation with us the first time. That sealed the deal for me, but over the course of the next several months, I realized that everything about Le Calbar is perfect. It gets top marks in all of my categories, and each of those categories is on my list because I’ve realized how much of a difference it made at Le Calbar.
Bartenders – Completely aside from the fun fact that they’re all wearing boxers (with shirts and ties), these guys are hands-down my favorite bartenders. Thierry, Christophe, and William are all master cocktail craftsmen; they trained at five-star hotels prior to opening this place, and they really know their stuff. They love coming up with bespoke cocktails according to your personal tastes, and they do it regularly, using syrups and other ingredients made in-house. (This is a nice departure from other bars in Paris, where the bartenders are usually more married to what’s on the menu.) I love watching them work because they fluctuate between extreme concentration and energetic showmanship; they’re precise about mixology but then shake the drinks with a dramatic flair that suggests they know you’re enjoying the show as much as they are. There’s something deeply refreshing about watching them do something that they clearly love so much. Oh, and I should mention that they’ve actually won the International Olympics of Bartending – there’s a trophy on display behind the bar.
Cocktail List – Le Calbar has a fairly extensive menu, organized according to base liquor. (If you order a bespoke cocktail, it will show up on your bill as a “Surprise Me”, also on the menu!) They make great drinks with all bases and in all the categories – sweet, sour, bitter, spicy. Nowadays when I go I usually split my orders between their own creations and the classics, which they also do very well. In fact, Le Calbar has the distinction of being the place where both my dad and I have had the best martinis of our lives. I’m a fan of dirty martinis, and the boys at Le Calbar know how to make my “fucking dirty martinis” with exactly the right amount of olive juice. My dad, on the other hand, is more into martinis with a twist and was previously convinced that it just wasn’t possible to find a decent martini in Europe. I took him there, and ten minutes later he declared his martini to be the best he’d ever had. All that being said, if you go, I am particularly fond of the following house cocktails: 1980’s (vodka based) and Dagobear (vodka based). You should also ask them for the “Ali cocktail” (named for my friend Ali, for whom they first made it), which contains aloe foam!
Ambience – Le Calbar is part of the trend towards the speakeasy style of decor, but just enough that it doesn’t get kitschy. (I think bars that actually try to be speakeasys take themselves a little too seriously.) You won’t find dark velvet curtains on the windows or a bouncer trying to bar your entry. You’ll see some cool black and white art on the walls and note the dimmed lighting thanks to the hipster light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, but otherwise the bar feels like your standard neighborhood bar, which is one of the reasons I love it so much. It’s located on a quiet street about a 10-minute walk from the crazy Bastille area, and it is a neighborhood bar. For a place with a relatively limited amount of space (another plus), its clientele is pretty varied, with people ranging in age from 22 to 50 (with early 30’s probably the most plentiful). Unless you’re a tourist or other first-timer, the guys behind the bar probably know who you are, and when you’re an expat navigating a reality in which many of your closest friends and family are far away from you, it can be very comforting to find a place “where everybody knows your name.” They’ve always got music playing (another perk of sitting at the bar is getting to see the bartenders periodically break into dance), and you can feel comfortable wearing jeans or a dress. All of this, and its small size (so that there are never more than 30 people in there, and you’re never more than a few feet from the bar), make Le Calbar a very pleasant place to drink on any night of the week.