Paris’ New Love: ‘Murica’s Southern Comfort Food
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Southern comfort food travels well.
It’s the Fourth of July and the smell of low-country boil wafts through the air along with Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” A tall, burly man in a shirt emblazoned with the American flag hands me a plastic basket filled with crawfish, and I sit down to eat and sip Southern Comfort with fresh peach cocktail. As I watch a garrulous group of young men over in the corner try their hand at a Metallica pinball machine, I pretend that I’m at some roadside bar in the American Deep South. But the illusion is broken when, looking out the window, I am reminded that I’m actually on a chic backstreet not 10 minutes’ walking distance from the Place de la Bastille, and instead of a cheap dive, I’m in Red House, one of the best cocktail bars in Paris.
Wearing a shirt that reads “Texas Is Bigger Than France,” Southern native (Alabama and Texas with a stint in New Mexico) and Red House owner Joe Boley sidles up next to my booth. His bar, which opened in 2011, was one of the first in a rash of Southern-style establishments to crop up in the City of Light in the past few years. That’s right: From chicken and waffles to barbecue to Cajun cuisine to Tennessee whiskey, the notoriously snobby French capital finds Southern fare delicieux.
Parisians are particularly fond of eating out … and when they discover a new taste that they are willing to embrace, they are extremely supportive.
Christopher Smith, owner, Floyd’s
While Brooklyn-style cafés and brunch joints have reigned supreme in Paris since the early 2010s, the South has enjoyed a meteoric rise in influence, with 12 restaurants and bars opening in just three years. The trend could be the result of a softening of French attitudes toward fast food. Previously, Parisians held tight to a long-standing tradition of leisurely multicourse meals lasting up to three hours. Recently, though, rapid-response chains like “MacDo” have taken over 20 percent of the French restaurant market. The new Southern establishments are a happy marriage of old and new, combining the rustic charm of a roadside barbecue shack with Parisian dining sensibilities. “There’s a certain pride in showing the world that these are good things,” Boley says in his subdued Texan twang. “That [American food] is a little more evolved than a fuckin’ Big Mac.”
The initial wave came in the form of Texas barbecue. The Beast, which Parisian Thomas Abramowicz opened in 2014, was followed by Flesh in 2015 and Melt and Paris Texas in 2016. Abramowicz fell in love with the smoky goodness of Texan barbecue 10 years ago and made it his mission to bring it to France. But the Beast does not stint on authenticity for the sake of Parisian diners: All of the brisket is imported from Creekstone Farms in Kansas and slow-smoked using traditional methods that Abramowicz learned from his mentor, Texan grillmaster Wayne Mueller. The Beast has been so successful that a new location is opening in eastern Paris this month. “I believe there a strong bridge between French and Southern cuisine,” says Abramowicz, who notes the overwhelmingly positive response that Parisian Southern-style restaurants have received. “When it comes to ingredients, we use beans, butter, meats cooked or stewed for hours and hours … ring any bells?”
Restaurants and bars influenced by the food and culture of New Orleans (settled by the French in 1718) are also gaining momentum in the French capital. Lulu White, named after a notorious New Orleans brothel owner, is an absinthe and cocktail speakeasy in North Pigalle that opened in 2015. Le Baton Rouge has also been serving Southern-style cocktails and snacks since 2015. Earlier this year, Two Stories opened its doors with the POBoy Café on the ground floor and a jazz bar/fine dining restaurant called NOLA on the second.
Perhaps the most surprising Southern-inspired food fad to sweep Paris is chicken and waffles. Gumbo Yaya and Mama Jackson Soul Food Restaurant serve this ultimate comfort food in its purest form, piling perfectly crisped pieces of fried chicken atop fluffy, syrup-soaked waffles. Other restaurants, like Floyd’s Bar and Grill, whose menu includes rabbit and waffle — a fried rabbit thigh perched atop a waffle and served with green beans — have opted to add a French twist to the classic soul food dish. “Parisians are particularly fond of eating out … and when they discover a new taste that they are willing to embrace, they are extremely supportive,” says Floyd’s owner Christopher Smith.
Before these Southern transplants and Dixiephiles set up shop in Paris, the French had their own misguided vision of Southern American cuisine. Campy theme restaurants that focused more on the decor than the food and chains like Buffalo Grill informed Parisians’ idea of down-home cooking. So it’s no surprise that the French didn’t have a very high opinion of Southern fare: “I always just thought it was super greasy, huge portions and low quality,” says Paris native Davide Alexandre.
Though Parisians are attracted to food from the South in part because it’s so completely foreign to them — when the French visit the U.S., most of the time they head for New York or California — they also seem to welcome the relaxed, no-judgment feel of Southern hospitality. In a city where it’s almost always fashion week and walking out the door can feel like stepping onto a runway, it’s liberating to slap on a bib, crack open a cold one and chow down on some extra-sloppy barbecue ribs.