Why you should care
Because Paris isn’t all wine anymore.
Just don’t call it a speakeasy. Sure, Carina Soto Velasquez and her two business partners started a bar behind an unmarked door in one of the first taquerias in Paris, and you can only find it if you know it’s there. But there’s no 1920s feel to the place, she protests, and anyway the liquor’s not illegal — though when Candelaria first opened, some suspicious, confused Paris authorities accused her of running an illegal secret bar until she showed them the papers proving it was a perfectly legal, um, secret bar.
A watering hole hidden in the back of a taco joint wouldn’t be out of place in New York’s haute cocktail scene. But in Paris in 2011, there was nothing like it — and Velasquez and her team decided to do something about it. Along with Americans Josh Fontaine and Adam Tsou (Velasquez’s husband), the Colombia native has now opened four landmark bars, each one a huge departure from what Paris is used to.
The Parisian bistro — and all the wine it entails — has been going strong since the early days of the 20th century. But when Velasquez, Tsou and Fontaine visited Berlin and New York, they discovered different beasts — and they wanted something similar for Paris. Velasquez, who’s been working in bars for more than a decade after an early stab at studying law, began with something she knew: tacos and cocktails. It was a hit, and then the team moved on to Glass, an American-style dive bar steps from the Moulin Rouge that’s open till 5 a.m. “Glass is the easiest concept, but the hardest to understand,” says Velasquez — maybe Parisians weren’t sure about the light-up dance floor.
None of the team members are French — which means they receive extra scrutiny from authorities and neighbors, who stop in to check on them regularly. Occasionally, their concepts clash with the most dearly held tenets of French cuisine. After Glass, they opened a wine and oyster bar. Very French on the surface, but it was meant to be a combination of New Orleans’ relaxed atmosphere and Stockholm’s attention to detail. The Mary Celeste has a list of biodynamic wines and a team of enthusiastic servers — but it didn’t serve bread baskets, in a city where no matter what you order or what time of day, you will be given bread with your meal. “For French people, it was a big thing,” says Emma Lucila Sanz, who works for Velasquez’s Quixotic Projects. “Now we do serve bread, though. We still don’t serve butter.”
The latest concept took some massaging, too. Hero sits on the Rue Saint-Denis, a central Paris district notable for its startup scene and ubiquitous prostitutes. The planned menu for the neon-encrusted enclave was simple: Korean fried chicken and Champagne. Velasquez, Tsou and Fontaine had taken a trip to Hong Kong and been inspired by the hole-in-the-wall chicken shops. “We got to understand why people line up for an hour at one fried chicken place and not at another,” Velasquez says. “Asian people know their food. If you’re waiting in line for an hour, there’s a reason.” For the French, the low culture-high culture mash-up was a rough fit, but rather than downshift, the restaurant zigzagged, switching the Champagne idea out for a menu of wild cocktails filled with weird, energetic ingredients.
Those cocktail menus have put Quixotic Projects’ restaurants on the map: Velasquez was nominated for International Bartender of the Year at last year’s Spirited Awards (think the Oscars but for cocktails). Candelaria and Mary Celeste were also nominated, though none of the three took home the awards. She doesn’t have much time to bartend now — she still runs workshops — because if you’re going to open four restaurants, you have only so much time. “Sometimes I wake up with an idea for a drink,” she says. “But I never do it, because I’m in the office.”
To be sure, being on the cutting edge has its downsides. It’s jarring to visit a bar like Candelaria that feels so distinctly un-Parisian, like you’ve walked through an unmarked door to a cocktail bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Even when the decor is beautiful, it’s strange to be in a bar that feels so disconnected from its city. And despite Quixotic’s efforts, Paris still isn’t on the forefront of the world cocktail scene — Velasquez isn’t alone in pushing the boundaries of the city’s static food culture, but there aren’t many people trying to move liquor when wine will so clearly always be king here.
No matter what, Velasquez isn’t stopping at four. She can’t talk about the group’s next concept except in riddles, but they’re planning to go big. “We know we can do small,” she says. “And now we’d like a challenge.”