Algerian butchers meet African barbers on Paris's Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis

Also find Indian curry houses and French fishmongers on a street that acts as a colourful, kaleidoscopic, multicultural symbol of the City of Light

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The long, lively Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis is one of the most historic streets in Paris, but is very much under the radar, rarely featuring in guidebooks or concierge recommendations.

It surprises locals and tourists because it symbolises the modern reality of the City of Light — a vibrant, cosmopolitan melting pot of nationalities, religions and cultures. Joining the teeming crowds that pack out the street’s restaurants, cafes, food stores and eclectic boutiques from morning to night, I am reminded more of multiethnic London in its heyday than Paris, where, historically, each immigrant community stuck to its own neighbourhood.

But here, in just a few minutes, you pass an Algerian halal butcher, Syrian, Kurd and Turkish snack bars, Indian curry houses and African barbershops, but also old-fashioned French cheese shops and fishmongers, as well as traditional 150-year-old brasseries serving oysters, crabs and prawns, and cool, contemporary bistrots that have recently popped up, catering to chic young Parisians who are suddenly drawn to this newly hot neighbourhood.

A traditional cheese shop on Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis. Photo: John Brunton

The entrance to Faubourg Saint-Denis sits at the imposing Porte Saint-Denis city gate, marked by a towering victory arch commissioned by France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, to commemorate his army’s glorious victories. Faubourg means “beyond the bourg”, outside the city walls or gates, and there are still 14 of these distinctive neighbourhoods in Paris, from the exclusive fashion boutiques lining Faubourg Saint-Honore to the artisan furniture workshops of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.

It seems incredible to imagine today, but Faubourg Saint-Denis was originally part of an important Roman road leading to Northern France, when Paris was known as Lutece. It then achieved fame as part of La Voie Royale, a grand processional route that royalty traditionally took, returning to Paris after their coronation in Rheims and then departing for their final resting place at the Basilica Saint-Denis, where the kings of France are buried. The last monarch to travel along the Faubourg was Queen Victoria, en route to the 1855 World Expo after arriving by train.

So up until the end of the 19th century, and the creation of modern Paris by Baron Haussmann, this was an exclusive, wealthy neighbourhood lined with jewellery, textile and porcelain merchants. But a very different world awaits the adventurous traveller today who heads off down the narrow Faubourg in the direction of Gare de l’Est train station.

My evening tour begins at the hip John Circus, a buzzing pizza bar where Italian bartender Andrea Conti enthusiastically says: “Seriously I don’t think there is another street in the world that can be made up of so many different nationalities, immigrants, refugees. Turks, Kurds, Syrians and Greeks, Chinese and Afghans, Moroccans and Senegalese, Indians and Pakistanis, all working alongside each other.

“You will find the best kebabs, curries, North African chorba soup, mafe and yassa from West Africa, classic French cuisine and, of course, Italian. Except here, our excellent pizzaiolo, Rana, is from Bangladesh, while our owner, Alex, is French. But that is typical of Faubourg Saint-Denis.”

While John Circus is part of a new generation of addresses on the Faubourg, the same sentiment of a welcoming global community emerges at other, more established locales. Eyyup Ulas runs the historic Restaurant Derya, which has been open since 1988. Walking into the packed dining room, with everyone feasting on copious plates of mezze and juicy lamb kebabs, I feel I am back in a traditional tavern in Istanbul’s bohemian Beyoglu quarter.

The only surprise about this pillar of Turkish cuisine is that the owners are actually Kurds, but when they first opened, it was not the moment to promote their Kurdish roots. “We are friends with everyone here,” says Ulas. “The Turkish doner kebab stalls, the new wave of Kurdish eateries, even the Greeks running the Grand Cafe d’Athenes just up the road. Conflict is for politicians and here on the Faubourg, everyone is friends with each other.”

Ali Mokaden has been serving his couscous and tagines on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis since 1975. Photo: John Brunton

A few doors along, the hole-in-the-wall Sidi Boussaid is probably the tiniest diner on the whole street, and its Tunisian owner Ali Mokaden has been serving his couscous and tagines since 1975. “I have been here 45 years and the place has certainly changed over the years. If you can believe it, way back, this was a European quarter with Spanish, Portuguese and Italians alongside the French.

“It was a bustling commercial hub with workshops and businesses, whereas today it is becoming more residential, more affluent and the new hipsters prefer Japanese noodle bars and Mexican taco joints rather than eateries like mine. But I still would not live and work anywhere else.”

One address you cannot miss on the Faubourg is Le Daily Syrien, with three different outlets. The owner, Ahmed Al Batin, came to France from the Syrian town of Nawa, near the border with Jordan, and opened his first venue 10 years ago.

“For us, this eclectic street was the perfect location, lively and full of different nationalities, a melting pot of world cuisine, with customers open to new tastes. So our first place was dedicated to falafel, with the aim of educating French foodies that falafel is not a Lebanese or Israeli invention but originated from Syria. Then we opened a locale dedicated to grillades, and most recently a Syrian vegetarian and vegan restaurant.”

This latest cantina may be in an old halal butcher’s shop, but despite the meathooks hanging from the tiled walls, the tempting menu proposes za’atar galettes with hummus, fava bean ful and labneh, broad bean and chickpea salad, tabbouleh pickled turnips and smoky stuffed aubergines.

“I chose to come to France as an entrepreneur, because I was convinced this country welcomes people from all over the world, whatever their religion and politics,” Al Batin says. “And in our restaurants I have always tried to give work to refugees who are trying to survive here, not just from Syria but all over the Middle East.”

Street art peppers Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Photo: John Brunton

Despite this kaleidoscope of global cuisine, there are still numerous historical spots dedicated to classic French food. Julhes is a to-die-for delicatessen, perfect for home-baked bread, macarons, artisan jams and honey, while Taka & Vermo stocks dozens of irresistible cheeses. Queues line the street outside the Belle Epoque Bouillon Julien, which serves timeless favourites such as egg mayonnaise, beef consomme and duck confit, while for seafood and choucroute, the opulent Art Nouveau Floderer was one of the first brasseries to open in Paris in 1871.

This was when a different wave of refugees flooded Paris, when Alsace was annexed by Germany and displaced people arrived at Gare de l’Est, just by Faubourg Saint-Denis. The Brasserie is tucked down Cour des Petites Ecuries, once the Royal stables and one of the Faubourg’s many mysterious courtyards and passageways.

Right opposite is the intriguing Passage du Desir, while Passage Brady is now an unofficial “little India”, home to restaurants, spices, incense and textile shops. Passage du Prado is the oldest Parisian passageway, created in 1785, with a glass roof and ornate Art Deco embellishments added in 1925. Once an exclusive shopping arcade, the Passage is now dominated by African coiffeurs, and nail and beauty salons, and is packed out all day as partygoers primp and preen themselves with hair extensions, extravagant wigs and funky beard trimmings.

Although you enter Passage du Prado from the Faubourg, the exit is just by the Louis XIV’s arch on one of Baron Haussmann’s Grands Boulevards, which is lined by majestic theatres. Every fashionista’s favourite Paris department stores, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, are just up the road. And although you can still sip an espresso here at the zinc counter of a classic French cafe, I spot several shisha lounges and even a cool new Haitian restaurant.

Even Baron Haussmann’s Paris is no longer the preserve of the French bourgeoisie, but rather is moving in the same direction as the cosmopolitan Faubourg Saint-Denis.

Updated: June 01, 2022, 8:58 AM