Entrée Libre: Thierry Breton Reinvents the Paris Wine Bar

No phone, no reservations, no service, a megaphone and its own sovereign currency. La Pointe du Grouin is Paris’s most chaotic—and, inadvertently, its most revolutionary—new drinking experience.

Chaos and joy at La Pointe du Grouin.

Thierry Breton

Renauld, La Pointe du Grouin's single, slightly manic bartender and his megaphone.

La Pointe du Grouin's change machine, which dispenses the bar's own sovereign currency, called "groins."

At La Pointe du Grouin euros aren’t accepted. Instead, guests exchange them for the bar’s own sovereign currency called “groins” at a change machine that resembles a parking garage meter. (The exchange rate between groins and euros is 1:1, highlighting the total arbitrariness of the system.) With groins, guests order drinks and food from one manic, overextended bartender called Renaud, who screams out orders—only semi-comprehensibly—over a megaphone. The 1200-square-foot room contains communal tables in front, a few six-tops in the back and a long bar along the open kitchen, where La Pointe du Grouin’s owner, Thierry Breton, can be seen growling at his cooks. In the rear is the cellar space, a refrigerated room with a sign taped on the doors that says: “ENTRÉE LIBRE!”

That is how bottles are served at La Pointe du Grouin: you forage for yourself. The first surprise, upon entering the cellar, is that wine by the bottle is available only from magnum. The second surprise, for anyone who might be inclined to prejudge the establishment on its outward signs of sophistication (there are none), is that the wine selection is very good.

Foreigners understandably tend to think of Paris as a kind of oasis of fine wine. In a certain sense it is—nowhere else can one access the fruits of the world’s most established wine culture in such depth and variety, from un-sulfured sparkling Grolleau to decades-old Burgundy. But an oasis is something one stumbles upon, and for fans of wine, Paris is a very unspontaneous place. Many of the “wine bars” for which Paris has become well known, like Le Verre Volé, are actually restaurants, not wine bars. In fact, at Le Verre Volé there is no bar and most book a table a day or two in advance.

But Paris’s wine culture is changing. The past four years have seen the opening of a handful of successful wine bars that are indeed bars: no-reservation establishments that have done away with fixed table arrangements in favor of informal standing room. There’s Yves Camdeborde’s L’Avant Comptoir (2009), David Loyola’s Aux Deux Amis (2010), Bertrand Grébaut’s Septime Cave (2013), and Camille Fourmont’s La Buvette (2013), to name a few. But if you combined all of those spaces, the result would be smaller than La Pointe du Grouin, and far more familiar.

As it is, if you arrive at the wrong moment, you’re liable to wait 15 minutes to change currency and another 15 to place orders, in what is—in theory, but not in practice—a separate line. You poach table space where you can. A sense of randomness prevails. The local color on a recent visit included a priest, several mothers with strollers and a man who sat down to play the piano used as a table inside.

The strangeness of La Pointe du Grouin, which opened this past April, is a direct reflection of Breton. Now in his forties, he is by turns boyish and bearish. He smiles for cameras but gives hilariously unguarded responses, evoking the famous Saturday Night Live sketch, “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.” Except where Phil Hartman’s caveman exploited faux-naivété to win court cases, Breton’s charm derives from truly existing in the wrong era.

When he first opened his second restaurant, he gave clients antique corkscrews and access to the wine cellar, thinking his servers could just tabulate the empty bottles at the end. The corkscrews promptly disappeared and the staff found empty bottles hidden throughout the restaurant after service.

“Well, we try something, we pay attention; we say, ‘Okay, we were wrong,'” he says of the experiment. “You have to give, but not too much. Now you have to come to the bar to get your bottle opened.”

Including La Pointe du Grouin, he now runs three establishments on Rue de Belzunce, facing the rear of the St. Vincent de Paul church in the shadow of Gare du Nord. It’s an area known more for adult DVD shops and ethnic bridal wear than fine cuisine—a Parisian counterpart to the down-market blight surrounding Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Chez Michel, which he opened in 1995, has become a classic destination for traditional Bretonne cuisine and natural wine. And Chez Casimir, which he opened three years later, now functions as its kid brother, with simpler cuisine, slightly lower prices and a generous brunch service on weekends.

Breton has run these out-of-the-way restaurants to moderate acclaim for the past decade and a half, even as other members of his generation of upstart Paris chefs—the “bistrot-nauts,” who left Michelin-starred kitchens in the 1990s to devote their talents to accessible bistrot cuisine—have become high-value brands. Breton’s friend Yves Camdeborde, credited with kickstarting the bistronomie movement at his former restaurant La Régalade, now owns a luxury hotel, Relais Saint-Germain, whose restaurant, Le Comptoir du Relais, books out weeks in advance. Another one of Breton’s contemporaries, the chef Eric Fréchon, has no less than six establishments, including spaces at the Hotel Bristol and the Grand Palais.

For reasons of his own, Breton chose to remain in the 10ème, despite its challenges.

“When I opened in 1995, [my clients] would be hassled by tramps with dogs outside, or people wandering in from the street. There were people who’d enter the restaurant in mid-service, totally destroyed, pissing themselves,” he says. “I told myself I’ll never succeed, this’ll never work.”

Wishing, above all, to avoid creating yet another restaurant, Breton modeled his bar’s service on that of L’Avant Comptoir, the aforementioned wine-bar-slash-crêpe-stand Yves Camdeborde runs beside his hotel and restaurant in the 6ème arrondissement. When Camdeborde opened the standing-room-only L’Avant Comptoir in 2009, he declared that he sought to end the “tyranny of the table” in French restaurateuring. But unlike La Pointe du Grouin, L’Avant Comptoir is the size of a newsstand and perpetually packed with tourists.

“I asked Yves, ‘How do you manage to ring everything up correctly?’ He said it’s impossible with so many people in such a space,” says Breton. “So [for La Pointe du Grouin] we said to ourselves, how will we keep track of 1200 square feet?”

“The only possibility,” Breton continues in all seriousness, “was to never make change for people. Can you imagine having to give change constantly all night? With just two staff?”

Faced with the not-exactly-unmanageable challenge of giving correct change to large numbers of guests, another restaurateur might simply have hired more staff. But whether due to the high costs of staffing in France, or doubts about drawing consistent crowds to a third establishment on Rue de Belzunce, Breton never entertained the idea. Instead, to serve a 1200-square-foot space without any servers, he invented a currency system not unlike Chuck E. Cheese’s.

The initial crowds at La Pointe du Grouin were almost too large to manage. “We decided 200 covers per night was too much, even if you staffed five bartenders,” says Breton. “I almost hired a doorman.” As it is, if you arrive at the wrong moment, you’re liable to wait 15 minutes to change currency and another 15 to place orders, in what is—in theory, but not in practice—a separate line. You poach table space where you can. A sense of randomness prevails. The local color on a recent visit included a priest, several mothers with strollers and a man who sat down to play the piano used as a table inside.

While some diners might balk at the anarchic scene at La Pointe du Grouin, the majority of guests seem reassured by its lack of pretense. All of Paris’s other wine bars—from L’Avant Comptoir to Aux Deux Amis to Septime Cave—are so tiny that they remain exclusive even without coursed meals and reservation systems. La Pointe du Grouin, by comparison, feels downright un-Parisian in scale and inclusiveness. It’s also cheap. A 500ml carafe of Christophe Pacalet’s Beaujolais Villages costs 12 groins, or 12€ ($16). A jumbo artichoke from Brittany the size of a whiffle-ball costs six groins. Marinated mussels are three groins. With his often-maddening groin system, Breton has inadvertently demonstrated that no hassle is too great for Parisians in search of bargains.

As could be expected at a low-priced bar near the Gare du Nord, it has proven challenging to draw the right clientele. Most chefs of Breton’s standing decline to offer their services at La Point du Groin’s price point partly to keep out a leery cheapo element that tends to linger in Paris’s public spaces.

“Every Thursdays and Fridays there are at least two tables we chuck out,” he admits. “It’s just the price that matters for them. They’ll argue when they realize it’s more than 2€ [for a glass].”

But La Pointe du Groine remains perpetually packed. And, despite the challenges, Breton has a characteristically improvisational plan to sell more serious wine.

“We’ll open several [magnums] each night. The idea is that the first who orders it gets to choose…” he explains, trailing off. “The problem is, we can’t put the policy in writing. We’ll be overwhelmed.”