In the course of nearly 40 years of drinking, I’ve seen many beloved bars come and go. But one still haunts me consistently: an alluringly peculiar scrap of a place in Paris in the mid-’80s called Le Fitzcarraldo, ostensibly after the Herzog film.
At the time, Paris was running a course similar to that of New York’s SoHo in the ’70s; what has long since become a metastasizing tourist shopping mall was, at that time, the frontier of the art world, where bohemians were holding impromptu bashes in their then-cheap lofts in the neighborhood’s moribund factories. People actually lived there then, and by people I don’t mean absentee Russian and Chinese billionaires.
Similarly, to stroll through the center of Paris now is to revel in a scrubbed-clean version of the city, kept orderly by the jack-booted CRS brandishing their ominous mitraillettes, the streets lined with the same franchised boutiques you’ll find in SoHo, or London’s Soho for that matter, or the tonier parts of Tokyo, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Houston. It’s difficult to imagine how the whole of the city used to be one huge playground, where people lived and everything just happened.
It was there, just a few turns from the frantic tourist fray of the Beaubourg, that Le Fitzcarraldo held its idiosyncratic reign, down a hidden little side street called Rue Tiquetonne. There was a small theater nearby, which is how I found it one night, sauntering past post-show with my girlfriend. We wandered in wide-eyed, wondering what we’d discovered. It was a chameleon bar, given over to a different artist, or group of artists, to do with whatever they chose in terms of design, every other month or so, maybe every third. I never could figure out the timetable, but I suspect that, as with everything in Paris at that time, there wasn’t any hard and fast calendar.
One night you’d go in and find the bar entirely painted black with a squiggle of neon on the back wall that said simply “gros rouge,” which is slang for cheap red wine. Stop in the next month, however, and it would be brightly lit with fluorescent tubes dangling at odd angles from fishing line, silver Mylar crisscrossing the space everywhere, and plastic doll parts glued to almost every surface. Never mind. Whatever was the going thing, you simply entered, invariably smiled, took a seat and began dissecting the newest iteration.
What were they serving at Le Fitzcarraldo? Nothing special whatsoever. Some plonk wines, some basic macro Euro brews, a few of the cheaper rhums agricoles you might find at any corner store about and some banal large-label whiskies, alongside the ubiquitous pastis. There was no food that I can recall. But there was consistently awesome music on the turntable, remarkable in its catholicity: punk, opera, New Wave, ska, jazz and classical, reggae and pop. Moreover, there was a matching ragtag clientele, improbable now to consider in that part of Paris: older artists holding court with smart aleck buskers, art and philosophy students from the Sorbonne playing cards, hip Africans down from the 9th or 18th chatting up cute expat girls, everybody smoking, the constant smoking.
One late weekend night you might stroll in to find the whole place packed like a matchbox, music blasting, strobes flaring off, everyone sweating, a few idiots pogo-ing. You get a drink and pull off to the side to see what the herd is doing, take in the fashion going down. A week later you come in on a Wednesday and the bar is suddenly all done up with live plants everywhere, coming out of little slits in the walls, living grass on the floor, blue grow lamps now illuminating the entirety and nothing but two grizzled intellectuals playing chess at a back table made of a log. Is this the same bar? An excellent question, rhetorically speaking.
I left Paris in ’87, after living there on and off for four years, and by the time I returned a year or two later, it was gone—no trace of it. Now I can’t even find any mention of it online. I’ve no clue as to who owned it, what years it was in operation, how it went under. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that I dreamed the whole thing up; I wish I could say I had.
What made Le Fitzcarraldo remarkable was the same ineffable set of unbottleable variables that makes any true scene reverberate for those swept up in it: curious energy, easygoing edge, the feeling on any given night that really anything might happen but it would all be fine. Someone might get injured, or you could fall in love. One couldn’t count, I’m certain, how many bad manifestos were penned in that bar, and debts rung up, and hearts broken. I could be accused of romanticizing the simple awe of youth, except that I still recognize that same quicksilver aura in any place that is manufacturing its own currency out of whole fabric; one learns to recognize that kind of ephemeral magic as it comes and goes.
Over the last decade of the “cocktail renaissance,” I have frequently played a sort of party trick wherein I ask a room of bartenders what the most important aspect of a great bar is. The most common answer I get, of course, is great cocktails. I then begin to enumerate where on my own imaginary list “great cocktails” might fall: twelfth perhaps? Tenth, maybe even?
People don’t go to bars to get a drink, exactly. They can make one at home for a quarter of the cost. What is it that a truly great bar brings us for the price of our cocktail? That low-amperage jolt, producing the feeling that you want to be only in this particular corner, but really only right here, to observe what the rest of our species is getting up to tonight.
This story is part of Dead Bars, a series dedicated to bygone institutions that had a lasting impact on communities, writers and regulars.