Armed with Covid-19 vaccination passes, Parisians are over the 'fear of going out'

Cyclists bike along Rue de Rivoli during rush hour in Paris on Sept 17, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PARIS (NYTIMES) - On a recent sunny afternoon, a cluster of young women in short dresses and high boots crowded into a special elevator at Cheval Blanc, a new hotel in the La Samaritaine complex along the Seine, and were whisked up to the restaurant Le Tout-Paris.

Reinvented as a pop-inspired contemporary brasserie offering classics such as sole meuniere for two, it has a terrace that offers an uninterrupted view stretching from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame - and is the perfect setting for a selfie.

As the young women settled into the salon area near the bar, passing tables that had been reserved days ahead, another visitor wearing what looked like Chanel couture accented with pearls and diamonds posed for her own private photographer.

The rest of the clientele, dressed in business casual or Deauville-appropriate crisp shirts, jeans and loafers, looked on with bemusement. Next to many tables, Birkins were perched on stools provided specifically for handbags.

In Paris, it appears, few are suffering from FOGO, the fear of going out. Indeed, as the country just achieved an 84 per cent vaccination rate for citizens 12 and older, new restaurants, clubs and hotels are popping up like mushrooms all around town.

Proof of vaccination is still mandatory and masks are required in crowd settings, but social distancing is fading like a bad dream - even though last week a government website reported an average of 75 new Covid-19 cases for every 100,000 of the city's estimated 11 million residents and almost 20 deaths.

"There's a lot of pent-up demand. There's a desire to enjoy life, to get all dressed up and go out again but not run all over town," said Ms Alexis Mabille, a fashion designer and interior decorator who oversaw the revamp of cabaret-turned-restaurant Le Boeuf sur le Toit, not far from the Elysee Palace. "People want to show up for drinks, move on to dinner and then dance."

Once owned by Jean Cocteau and frequented by a mash-up of artists and tastemakers, among them Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia, Josephine Baker, Gabrielle Chanel and Christian Dior, Le Boeuf has been re-imagined as a one-stop venue for a night out with, at its entrance, an oyster stand and, inside, a brasserie-style restaurant, an art deco bar with a frescoed ceiling by artist Simon Buret and an 80-seat music hall. Upstairs, a private dining room overlooks the stage, and cognac and other spirits are served in a traditional fumoir lounge.

By 10.30pm on a recent Monday, the music hall was filled with an eclectic mix of young women in clubbing dresses and clunky boots, tattooed hipsters, a casual business crowd and a few silver-haired patrons, all listening to a live jazz duo playing standards such as "On the Sunny Side of the Street".

"It feels a little Old World and also like the end of Covid-19," said Ms Marion Laisney, 21, a college student in Paris. "Most of all, it's great to get out and see people again."

Certainly, that is what is happening on the upper fringes of the Marais, where the area around Rue du Vertbois is the focus of a new development plan - following the implosion of the project known as La Jeune Rue - and fresh hopes of becoming "a village at the centre of the world", as Mr Thomas Erber put it. He is the artistic director of the project, backed by German investment fund Patrizia.

The aim, Mr Erber said, is to create a "savvy alchemy" of independent-minded brands, artisans and other creatives to transform the scruffy streets between the Musee des Arts et Metiers and Place de la Republique into a proto-Brooklyn.

Known mainly for long-time restaurants such as Anahi and L'Ami Louis, this traditionally blue-collar neighbourhood now also contains fashion stores such as APC and Front de Mode, an eco-responsible multibrand boutique run by designer Ms Sakina M'Sa. There is often a line outside Relique, a 1970s-era vintage clothing specialist.

A Cafe Kitsune coffee roastery, a first boutique for limited-edition furniture producer We Do Not Work Alone and vinyl specialist Rupture Records also recently opened, and future projects include a gathering place to be decorated in a cabinet of curiosities styled by Mr Erber.

A worker checking the health passport of a spectator in Paris on July 21, 2021. Proof of vaccination is still mandatory in crowd settings.

"What's so wonderful here is that we have the pass sanitaire, an official proof of vaccination," said Mr Christian Holthausen, 47, a French American living in Paris. He said he favours "linen trousers, a light sweater, JM Weston moccasins and a tiger-eye bracelet" when he goes out to restaurants such as Juveniles in the First Arrondissement and Capitaine in the Fourth.

"Paris is alive," Mr Holthausen said. "It's almost back to normal."

Enter Soho House, the private club network for the creative class that recently had a soft opening in a three-building complex fronted by the Haussmannian apartment building where Cocteau grew up (and its decoration was inspired by this work).

Twenty-six years after the original Soho House took shape in London and two months after its parent, Membership Collective Group, went public, the concept has reached Paris, where members can gather at the bar, dine in a restaurant run by respected chef William Pradeleix, take in private screenings and stay in one of 36 rooms, starting at €205 (S$377) framing a courtyard fitted with a retractable glass roof.

Will it gain currency with locals in a city where the price of a coffee allows you to linger at a cafe for as long as you like? In the past, membership programmes at hot spots such as Le Silencio and Castel, for example, have foundered.

Customers sit on the terrace of 'Les Orgres' restaurant in Paris on Sept 3, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Likening Soho House to a warm bread roll, Mr Nick Jones, the club's founder and CEO, observed in an interview that people are hungry to reconnect - and that for its 111,900 members, the club chain already functions as a home away from home in 31 global cities (Rome and Brighton, England, are next). Before it opened, it was already fully booked for fashion week.

So was the Cheval Blanc, which stands alongside the Quai du Louvre like an art deco ocean liner and functions like a world unto itself. Offering 72 rooms - including a seven-bedroom duplex penthouse at €65,000 a night - the five-star hotel was decorated by Peter Marino with the help of more than 600 artisans. It features four restaurants (one of which is Le Tout-Paris) and a Dior spa, and is decorated with works by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and French abstractionist Georges Mathieu.

Recently emerged from an 18-month renovation is the privately owned Hotel Saint James, marketed as the only chateau-hotel within the city. Changes by interior decorator Laura Gonzalez included a picturesque garden pergola for its restaurant, Bellefeuille. Only members and hotel guests may reserve for lunch or brunch; the public is admitted after 7pm. Come November, a Guerlain spa is to be open to all.

"There's a real energy right now. We sense that there's a bubbling interest in coming back to Paris and staying longer," said Ms Laure Pertusier, the hotel's general manager. "What's tricky is getting reservations in certain restaurants."

MoSuke, for example. After opening his first restaurant in September 2020, Mr Mory Sacko, a 29-year-old French chef of Senegalese and Malian descent, won a Michelin star for dishes that combine French, West African and Japanese influences in a way that, he said in an interview, is "as unforced and organic as possible".

Among them: filet of beef cured in shea butter with mafe sauce, made with peanuts, or Breton lobster with tomato miso, lacto-fermented chilies and charred watermelon.

With only 35 seats, its waitlist already stretches well into next year.

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