sYears ago, a series of chance events led me to temporarily swap homes with a stranger. The accidental exchange would introduce me to an area of Paris I had never heard of before, and an area I would visit many more times after that. Compact enough to explore on foot, but big enough to regularly reveal new treasures, its unrefined charms, the eclectic range of local residents and, perhaps most prominently, the range of delicious and affordable dishes to be found fascinated me all.
Spanning four arrondissements, Belleville has a rich history steeped in working-class insurgency. Its former inhabitants were among the staunchest supporters of the Paris Commune, and when the army of Versailles came to retake Paris in 1871, they faced the fiercest opposition from this lively part.
The neighborhood’s more recent struggle is a modern one: the struggle against creeping gentrification. While it has largely withstood the sweeping changes in the neighboring 18th arrondissement, plans to add another six stations to the metro line on which Belleville is located, coupled with preparations for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, will likely slow the process. accelerate.
Belleville has long been a meeting place for immigrants. Armenian, Greek and Polish communities came and settled before World War II. Sephardic Jews from Tunisia and Algeria soon followed. In the 1970s, Chinese and Vietnamese migrants arrived, who now live with different communities from North and West Africa. A little over a century ago, it was considered a particularly “Paris” part of Paris, with more than half of its residents born in the area. Now more than a third of the inhabitants come from outside metropolitan France. This vibrant mix makes for one of the most interesting places to eat in the capital. The diversity of the residents of the neighborhood is clearly visible in the shops along Boulevard de Belleville. The shelves are stacked high with edible treats from around the world. Full-toothed lamb heads turning under rotisserie chickens outside halal butcher shops. The storefronts groan with boxes of Chinese cabbage, cassava, okra, yams, plantains and a multitude of peppers.
Home to the city’s second Chinatown, Belleville has countless dining options. One of the most authentic is La Tour de Belleville on Rue de la Présentation. The star of the show in this unfavorable canteen is undoubtedly the soup. lamian Wheat noodles are expertly stretched to order in cat fashion, before being quickly blanched and added to a long simmered aromatic broth, scented with ginger and star anise, and garnished with meltingly tender beef, duck or pork.
Amid a few trendy newcomers on the 20th arrondissement side of the boulevard is an array of restaurants and cafes catering to the Tunisian Jewish community. Long-established Chez René et Gabin draws a loyal following, especially on Fridays, when there’s a brisk takeaway in preparation for Shabbat. The menu features well-known Sephardic staples such as shakshouka (seasoned eggs and peppers poached in tomato sauce), alongside lesser-known daily specials such as mloukhia, a vibrant green herbaceous casserole of braised beef, and akoud, a slow-braised and delicately spiced tripe stew. Although the signature casse croûte, a traditional Tunisian sandwich, is a bestseller for a reason, a demonstrably better version can be found across the street.
The ever-present queue at Di-napoli is testament to the perennial popularity of this hole-in-the-wall, home to one of this city’s notoriously expensive culinary bargains. Working tirelessly behind the tiny counter, the small team handles a relentless flow of orders, filling sandwiches liberally with tuna, or ground beef with a mechouia, a tomato-paprika paste, and making delicate omelettes on the cast-iron hob with a scarlet dollop of fiery harissa. .
A little further towards Ménilmontant is the bright yellow facade of Spécialités Antillaises. While Covid has temporarily restricted the adjacent restaurant, the store is doing a thriving business of ready-to-eat foods from the French Caribbean, with long lines queuing to receive special orders of stuffed suckling pig, Creole glazed ham and lobster fricassee, among others. items unique to the islands.
Halfway down Rue de Belleville is a steadfast community that has been in business for over 30 years. Lao Siam’s always-packed dining room can accommodate an eclectic crowd of devotees. It stands out among a slew of fairly forgettable Thai restaurants by sticking steadfastly to its family roots and offers a selection of hard-to-find northeastern Thai and Laotian dishes such as nem thadeua, a grilled rice salad with fermented pork, house-made sai oua, a spicy sausage studded with turmeric, lemongrass, chili and kaffir lime leaf.
So far, Belleville’s defiant nature persists – for how long is hard to say. The collective community view seems to be that no matter how many natural wine and organic grocers settle there, the strong spirit of multiculturalism will continue.
This part of Paris retains its allure partly because it is devoid of the mass tourism that characterizes the more popular parts of the city. Contrary to Fox News’ incredulous claim that the neighborhood was a “no-go zone,” it constantly reveals its diverse charms. Beer is drunk on the benches outside Moncoeur Belleville as the sun sets. Local children kick footballs, the Eiffel Tower visible in the distance beyond Parc de Belleville. Women in traditional West African clothing sell pastels wrapped in foil (doughnuts) from a bench for a few euros. Definitely Paris, but still challenging Belleville for now.