As New York City’s French residents — some 60,000 strong — get ready to celebrate Bastille Day on July 14, a small but intense coterie of downtown New Yorkers is pushing for the designation of a new neighborhood, “Little Paris.” The heart of their effort is Centre Street, appropriately spelled the French way, between Broome and Grand Streets. One block to the west is Lafayette Street, named after the most famous Frenchman to fight in the American Revolution.
This valiant struggle — storming Community Board 2 with a citizen petition — is headquartered at Coucou French Classes. Coucou founders Léa and Marianne Perret point out that what New Yorkers now call Soho was in the late 1800s a flourishing quartier français.
Coucou itself is located across the street from the old Police Headquarters Building at 240 Centre Street. Opened in 1909, the Beaux Arts headquarters was inspired, according to the Perrets, by “the famous Paris City Hall, l’Hôtel de Ville.” Indeed, the original 1978 write-up of the building for the Landmarks Preservation Commission notes that it is sited “like the traditional French Hôtel de Ville within a confined urban space.” Today it presides regally over a street of French enterprises.
Starting at Grand Street, which forms a natural border with Chinatown, you’ll come to Maman at 239 Centre Street, the exceptionally popular French café, bakery, and event space. You’ll spot it from afar because in good weather, there are nearly always happy young customers out front, standing between the bamboo-covered outdoor seating and the flower-filled interior. The menu offers family recipes from the founders’ Maman and earlier generations, such as the banana-lavender cornmeal waffles with vanilla mascarpone. There are good deals like the pastry assortment of baked goods for two for $10, traditional fare like pain perdu, and sophisticated offerings like “un deux trois,” a fig and olive tapenade, and herb whipped feta with toasted country bread. As if that’s not enough, there’s a nut-filled chocolate chip cookie, made famous by Oprah. A lovely garden out back adds an additional touch of perfection.
La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels
Walk a few steps north and you’ll reach one of the most innovative, appealing wine bars in New York, La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, at 249 Centre Street. The spot features a French-dominant wine list paired with Mediterranean small plates.
You’ll notice immediately that the place is warm and welcoming. This was fully the intention of the principals, who hired the renowned Parisian interior designer Dorothée Meilichzon to outfit and light up the space. Her signature low-slung banquettes and chairs, combined with her complex, flattering lighting, create an elegant setting while also helping the customers look very good. French touches include the Enomatic system that allows efficient, spillage-free service by the glass and the spectacular wallpaper of pre-Commune Paris. You won’t, however, find l’Hôtel de Ville on the map because the Commune burnt it down in 1871.
La Compagnie’s managing partner, Caleb Ganzer, says it is the brainchild of a group of French partners who established the Experimental Group Cocktail Club in Paris. They had come to New York to explore the cocktail scene and, inspired by New York’s cocktail culture, returned home to open a series of stylish hotels and restaurants. Calling New York the greatest wine market in the world, Ganzer points out that all La Compagnie’s staffers are sommeliers who do all the tasks necessary to ensure a memorable evening in their company.
With $5 off every glass of wine, Happy Hour is well worth the trip. Plus there’s a cute gimmick: If you order and correctly guess a Mystery Wine, red or white, you’ll be given the bottle for free (not that it’s easy, given the 20-page wine list).
When asked about the drive to name the neighborhood “Little Paris,” Ganzer responds that he will help in any way possible. La Compagnie’s open restaurant structure is designed by French-born architect, Côme Menage, the founder and principal of re-ad architecture and design. Ganzer says that La Compagnie’s building is a hidden headquarters for other French businesses, including the very chic line of ready-to-wear clothing APC (Atelier de Production et de Création). What could be more French?
On the corner of Centre and Bloom sits Clic, a decor and lifestyle store opened in 2008 by Christiane Celle. Originally a bookstore and art gallery, Clic now describes itself as “an expertly curated concept space featuring a collection of contemporary photography and art,” While partnering with artisans all over the world, Clic also offers French goods, such as Maison de Vacances pillows and throws and photographs by Juliette Charvet, Julien Robinet, and Stephane Dessaint.
Coucou French Classes
With a reopening party on July 17, Coucou French Classes will kick off a month-long celebration of French culture in New York, centered of course on Centre Street. As Coucou’s petition notes, “Northwest of Italy, as most New Yorkers could point out, is France. In New York, you could say the same: northwest of Little Italy is a hub of French businesses — boutiques, cafes, restaurants. And yet real estate agents have named the area ‘NOLITA,’ or ‘North of Little Italy.'” The gauntlet is thrown!
On July 14, Coucou will offer an Instagram Live baking class at 5 p.m. with Michel et Augustin, bakers of superb French cookies. July 17th will be its Bastille Day celebration and reopening party. On July 18 at 2 p.m., Women of Paris will conduct a virtual tour of the iLeft Bank, with a focus on French female authors. And at 5 p.m. on July 18, a workshop will explore Serge Gainsbourg‘s legacy.
The French gave us our magnificent Statue of Liberty, reigning over New York harbor since 1886 (and the replica that recently arrived) . And once you start looking at downtown New York through French eyes you see an astonishing number of French-named enterprises: La Mercerie, Le Botaniste, La Colombe coffee, SoHo Soleil, Pas de Calais, agnès b, Jouvert Electric Bikes, the ubiquitous Le Pain Quotidien, and many more. Mon Dieu! The French are here! Let’s celebrate. And sign Coucou’s petition.
Julia Vitullo-Martin can be reached at @JuliaManhattan.
Next, join us at a free event to try some of the hundreds of cheeses and wines at the French Cheese Board in Soho!