While exploring the 20th arrondissement of Paris we booked a table at the restaurant Le Vieux Belleville (literally: The Old Belleville). We’d heard whispers that it was a good show, with the crowd singing and dancing to live French music from yesteryear.
But the restaurant’s official website seemed a little dated. The very concept seemed… a gamble. Singing with strangers over dinner? We weren’t convinced.
But from the moment we entered the restaurant and were warmly welcomed by the owner, Joseph Pantaleo, we knew we were in for a good time.
The restaurant itself was a typical Parisian bistro, with red and white chequered table cloths, a stretching bar, and walls covered in Paris memorabilia.
“The Old Belleville”
The owner, whose portrait hung behind our table, took our meal orders while explaining that Belleville was going through a revival. He should know. After all, he was born on the same very street as the restaurant.
“Belleville has changed drastically. In the past it was a working class neighbourhood full of blue collar workers,” he said.
“There were a lot of artisans, working, for example, as shoe repairman or woodworkers, in the courtyards along rue de Belleville. Through the years, the neighbourhood gradually started to evolve.”
He said that as the population grew with low-income housing, the district struggled through problems with overpopulation and drug use, but has come out on the other side with thanks to a new artisan community.
“Little by little, we’ve started to see art galleries opening, these artists have allowed us to showcase their work and talent, which has brought in the tourists,” he said, adding that typically his own restaurant attracts visitors from the world over.
While a walk through the 20th arrondissement won’t reveal many tourists (except at the famed Pere Lachaise cemetery), perhaps things are changing. Pantaleo explained that French people and foreigners alike yearned for a little French music nostalgia at his restaurant, seeking familiar songs from Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier.
Speaking of Edith Piaf, it was her who stole the show on the night we visited, in the form of a young Polish performer Gosia. Together with Michel on accordion, she whizzed through Piaf hits including La foule, Milord, Non je ne regrette rien and more.
And believe it or not, the entire crowd (of mostly French people) lapped it up. You can get a good taste of the evening in the YouTube video below.
Belleville in video form
After the performance, I asked for Gosia’s take on the district for the podcast episode (you can hear it in full below). She said the 20th was the best arrondissement that Paris had to offer.
“It is getting really gentrified. It was traditionally a very working class area, and so it’s a lovely place, very mixed and there’s a real life to the neighbourhood. People are really attached to this place,” she said.
There was certainly a lot of life in Le Vieux Belleville on the night we visited, and it was a pleasure to discover “The Old Belleville”, if only for a few hours.
You can find the restaurant online here, and in person at 12 Rue des Envierges, 75020. Bookings are recommended.