Eat + Drink

A Pinball Machine and Pancakes? Why Holybelly Represents the New Paris

Holybelly brings a modern mix of ragoût de joue de boeuf, pancakes and pinball to the new Paris cafe culture. (Illustration: Kemi Mai; Photos: William Lounsbury)

Walk into Holybelly cafe on a grey winter morning and you’ll encounter a flood of warmth. Atop the La Marzocco espresso machine are cheery yellow mugs, waiting for carefully poured lattes. The grinder whirs: Nico Alary, one of the owners, is preparing a fresh pour-over. Bare light bulbs illuminate the booths that line one side of the room, where customers are either busily eating, or busily photographing what they’re about to eat. The scent of bacon wafts from the back, where Nico’s partner, Sarah Mouchot, cooks breakfast in the open kitchen.

Beyond the counter and booths, larger wood tables are filled with an artfully scruffy crowd speaking an impressively diverse range of languages. One couple is battling over the Monster Bash pinball machine in the corner. For a second, you might think you’re in Melbourne or Brooklyn; but the narrow sidewalk outside leads to the Canal St. Martin. Welcome to the New Paris.

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Nico and Sarah grew up in France but spent six years in Vancouver and Melbourne, where they discovered the possibilities of coffee and cafe culture. “It was the traveling that made Holybelly,” Nico says, and the global influence is obvious in both the cuisine and the crowd. November’s breakfast menu included pancakes with bourbon butter and maple syrup, no doubt pleasing the many English-speakers in the cozy room. Lunch, meanwhile, featured a ragoût de joue de boeuf a l’ancienne and a cheese plate — familiar items for Parisians.

Nico’s coffee selection also reflects Australian and North American tastes, with a menu including an original cold brew (very rare in this town) and a creamy flat white.

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Paris has long been a living fantasy, its bridges and steeples serving as a backdrop for romance and escape. People go because people have always gone. “Paris in spring!” we exclaim to justify the plane ticket. We imagine cherry blossoms and baguettes, forgetting that of all the world’s romantic capitals, Paris is perhaps the most filled with tourist traps.

Without a guide or a local friend, not only are you liable to get pick-pocketed at the Louvre, but you’ll find yourself at a “classic cafe,” drinking a thimble full of burnt coffee and eating a dry ham sandwich. It’s not even a rookie mistake — these cafes are everywhere, billed as authentic experiences. The French are incredibly good at making rules in order to preserve their culture: Since its foundation, the city has held fast to family-owned neighborhood locales, even if the stubborn commitment to old ways means watery cafés au lait.

But over the past five years, a new wave of coffee makers and restaurant owners has emerged. They are international and entrepreneurial, bringing pour-overs and brunch menus to the city of prix fixes and patisserie. “We’re seeing this group motion towards something better. I think Paris as it was in people’s minds has been gone for awhile,” says Nico. “We can’t save that anymore. I’m pretty excited about the new Paris.”

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The move to new Paris has been a slow, mostly seamless transition. Still, niche spots like Holybelly occasionally come up against old Parisian ways. The bottom of Holybelly receipts say, “We love you. Except when you’re annoying,” and the statement’s not just a cutesy warning. One woman expected her brunch to last several hours, and wrote a lengthy complaint when she was asked to take her tea to-go. Plain clothes cops have come in, reinforcing an antiquated law that requires every beer-serving restaurant to display six kinds of soft beverage above the bar. (As a counterbalance? No one knows.)

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Apart from the odd clash as Nico and Sarah strive for transparency and efficiency, Holybelly is evidence that high-quality coffee can become as much of a Parisian tradition as local, seasonal cuisine. “If the French culture is good food and good service we’re absolutely preserving that,” Nico says. At Holybelly, a new kind of Parisian dream may just be coming true.

This story first appeared on Medium.com as part of Gone – a collection of smart, surprising and compulsively readable travel stories, launched in partnership with the Marriott portfolio of brands.