The flea markets of Saint-Ouen in Paris are overflowing with all manner of weird and wonderful curiosities, fabulous furniture, incredible characters and a generous helping of overpriced junk and charlatans. Just walking there from the Porte de Clignancourt metro station is an experience.
With 15 separate markets plus street stalls we always leave two days for exploring. Friday is dealer day; it's very quiet but the two 'dealer-only' markets are open: Marché l'Usine and Marché Lécuyer. Downstairs at L'Usine is a labyrinth of dark and musty underground rooms and passageways, some lower than head height. We wonder how some of the pieces were squeezed in. Many dealers in the other markets don't open on Fridays so we return the next day along with the thousands upon thousands (upon thousands, if the weather is good) of tourists.
I'll revisit the fleas in another blog but today let me tell you about our regular Saturday lunch date at Saint-Ouen. We stumbled across the cramped bistro 'Chez Louisette' on our first visit to the fleas. Blink and you'll miss this little gem squeezed down a dark passage in the myriad of narrow alleyways that is the Marché Vernaison.
The unassuming facade of Chez Louisette. Photo: La Brocante.
Dating back 50 or so years, this place is a scream! It's authentic kitsch with live French music of the 1930s and '40s and lashings of showmanship thrown in. There are various claims and faded newspaper clippings taped to the windows eluding to the possibility that Edith Piaf once sang there.
On the small raised stage in the corner elderly yet formidable French women belt out a medley of Piaf songs with great aplomb while a couple of equally elderly (and not at all formidable) French gents play the organ and piano accordion.
Top-of-the-bill Manuela is still belting out Edith Piaf's hits at the age of 75. Photo: La Brocante.
The behind-the-scenes antics of the staff - all seemingly related - are often as entertaining as the music and this only adds to the already surreal atmosphere.
These staff are hysterical, a collection of retirement-aged brothers- and sisters-in-law (we think) that scream at each other - in French - across the tables as only family could. The characters all play their parts: the large woman with the fair hair barks orders at the weedy guy (husband?) who is run off his feet delivering meals to the tables; the taller older guy directs the seating plan with no-nonsense skill; the fellow pouring drinks is much too relaxed and unfazed; the singers take turns having time out with a drink at a table in the far corner next to the kitchen; and there's often a suave older man lounging with a drink at the bar wearing a permanent look of bemusement as he surveys the lunchtime crowd.
The food orders are relayed from one staff member to the next at ever-increasing volumes to counter the ever-increasing decibels of the singers and the diners. The louder the crowd, the louder the singing and the yelling:
"Un poulet , un boeuf!"
"UN POULET , UN BOEUF!!"
Then there are the upstairs balcony tables that fill once the ground floor is packed and this involves even louder order yelling from one floor to the next.
It's not pretentious, it's not planned or manufactured. It just is what it is. And it works.
Inside Chez Louisette. Photo: Office de Tourisme de Saint-Ouen, http://www.st-ouen-tourisme.com/en/restaurants/fiche/17-chez-louisette.html.
Now that we've dined there several times over several trips I can pass on some valuable tips for the less initiated.
1. Get there EARLY. Doors open at 12 noon Saturdays and Sundays, be there at 12 or even a quarter to 12 so you can get in and out relatively quickly and get back to scouring the markets for that one last must-have piece. The bistro is also open Mondays. No bookings.
2. DO sit where you are told to sit and DON'T argue about it. If it's lunch for two you will most likely be put opposite each other on one of the long tables. It's very squeezy but worth the slight discomfort. Bring your best sense of humour and love of life and you'll be fine.
3. While the specialty dishes include veal stew and boeuf bourguignon, don't be surprised if you end up with roasted poulet and frites anyway, and probably dried out poulet at that. BE THANKFUL with whatever you get and soak up the experience with a glass of wine or a beer. Complaining will get you nowhere and will make you look like a git. Other popular dishes include rabbit and moules frites.
4. DO TIP THE SINGERS! This is most important. Each of the singers (usually two) will take turns with Piaf and other famous French tunes (while the other is at the table next to the kitchen). At the end of their 'set' the singer will expect not only applause and adulation but a decent tip as well. She will do the rounds of the tables with hat in hand and you'd be a braver person than me not to throw some gold coins or a 5€ note in with the rest (she will sometimes tell you she does not accept coins, so make sure you have some small Euro notes). We've seen the death-stare afforded those who don't contribute - or give too little - and it's not pretty. This is another good reason to get in early, eat and get out. Hopefully then you're only up for one round of tipping. On one visit we stayed a little too long and after giving generously the first time, found ourselves having to do so again with a different singer.
The musicians keep a wary eye on the singers so they know what's coming next. Photo: La Brocante.
5. DO CHAT with your neighbours on your table. It's a genial environment broken only by the occasional newbie who doesn't get it. On our last visit we found ourselves next to a young Australian guy and his Russian wife. They had popped over for the weekend from Moscow - as you do - and were very grateful for our pointers regarding tipping, etc. It was fascinating to swap stories and impressions of Paris with them, and to hear about their lives in Moscow (if you can hear above the serenading of the singers and the screaming of the waiters).
6. Even the LOO is an adventure. It's out the back door, across a busy alleyway and marked for Chez Louisette patrons only. You may or may not need a key, or just wait until someone comes out and lets you in (we've also used this tactic when we weren't actually lunching there as public toilets in the markets can be hard to find).
7. Be prepared for some level of BILL SHOCK. Whatever you thought the bill might be, it will probably be more. Having said that, it's still damn cheap and even more amazing value-for-money when you factor in the entertainment from the singers and staff. Gourmet it is not but quintessentially French it certainly is. Priceless!
Chez Louisette is an institution, even if one of pandemonium. It's certainly not for everyone as some online reviews attest, but then I don't wish to dine next to people like that anyway.
This little bistro that's only open for lunch three days a week should be preserved somehow although I fear another generation could not possibly provide the same ambient experience. So factor in a lunch at Chez Louisette on your next trip to Paris - before it's too late. Don't go for the food, go for the fun!
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