Work, meet friends, eat well and observe the rhythms of the neighborhood in this simple and authentic bistro, at 11 rue Dupont de l’Eure
After the intersection of avenue Gambetta and rue Pelleport and one block down the narrow rue Orfila, the red facade of Aux Petits Oignons fills the first corner on the right. At 9 a.m., a few regulars are already sitting on the bistro’s small terrace, which slopes down the rue Dupont de l’Eure and surrounds the doorway. Stepping inside and past the red curtain, I arrive directly at the zinc counter.
In the morning, it’s often Christian, one of the two managers and owners, behind the bar. “When I first came here, I loved the authenticity and the rustic feel of this old bistro,” Christian remembers. When he learned that it was for sale, he bought it “on the spot” with his business partner, Fabrice. These childhood friends have known each other since school in Sainte-Maxime (Var department) and used to work the seasons together. Later in Paris, they tried careers in finance and communication, respectively, but returned to the restaurant business. They took over La Comète (11th) and then Aux Petits Oignons in 2014.
They kept the latter’s typical decor: black and white checkered floor, large mirrors, and wooden tables and chairs. Ardoises, hanging in the four corners of the room, announce the wine list and plats du jour. Posters, pinned to a clothesline across the windows, tease upcoming plays and concerts.
“We want to make bistros that we would like to go to ourselves, to offer a service that we would like to have, dishes that we like to eat,” Fabrice says. The result is what the author François Thomazeau calls “a true Parisian zinc” (Au vrai zinc parisien, Parigramme, 2018): a bistro that reflects the soul and rhythm of a neighborhood. Increasingly rare these days, it’s the kind of place where your café comes with a small glass of water without your having to ask.
“It’s important to have a simple, natural rapport with people, without overdoing it,” says Christian, who always greets me with a warm “Bonjour. Ça va? Un café allongé?”
I confirm my order and settle into the red skai booth that fills the back wall, where I can observe the life of this café and its neighborhood. In the morning, as the sun shines in through the large windows along the rue Orfila and illuminates the room, regulars read their newspapers or type on their laptops. Coffee orders are punctuated by an order for freshly squeezed orange juice or a craving for a croissant or tartines.
“In a bistro, it’s important that there is life, that there is something going on all the time,” Christian says. Open from morning to night, seven days a week like any good bistro, Aux Petits Oignons plays a social role in the neighborhood, Fabrice explains: “You can find us at any time, so we often lend a hand, pass on information or receive packages. When kids forget their keys, they wait here. We also have a social role with jobs: we hire young people who are not necessarily qualified, people from all walks of life. We’re pretty mixed, and we like that.”
The team is relaxed but never too familiar, professional but without fuss. The regulars are numerous but do not control the atmosphere. Newcomers are happy to feel at ease in this place full of character.
The waiters arrive as the morning progresses and greet the chef, Arnaud, and his second, Moriba, via the pass-through next to my seat. Inside the small kitchen, the brigade is already busy. The aromas of buttery pastries baking and sauces simmering waft into the room. I try to guess the day’s specials, which range from red mullet and shakshouka to Lyonnaise sausage with pistachios and potato salad to beef meatballs with herbs and zucchini noodles.
Passionate about cooking and meeting their producers (some have become friends), Christian and Fabrice want Aux Petits Oignons to be “a bistro of its time. That is to say, fast, smiling and welcoming service, fresh, seasonal products and recipes that adapt to the world, that mix cultures,” Fabrice says, noting that sometimes Moriba, of Malien origin, makes his chicken yassa. “The idea is for everyone to contribute to the restaurant,” says Christian. The menu changes with the seasons, but the prices do not change between lunch and dinner. One appetizer that stays on the menu is the razor clams, which have become a signature dish.
Around 11:30 a.m., while the waiters set the tables, the morning customers disperse, freeing their places for the lunch crowd. From noon to 3 p.m., the tables fill up with people of all ages and occupations, more or less in a hurry during their break.
“Our clientele is very diverse; it goes from workers to the mayor of the 20th arrondissement. There are a lot of regulars, people from the neighborhood, people from music, cinema, quite a few artists, people who write — even famous people, which is kind of fun,” Christian says. The bistro itself is a bit famous. In addition to being referenced in guides and magazines, Aux Petits Oignons has been cited in books such as “Tiens ferme ta couronne” by Yannick Haenel and “Le tumulte de Paris” by Eric Hazan and has been used as a setting for series such as “Le Bureau des Légendes” and “En Thérapie” or films such as “Les Vieux Fourneaux”. “This place is quite inspiring,” Fabrice says. He and Christian note that the neighborhood is more bobo than when they arrived in 2014, but their customers “are still people looking for a bistro that’s a good plan, a good value for their money,” Fabrice says.
The afternoon passes to the rhythm of coffees, soft drinks or demis of beer. Clients continue working, stop with their kids on the way home from school, or meet up with friends. The quatre-heures slides towards l’heure de l’apéro. When the kitchen reopens at 7 p.m., it’s time for a plate of French fries, some razor clams with a glass of white wine, or a peek at the menu for dinner… and the tables of Aux Petits Oignons fill up again. Clients are less hurried in the evening; meals and conversations linger. The kitchen closes around 11 p.m., and the last customers leave between 12:30 a.m. and 2 a.m.
Despite this daily routine, Christian says that every day is different: “it changes all the time, and I never get tired of it.”
Neither do I.