This article originally appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR.
Some restaurants have a mythical quality to them—even for people who have never set foot inside. When mentioned in conversation, the establishment's name is enough to evoke colors, sounds, and urban legends.
The Parisian restaurant Au Pied de Cochon is one such place.
For years, that name has held meaning for me. I heard it dropped by Beigbeder, Bénichou and other famous night owls. I imagined it as a classic Paris by Night destination—that of scenesters, illicit activities, and brawls on Rue de la Roquette. It's a picture that no longer really exists, other than in novels.
In the center of Paris, steps away from Châtelet and what were once the Halles, Au Pied de Cochon is holding strong, remaining open 24 hours a day, against all odds. This detail is part of the legend: It allowed the Paris society set to mingle with the Halles' various working class characters, even the homeless. Legend even has it that there are no locks or light switches—they'd never be put to use.
Fascinated by all the history concentrated within this single locale, I decided to hang out there for an entire day and night, and experience the rhythms of this timeless brasserie.
It's a beautiful Saturday morning. This September's heat wave has subsided a bit, giving Parisians a rest. The terrace at the Pied de Cochon is deserted and peaceful, so I take a seat.
I can see inside from here. There are wood accents, paintings, and glass chandeliers. The staff is wearing aprons. Basically, I can spot all the elements of a traditional Parisian brasserie. A very friendly server brings me a cheese omelet and all that comprises the breakfast menu.
I can sense the city waking up all around me. The terrace, meanwhile, remains tranquil. While Parisians are slowly getting out of bed, tourists are already hitting the pavement. Several of them stop to read the menu in English, then leave.
Finally, another customer arrives. She orders breakfast, scarfs it down, then disappears.
"Yes, we never close here. The last time we did was in 1999 for repairs. The time before that was 1984, for the same reason. And it's been open since 1946," explains the busser as he clears the table.
He is just as friendly as his colleague. He's been here a long time—25 years. He's seen a lot. His frank, straightforward attitude and respect for his job remind me of a time gone by. Meanwhile, the dining room and terrace are filling up.
A couple of friends stop by to meet me for a coffee. When they ask me how the article is going, I wave my arms to shut them up. I forgot to tell them that I'm here undercover. Like investigative journalists before me who have infiltrated New York City's Five Families, neo-Nazi groups, or Islamist networks, I'm here incognito.
And for good reason—while the staff of the restaurant is all charm, the managers of the Bertrand group, who recently bought the place, politely told me to buzz off when I pitched them the idea of spending 24 hours at the Pied de Cochon. They doled out all the classic PR excuses that mean "no" without actually saying the word: The person who needed to confirm was out on vacation, and it would be hard to schedule the shoot ("But I'll be alone," I told them). Eventually, they stopped replying.
It's only when I called the restaurant, out of courtesy, to inform them of the date of my visit that I finally received a call from management. "I don't think it's going to be possible, Jean-Baptiste," they uttered.
Lots of customers are coming in, and the number of servers has multiplied as if by magic. Head waiters in uniform and bowties have also materialized, and are greeting the dozens of customers filing in.
Behind me, I hear people speaking German. To my right are two couples of Chinese tourists in their fifties. Next to them is another couple: a Chinese girl who appears to be their daughter, and a laowai ("foreigner" in Chinese), who must be her partner. He doesn't utter a single word during the entire meal.
Further down, a French couple—who look very upper middle class—order drinks while waiting for the rest of their party. Eventually, two girls arrive and sit down across from them. One of them gives them a big hug; the other greets them while keeping a certain distance. It seems to me like she is their daughter's girlfriend, and this is—at most—the second time they're spending time together. And for the occasion, they've chosen the Pied de Cochon, a temple of swine. Hell, why not? What do you order in such a situation? Or with your Chinese in-laws? I have no idea, but I can't stop thinking about it.
Boy, is it fun imagining people's lives—the reality is almost certainly less amusing.
After I've finally finished writing out novellas in my head for each of the surrounding tables, I suddenly realize how hungry I am. All around me, pigs' feet keep popping up on tables and disappearing one forkful at a time. The last time I tasted some, I was a kid, and they were chopped up and mixed in with mushrooms. I have no idea if I like them or not, but this is what investigative journalism is all about.
A few tables over, I see a couple devouring the feet the server just brought them. I slide over to them and ask if I should try it.
"Go right ahead! Don't hesitate! It's breaded and roasted; it's not at all gelatinous. Honestly, it's delicious," says the woman encouragingly.
I feel like I no longer have a choice.
She adds: "We came from Marseille to eat these, so that should give you an idea!"
Aha, Marseille. I know what to ask them next.
"No, no, it's far less gelatinous than pieds paquets [Ed. Note: a Marseille specialty made with sheep's feet and tripe]. Though it's somewhat similar."
I head back to my seat, and hear the couple next to them chime in; they're also from Marseille.
I order pigs' feet.
I give up. There's about a third left and I'm stuffed. The foot was served whole, and it's copious. Given how much I had at breakfast, I'm still relatively proud of my efforts.
I was pleasantly surprised by the dish. It melts in your mouth; it's really rather delicious. You also have to work a little to get to the meat, something purists will appreciate and others will complain about. If you go in hungry, and set aside your childhood memories of boneless mcnuggets and fish sticks, you'll enjoy the experience. Worst case, the béarnaise sauce should offer solace.
Most of all, it harkens back to an earlier time—a time when kidneys were edible, when brains weren't disgusting, and where the interests of the food industry lobby hadn't yet transformed sweetbreads into a health risk.
After what's left of my pig's foot is cleared from the table, one of the managers comes up to me, and I feel a little embarrassed for not having finished. I blurt out an excuse. "You know that the typical meal for our regulars is an onion soup, pig's foot, and crème brûlée. You can try again next time you're here," he teases.
He leaves with a smile. Is my cover blown? I've already been here quite a while.
I'm suddenly struck by how ridiculous this situation is—having to hide in order to visit such an institution.
"Yes, we sell between 50 and 100 pigs' feet per day, at minimum. People come here for that. And they're large because it's the hind legs. You only find the front feet at the butcher's," explains the server with whom I was talking earlier.
"I'd say our clientele is about 90 percent regulars. You see that man over there? We've been serving him for 25 years; he's from Mauritius." I see a distinguished older man eating with gusto. The server's story seems credible.
"Even tourists come back for the pigs' feet. Why else? This isn't exactly the Champs-Elysées." He's right. While the view of the Pavillon Baltard is far from ugly, the construction work definitely is. For the last five years, it has disfigured the neighborhood.
"When is it scheduled to end? Last year," comments one of the servers.
That's not the only thing that's affected the Pied de Cochon. As with all the other restaurants in Paris, the attacks of November 13, 2015 had a severe impact on figures. Despite the legend, the restaurant closed its doors from Monday to Thursday for a few months, citing security measures and a decrease in customers due to the fear that beset Parisians and tourists. Today, they're open 24/7, and the infinite loop is back on course.
"Before the attacks, we would serve about 1,000 customers per day, but in the days following, that went down about 80%. Now, the numbers are creeping back up, but we're not back to where we were."
I leave my table to sit down at the bar, where customers go to wait for a table to open up. At this time in the afternoon, there is no wait, so I must seem pretty weird, leaning against the counter, chatting up the bartender.
In fact, he's having lunch. He's in his thirties, and like everyone else, he seems to like working here—the big work family, the values, the mythical location, all of that. He's also seen the clientele evolve. "During the day, there are regulars and a lot of tourists. And at night, we always have night owls."
A server passing through adds some juicy details: "We get fewer celebrities now. But we've seen a lot. It's no secret that when Gérard Depardieu lived in Paris, he came here often. He would order two pigs' feet and a beer. He would go back in the kitchen and personally select the pieces he wanted to eat. He even came the night his son Guillaume died. Someone asked him for an autograph and he declined. He said, 'I'm not in the mood; I lost my son tonight.' That's how we found out."
Indeed, the Pied de Cochon has had quite the celebrity clientele. The most famous among them have been photographed here for the guestbook. Maria Callas, Salvador Dalí, Robert Doisneau, Françoise Sagan, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Paul Belmondo, John Carpenter, and Josephine Baker have all passed through here to fill up on alcohol and roasted pigs' feet. It's all part of the story.
"We've had at least three French presidents eat here. Chirac is an obvious one. People also say that François Mitterrand would come here to meet his secret daughter, Mazarine." The servers have plenty of stories to tell, and aren't very good at holding their tongues.
I've been here for almost seven hours and I have to say that it's working. The atmosphere, the decor, the smiles, the French traditions—it all gives you something to believe in. If I hadn't spent nearly ten years hanging out in this city's bars and restaurants, I think it would have won me over. And honestly, I think it's a cool spot. Someone needs to keep
Paris alive, along with all the clichés from foreign films. Even if it doesn't correspond to any kind of reality, it's better than a city of lights made of brasseries that only serve burgers, isn't it?
Lost in thought, I forget about the gigantic group that owns the Pied de Cochon, and monitors its communications like the CIA.
Someone bursts onto the scene.
"Are you the man who called? About the article?"
"Yes, it's me. I told you I was coming."
Shit. I feel like I'm about to get scolded. I suspect he figured it out when he spotted the unfinished plate of pigs' feet. It's time to take a break.
Outside, I strike up a conversation with Ulrica. She is 60 years old and originally from Düsseldorf. "I've been coming here a long time; I eat terrines and beef tartare. There are other places that are similar in Paris, and maybe some are better, but here, it's a sure thing."
Thank you, Ulrica.
The dining room is almost empty, save for an American couple having an early dinner. A guy with a neck strap for his glasses sits down next to them, orders a beer and a pig's foot. He knows what he wants and isn't wasting any time. Uncle Sam's children, meanwhile, are hesitating. Eventually, they heed the recommendations of their neighbor, who speaks with a pronounced London accent.
Around us, people are sweeping before the evening rush. When you never close, you have to clean whenever there are downtimes so the place doesn't turn into a trash heap.
The dining room is filled to the brim once again. After a staff change, the ballet resumes. Voices echo against the walls; people are enjoying themselves. That said, we're a far cry from the popular locale the legend describes. I mostly see tourists from France and other countries.
My sister and some friends join me for dinner. We're going all in: pastry with pigs' feet and snails, supreme of roast chicken, and grilled onion soup. The latter is the other star on the Pied de Cochon menu. This is the place where the myth of the onion soup as hangover cure was born, the one that's led countless partygoers to order a bowl on their way back from a night of clubbing. This is also the soup that was handed out daily to the homeless community that gave life to the Halles..
This soup is seriously worth the burns on your tongue that you might suffer as you drink it. It's hard to describe. It's like an onslaught of cheese into your mouth. It's real; it's satiating. It's not haute cuisine, but holy fuck, it's good. The pastry is only worth a brief mention—it's very nice, but doesn't taste like snails. Then come the profiteroles, which the waiter douses in chocolate sauce. Our mouths water.
"Slow Saturday," comments one of the night managers, who comes up to me once I'm back at the bar. "Lots of foreigners, but the Parisians aren't here. Not here yet, at least. It's nice out; they've gone back to their country houses. Last weekend, we worked hard. There were concerts and trade shows. That always brings a lot of business." Then he disappears. Duty calls.
The atmosphere slowly relaxes. People in evening garb can be spotted outside, their blood alcohol content rising.
A guy with tousled grey locks is smoking a cigarette. He whips out a flask and takes a gulp.
"Don't worry, buddy, if you fall asleep, we're here," teases the security guard with a big smile on his face. I must look completely burnt out. After all, I've been here for 14 hours. I've worked long shifts before, from early morning to late at night, but the prospect of spending the night here is grueling. I've never had so much respect for night workers, even though I'm not doing much, other than eating, drinking beers, and making conversation.
As midnight approaches, the crowd changes. Two arty, bearded dudes show up with a pair of busty companions. "May we feast?" they ask as they arrive. A little bit of hope flashes through my poor journalist's heart, which was flipping out earlier as the ambience dulled.
The silver fox turns out to be Russian. Despite my best efforts, our conversation is limited to the two sentences I know in his native tongue. He ends up leaving me to share his flask with a friend, who is a perfect portrait of a drunk Russian tourist.
"My father took me here a lot when I was little and we came to France. So I wanted to come back," says Joan, a francophone Catalan on his way out the door. "I got an onion soup and a steak tartare. But I didn't quite know how to eat the tartare. It could have used some toast, really. Isn't it usually eaten with toast?"
I forgive your transgressions, dear Catalan friend. I remember similarly struggling with fideuà.
I finally intercept the two well-dressed bearded men, thanks to the age-old technique of asking for a light. Philippe and Franck are both hairdressers, one from La Ciotat, the other from Auriol. Full of energy and smiles, they seem like two old pals who love life. "Listen, we had some drinks before dinner and came here for a nice rib steak. We knew that here, the food would be good and the atmosphere would be fun. It's good ole' French food. It's an institution, basically," says Franck as he takes a drag.
Philippe adds: "I used to live right across from here for a long time. But I didn't have any money then, so I'm back now! Besides, it's one of the last places that give a little life to what's left of the Halles. There's Le Cochon à l'Oreille, ex-Singe Rieur or Chez Clovis, but I mean, it's become a Tex-Mex. There's also the Tour Montlhéry, Chez Denise…Now that's an institution. I used to know her well but I'm not sure if she's still alive. I remember that even in her eighties, she held strong! And over there, the foie gras was as thick as a steak!"
Franck and Philippe end up buying me a beer, and I join them at their table, where I meet their dates. They came for MCB, a hair and beauty conference, which, I'll learn later, was on every presidential candidate's schedule. Emmanuel Macron got a shave, and Alain Juppé cracked jokes about his bald head.
"We come for inspiration, to see what's new—that's important in our industry. And most of all, we go to make fun of people's haircuts, because you know, the world of hair and beauty is like cuisine—there's something for everyone…And there's a lot of failed experiments!"
"The atmosphere is really different, right? We have to remain vigilant about which customers we allow in. You have to read people, and sense who is likely to cause trouble or not. At one point, our policy was to stop serving alcohol, but it got too complicated. Now, we're strict! We don't take in any drunks. That is, in part, why we have a security guard that stays here until 8 in the morning."
The night manager has the final word.
In the back, a jolly old man is eating dinner surrounded by his family. "He used to be a big shot at the Banque de France, right next door. He's been coming here 51 years, but you shouldn't bother him."
Tonight is not exactly a party. Nonetheless, the dining room never empties. As soon as one group leaves, another comes in. And the pigs' feet never cease to dance.
Without my noticing, the crowd has changed. I hear some screams coming from Rue Coquillère. A group of young, ultra-stylish women comes in.
"Of course it isn't polygamy! The blonde there, she's my childhood sweetheart, and the other one is who I love now."
The bouncer gently teases Yann, who just arrived from a music festival and is visibly tipsy. Clearly, there's lots of things happening this weekend outside the Pied de Cochon.
Within a few minutes, Yann and I are best friends. He tries to sell a group of Finnish tourists some deal he gets through his work—something to do with international markets. I didn't gather a single clue about what he actually does from the entire conversation. He's incredibly self-assured and full of charisma, with a slightly crazed look in his eye. Very quickly, I find myself at a table with him, Caroline and Stéphanie, his "two wives." I barely have time to finish a glass of red before their three steaks vanish before my eyes.
– Once upon a time, I bought sailing schools that were struggling, in Saint-Tropez, Hossegor, etc. I drummed up business, then resold them. I made a good amount of money that way. Now, I have a project in Brazil; it's a little complicated…
– He doesn't have enough funding.
– Yes I do, it's just that….No, she's right. I don't have enough funding.
The conversation drifts toward our respective professions, then we talk about literature, about the goddamn meaning of life. Caroline concludes: "I say, fuck everyone and everything. I do what I want, even here. I showed Steph the kitchen, you want to see it? Come with me."
She takes me by the hand and shamelessly takes me to the back. The cooks are pretty stunned to see us barge in, but she has such confidence that no one dares say anything.
By the time I part ways with this funny trio, I'm ready to believe again that Parisian nights still hold a bit of magic.
"4 AM, that's the Parisians' hour," says one of the managers as he walks by. He's right. Aside from one group of very hip Asian tourists, there are only French people left—and, from what I can tell, only Parisians.
In the back, one group is particularly loud. One girl, who seems like she has an important job in the media, can't stop singing one of Régine's greatest hits, with the lyrics in the wrong order: "Open your mouth, close your eyes, you'll see, it'll go down easier. Close your mouth, open your eyes, no, wait—close your eyes, open your mouth, you'll see, it'll go down easier."
– A party of four?
– Four parties of one.
– At the same table, then.
"Taubira! Of course!"
Worse even than drunk Parisians, I think the group singing Régine are drunk Parisian journalists.
I hear screams—I look up. Edouard Baer is politely declining an autograph by the front door. Will a celebrity finally enter? No. He just lives in the neighborhood; one of the servers told me earlier. The group stares at him, frightened. One girl is covering her mouth with her hands.
"Gee, thanks Justine! Pfffff…"
Who just killed all of her Parisian street cred by outing herself as an autograph chaser? Justine, that's who.
– How many are you?
– 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8. We're 8. Where are the others?
– They're coming; they're getting out of the cab. We're coming from the Hyatt hotel, we just got our etiopathy diplomas and are celebrating.
– I know Mr. Dufour, the director, very well; he's a friend. I can call him, if you'd like.
– He's on vacation, but there's no problem, sir, come in. We will seat you.
I whisper to the guy who greeted them: "Did they think you were going to kill them, or what?" He smiles back.
Obviously, at this hour, idiots multiply like Gremlins. Maybe it's because it's starting to rain outside. It's like the old Chinese man says in the movie: Don't get them wet or feed them after midnight.
Here, hungry night owls are the backbone of the business.
If 4 AM is the Parisians' hour, then 6 AM is that of pretentious assholes. Two groups are making a fuss because the servers are making them wait half a minute—and understandably so, as the room is still pretty full. "Calm down, honey, calm down," I overhear.
The first server I met—21 hours ago now—looks at me, dumbfounded. He had finished his shift before my cover was blown.
– You came back, sir?
– No, I never left.
– You're kidding.
He looks over at the security guard, still in disbelief.
"We were at a friend's place and didn't get enough to eat, so we came for pigs' feet."
I ask the obvious question: Does a pig's foot at this hour go down okay?
Fabienne answers: Only at this hour! But in the end, I ordered the Cochon mussels, so I didn't get any béarnaise. It's still a cool place to have a big meal.
Now Enora: Yes, it's still a fun place. And it hasn't been totally ruined by tourists. Especially not at this hour!
Me: What are you doing after?
Enora: We thought it might be a bit late to go to Chez Antoine [Ed. Note: a club in the 6th arrondissement]. But we might give it a shot. Wanna join?
I let the two forty-something ladies continue on with their night.
The manager has been back for a little while, and congratulates me for having survived. It's not that easy when you're not used to it, huh? I think that if the beers had been less expensive, I would have passed out under a table. He offers me breakfast—exactly what I ordered the previous day. The guy knows his job.
I am beyond exhausted. There are still at least four occupied tables. The dining room has not once been completely empty.
Finally—I'm the last one here. As I swallow my omelet, I can't help but think that, when it comes to atmosphere, we are a far cry from that of the post-war era. It must have been a while since a homeless guy got offered an onion soup. And with a special at € 29.50 (appetizer + entree, or entree + dessert), I doubt that we can really speak of social diversity. Meanwhile, no one seems to be running into too many celebrities—though I'm told that Bigard, Bénabar, and others are still regulars.
That said, the very existence of this place is a good thing—a really cool thing, in fact. It's rather touching to see that so many people still come and have themselves a pig's foot. I come from a family of meat eaters, in which everyone loves tripe and all the other parts of an animal that are deemed inedible, so I'm usually alarmed by the disappearance of this segment of French culture.
And then there's the guys that work here. In their own way, they still carry with them the old spirit of the Halles, and keep it alive. They're direct, service-oriented, and a little rough on the edges—they're real humans. If, by chance, it's late and you're wandering around Paris, you should probably pay them a visit. Actually, no—if you've never been, treat yourself to the experience. You won't eat any better at a museum.
I've been thinking about all this for barely five minutes when a young woman with Asian features takes a seat a few tables away. It's 8 AM, time for breakfast: She orders a pig's foot with béarnaise sauce (ouch) and a pint of beer.
At last, the clock has turned full circle—twice. I get up and ask her how she ended up here. "In a guide book, a Japanese one," she answers in English.
And so conclude the 24 hours I spent here.
I say goodbye to everyone and step out onto the street. It's ugly out, and raining a little. But no matter—it could be snowing, and that wouldn't stop Au Pied de Cochon from starting another endless day.
When he isn't out eating pork and drinking beer, Jean-Baptiste also spends his evenings on Twitter.