Remembering Le Carillon, the Best Dive Bar in Paris and a Target of Terrorists
The scene of one of the deadly attacks in France's capital used to be the best place to get a caramel vodka shot on a Friday night.
Christmas at Le Carillon. Photo by Tony Todd
I never saw a photo of Le Carillon until Friday night.
But I've stood right there, out front, too many times to count. Smoking, talking, laughing. Mostly laughing. I've sat outside on the jammed terrace and I've probably sat on every chair, stool, couch, coffee table and window ledge in the entire bar. I've even sat on the toilet seats—but only when too wasted to pop a squat.
I first went to Le Carillon to get obliterated. My boyfriend at the time was away working in Angola. I felt abandoned, and was mad at myself for feeling abandoned. Despite the fact that I was getting instructions over the phone, it took me a while to find. I'd assumed it was called "Le Carry On," like the British comedy films. I spelt it out to the taxi driver and he told me, correctly, that it didn't exist. But perhaps I meant the Le Carillon?
I loved it from the minute I walked in, because I could walk straight up to the bar and order a drink—a miracle in Paris's packed 10th arrondissement on a Friday night. The beer was a little watery and the pint glasses carelessly filled up only three-quarters of the way (like everywhere in the city), the wine was cheap, and the mojitos were wildly inconsistent. Along with a couple of friends and colleagues, equally favorable to obliteration, it became my local.
It wasn't hard to feel at home at Le Carillon. The place was packed with furniture: wooden and metal chairs, springless couches and divans, tables of varying heights, sizes, and varnishes. There was a piano in the corner, an impossible stack of records and a set of slanted bookshelves that contained no books. None of the walls were painted the same color, if at all. A tabby cat slept on the piano, or if the bar was nearly empty, in one particular armchair. The cat didn't like to be pet, but sometimes it would slink outside and sit just far enough away from the smokers to maintain its cool.
The owners, two Algerian brothers and a family friend, could be rude, charming and nonchalant all in one night. They often forced caramel vodka shots on us, which smelt like synthetic sugar and tasted like turpentine. If we stayed late enough and accepted enough compliments, we were treated to a lock-in, and handed more caramel vodka shots. We howled with laughter, danced on the bar, threw up in the toilet, went home in tears.
An elderly Indian guy selling roses came in at the same time every night. Unlike most bars, he was allowed to stay and peddle his wares. He had such a kind face, it hurt not to buy a rose. Tired of taking them home ourselves, we'd buy one anyway and have him present it to an unsuspecting couple, falling about in delight when they smiled, laughed or even—jackpot!—kissed.
Le Carillon didn't stay uncrowded for long. It became one of the busiest bars on the block, hosted jazz nights, got gradually younger and more hip, or "bobo," as the French say. Neighborhood mainstay Le Cambodge opened up a shiny new sister restaurant, Le Petit Cambodge, across the street from the bar. The queue at Le Carillon got longer, and yet, we kept going back.
When I left Paris two years ago, I had a going away party at Le Carillon. We ate at the Petit Cambodge first, crowding around bo buns in front of its floor-to-ceiling windows. Then we pranced across the street to join the Carillon horde. We sat inside, outside, maybe even on the toilet seat. We danced a little, but not on the bar. We got kicked off the terrace for making too much noise, and after pleading for some caramel vodka shots—"One last time?"—we finally lurched off into the night.
The next time I saw Le Carillon was on TV on Friday. Unsurprisingly, it hadn't changed at all.
The blackboards at the entrance, promising three euro Amstel pints and free WiFi. The rotten awning, green from years, perhaps decades, of mold. But in place of revelers, police. Bodies under white sheets.
I raced to track down my friends in Paris, and finally exhaled completely when the last confirmed that he was fine. It was horrible, awful, a tragedy, yes, but also so bizarre."They targeted the fucking Carillon?? Le Petit Cambodge??"
Did we miss a memo from al-Baghdadi about the specific evils of Cambodian food and dive bars?
I tried to imagine how the conversation went when the militants singled out these places, along with the Bataclan concert hall and the Belle Equipe restaurant – all in the left-leaning, multi-cultural, agnostic, north-east of the city.
So many questions, but as with all senseless acts of violence, there is no logic worth comprehending, no "aha moment."
I don't have any answers. Just the unease of processing how the quotidian, my former every-Friday-night, became historical last night in a few awful moments. Le Carillon, and the Bataclan, the Petit Cambodge, and the Belle Equipe will become symbols now, shorthand for tragedy. It's hard to square this with what they used to be.
Le Carillon was my favorite bar in Paris. It was a lot of people's favorite bar. I hope it will be again.