My French is still a work in progress, but even my sketchy knowledge can hazard a guess that Rue des Vinaigriers, a street in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, just off the Canal Saint Martin, has something to do with vinegar.
The road of the makers of the vinegar apparently. And, rather aptly, four years ago it also became the home to the first fish and chip shop in Paris, The Sunken Chip.
Sitting at one of the restaurant’s long wooden benches, Mikael Attar, one of its four founders, laughs when I check my translation of the address. “It’s very funny for a fish and chip shop,” he says.The French take on a very British tradition was set up by Attar, his college friend Jeremy Attuil, and two British chefs, Michael Greenwold and James Whelan.
Attar, Attuil and Whelan had already worked together, opening a since-closed bar called L’Inconnu.
“Every time we finished work, James would say he’d like to eat fish and chips,” Attar recalls. “He couldn’t understand why, in Paris, there was no place to eat fish and chips. In London, on every corner he could eat that.”
An idea formed, but at first, Attar wasn’t convinced. “I said, ‘if there’s no fish and chips in Paris, there’s a reason’,” he says.
But they saw an opening at a time when food culture in the city was rapidly changing.
“There are a lot of restaurants opened by young entrepreneurs like us. Before it was only brasserie-type restaurants, in families for generations. Now there’s a lot of young people, who don’t want to work at a desk, who want to open their own small place,” he says.
For a French audience, some of the quirks of a British-style ‘chippie’ take a little explaining. Attar gestures to large glass jars lined up on a shelf set into the white-tiled wall behind him.
“This, the pickled eggs and onions, for the French guy, it is very strange,” he says.“English food for the French has a bad name. We try to change this,” Attar says.
The Sunken Chip gets a lot of French customers, he says. “And a true community of English people who live here.”
Earlier this month, The Sunken Chip catered for a garden party at the British embassy in Paris, flagging the event on social media with the hashtag #fishandchipsforthequeen.
Events such as this are now a big part of the restaurant’s business. A year after it opened its doors in July 2013, it expanded with a food truck. Twice a week The Sunken Chip van appears at La Défense, a rambling business district to the west of Paris, and serves lunch to office workers. You’ll also see the truck, emblazoned with the distinctively British slogan ‘jolly good fish’n’chips’, at festivals and events.
“We have a lot of people who ask for private events in the restaurant,” Attar says. Given space constraints, often the response has to be no. “So we launched the food truck.”
Fish and chips, he says, are easy to eat on the street. “The street food is part of our business,” he explains.
The Sunken Chip gets a delivery of fresh fish every morning. The only thing that isn’t made on site, according to Attar, is the bread for the fish burger. It doesn’t have to travel too far though, coming from the Liberté bakery next door.
The most popular dish? “The classic,” Attar says. “It’s hake, and the batter is a very classic batter that you can eat in England.”
The menu has a good selection of fish options, including smoked haddock and a catch of the day option. Plus there are some quintessentially British sides: mushy peas, chip butties, pickled eggs.
Attar believes that there’s an energy to the Paris food scene, driven by young entrepreneurs who are trying to do something different.
“It’s very good for the city. There are restaurants opening every week. That’s cool. Everybody talks about all the openings but in the meantime, there are restaurants closing too,” he says.
However, he sees less innovation in night-life in the city. “I see the night-life down in Paris. I think there’s a lot of offerings until 23:00. After that it is boring. It’s a little boring for the nightlife but very exciting for the first part of the night.”
With a laugh, he says: “It is not a problem for me, I wake up very early so I don’t go to the bars anymore.”