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In Paris, a new fashion nexus comes with a canteen

[PARIS] Forget Avenue Montaigne. The Les Halles neighborhood — the area in the 1st Arrondissement once nicknamed "the Belly of Paris" for its sprawling food market — is about to become a magnet for French fashion.

In April, La Samaritaine, once one of the oldest department stores in the city, is to reopen as a luxury mall and five-star hotel courtesy of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, owner of Dior, Vuitton and Givenchy. In June, the Bourse du Commerce, a former commodities exchange getting a second life with help from celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is scheduled to become home for part of the Pinault collection of contemporary art (Pinault, as in the family that owns Kering, parent company of Saint Laurent and Balenciaga; there also is a museum in Venice). And the Louvre des Antiquaires is to morph into the Fondation Cartier in 2023.

But as the well-shod hordes prepare to descend on this previously less-celebrated part of the city, where, oh where, will they eat?

L'Epi d'Or. A small neighborhood bistro near the Bourse, it has been run by women for three generations and retains its unpretentious 1930s décor of copper pots, amateur still-lifes, hydrangeas stuffed into ceramic jugs and, on the zinc bar, a mascot in the form of an owl-shaped metal ice bucket.

It's nothing if not authentic — and these days fashion loves nothing so much as authenticity.

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Still, L'Epi d'Or might have become a convenience store had Elodie Piège not been tipped off that it was in search of support. She is the wife of Jean-François Piège, a Michelin-starred chef, formerly a judge on the French version of the TV show "Top Chef" and the author of 10 cookbooks.

The couple already owned the two-star Le Grand Restaurant; La Poule au Pot; and the two-restaurant Clover operation, had recently started a family and had no intention of expanding their little empire. But, Elodie Piège said, "Places like L'Epi d'Or are part of the soul of Paris: It's about what you eat but also so many other things. We need to preserve that heritage."

So she took out a loan, handled the decorating herself and asked two women already working for her at another restaurant to help take the lead at L'Epi d'Or on Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Much like a heritage fashion brand, reinventing a restaurant can be a complicated and expensive proposition. At La Poule au Pot, a historical bourgeois favorite the Pièges reopened in 2018, they poured 3 million euros (S$4.53 million) into renovations that would look "the same but better," Mrs Piège said.

For L'Epi d'Or, they invested one-third that amount to change "not much but at the same time lots of things," she said. A new kitchen was installed and the electrical wiring updated, but they left the indentations on the ceiling that were the vestiges of Champagne corks past.

Mrs Piège said that, for the first time, she decided to reference her Portuguese roots in the restaurant, adding ceramics to the décor. "It's the place that looks the least like us, but, in the end, it's the restaurant that resembles us the most," she said.

Giving the place what Mrs Piège called "a more freestyle and spontaneous" feel also included modest prices, with set-price menus at less than 40 euros, and reserving about half the 40 seats for walk-in diners. As for the menu, the shortlist of à la carte classics includes a Croque Madame, the toasted cheese and ham sandwich topped with an egg, and there are traditional house signature dishes like seven-hour lamb and steak tartare. On a recent Friday, the set menu was pot-au-feu vegetables with vinaigrette, cod à la Normande and chocolate mousse; the clientele included shoe designer Christian Louboutin and his team.

"I know the place by heart. I knew it even before opening my shop in the Galerie Véro-Dodat," Mr Louboutin said, referring to a nearby arcade. "I know some very elegant people who rarely leave the 7th Arrondissement, but they'll come here, and they tell me how lucky I am to be next door."


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