“Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise,” is painted above a doorframe in the bookstore and café Shakespeare & Co. It’s a motto that the iconic address certainly took to heart on Friday evening when Paris went into lockdown following the most deadly attacks on French soil since World War II. Shakespeare & Co’s staff sheltered roughly 20 people during the lockdown, many of whom ended up spending the night among the bookshelves and coffee machines. Owner Sylvia Whitman, however, is reluctant to be singled out as a hero. “This wasn’t exceptional,” she insists. “There were many places that closed with customers inside.”
Sadly, she’s right – it wasn’t exceptional. Many shops, restaurants and bars ended up sheltering patrons for hours on end. What was exceptional were the actions of staff who went above and beyond the call of duty on Friday evening to ensure that guests were taken care of.
Le Mary Celeste, a popular small-plates-and-cocktails joint, is perched on the corner of rue des Commines, about 500m from the Bataclan where more than 80 concert-goers were killed. The bar was in the middle of a typically hectic Friday night service, full with around 80 customers, when manager Hyacinthe Lescoët was alerted to reports of attacks in the area. “I went down the street to see what was going on,” he says. When it became clear that there was a very serious and frightening scene playing out just around the corner, he “tried not to panic” and returned to the bar, where the clientele – including many tourists – was beginning to get wind of the situation.
“Everyone basically picked up their phones at the same time and just stopped talking,” Lescoet recalls. Given the proximity of the attacks he decided to close the curtains and turn off the lights. “I made an announcement that we had to stay united, stay together,” he says. “We kept playing music, nothing depressing, but we stopped serving booze. The point wasn’t to get drunk anymore.” The staff did, however, continue serving food and non-alcoholic drinks. “People were panicking, crying,” he says. “We just tried to stay calm and focused.”
Quickly, however, the atmosphere intensified as panicked Bataclan escapees began arriving at the door. “We gave them water, sodas, and anything that could help,” says Lescoet. Then at around 1am, the Red Cross moved in and took over the space to treat survivors of the attack. “It was like a refugee camp,” Lescoet recalls, with traumatized people spilling off of the chairs and banquettes onto makeshift beds on the floor. They remained in place until 4am. Speaking two days after the attacks, Lescoet still sounds to be in a slight state of shock.
At Verjus, further from the epicenter of the attacks opposite the Palais Royal in the 1st arrondissement, the mood was “surprisingly festive,” according to diner Matt Deitch, a consultant from Chicago in town for a business trip. “Everyone was super helpful and upbeat throughout the whole thing,” he says. Guests were forced to linger for roughly three hours after their tasting menu was completed so “they said we’ll just give you free wine.”
For Verjus’ manager and sommelier Jonathan Brookes, the aim was to keep the 40 or so diners calm while also doing his utmost to keep them safe. “The guests were learning about the attacks in real time, getting information on their phones,” he says. “Then we started getting reports of incidents at Les Halles, and at the Louvre, which is pretty much right next door to the restaurant. It was hard to get clear information but the directive from the Mairie [the local mayoral authority] was to stay inside, so we instructed people not to leave and just tried to keep them comfortable and happy. Even if we were all freaking out a bit behind the scenes.”
The “keep drinking and carry on” strategy worked, according to Deitch, who says that the guests were ignorant of the reports (now known to be false) of shootings at Les Halles or the Louvre and just enjoyed each other’s company, believing the whole time that they were far from the major incidents. Staff members took turns quietly leaving the dining room to check in on family and friends and then would return to business as usual. Owner Braden Perkins sprang back and forth between Verjus and his other restaurant, Ellsworth, around the corner throughout the night. After disappearing for a minute or two to collect themselves, Deitch explained that the staff were very open. “Jonathan really kept his cool throughout the whole evening.”
Eventually, Brookes explains, when it had been several hours since any reported incidents, the staff made the decision to begin calling taxis and ubers to get their guests home. In all, the cozy space sheltered roughly 2/3 of the dining room guests until about 3am. Brookes himself was home at 5am – he thinks. “I have a really weird thing where I totally lost track of time passing,” he says.
“Weird” is a word used over and over by those in the restaurant industry whose ordinary lives have been dramatically affected by Friday night’s events. Holybelly, a usually packed café just off the Canal Saint-Martin, not far from attack site Le Petit Cambodge, posted Saturday on Facebook about their decision to remain closed. “HB won’t be able to be its loud, happy, up-beat self today, it’s just going to be strange and incredibly sad.” They reopened on Sunday morning, posting that “it is time for us to roll up that front door and let people in, welcome them with a big smile, as we do, put good food and good coffee on the table, as we do, and bring a bit of comfort in what are going to be sad and strange times for the foreseeable future. We all have to do our part to fight whatever it is that’s going on, and not just in Paris but in the world. A good feed might not seem like much but that’s what we do best and we believe it can make a real difference.”
Holybelly was not alone in that sentiment. Their Canal area neighbors Ten Belles and The Sunken Chip reopened on Sunday with half of all proceeds going to the Red Cross. Le Mary Celeste has created a special cocktail this week to honor the Red Cross as well with all proceeds going to the organization. An original creation by Lescoet, the €12 drink is made of Vodka Absolut, Dry Vermouth Riserva Carlo Alberta, Nardini Amaro, Lime juice, Orgeat syrup and soda water, and is named Fluctuat Nec Mergitur after Paris’ Latin motto. Its meaning? “Tossed by the waves, but not sunk.”
So happy to see the staff at Verjus recognized, my husband and I were also there that evening till 3…they kept us all safe and made the experience as convivial as possible, considering the circumstances. It had already been an extraordinary meal destined to put the restaurant on our “must return” list, but after they sheltered us, it will always be the most special place to us.