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Little France
From France-Amérique

By Audrey Khalifa

With the arrival over the last five years of several French restaurants, Smith Street between Bergen and Carroll Streets, situated in an up-and-coming neighborhood of Brooklyn, is already being called "Little France."

The names of the restaurants give away their French origins: "Bar Tabac", "Le Patois", "Café Luluc" . . . it’s enough to make a French expatriate feel right at home, even if the buildings themselves are more reminiscent of certain London neighborhoods.

In any case, the strip has an unmistakably European charm. The owners of its businesses, which are predominantly restaurants, know each other well and call each other by their first names: Jean-Pierre, Bernard . . .

It was an American, however, by the name of Alan Harding, who opened the area’s first French restaurant, "Le Patois", in 1997. Since it was targeted to a trendy clientele, the challenge of being the first of its kind was that much more difficult. But the gamble paid off, and Harding soon followed "Le Patois" with "Uncle Pho", a French-Vietnamese restaurant down the street.

In the wake of these ventures, the street has continued to add French restaurants, some within the space of a few blocks.

"Banania Café" opened in 1999 and "Café Luluc" soon after. These two café’s, both owned by the same three owners, only one of whom is French, offer retro-Parisian decor and bistro-style cuisine such as grilled steak with copious servings of French-fried potatoes.

Not all of the area’s restaurant owners attempt to recreate as typical of an experience, though. Bernard, the owner of "Robin de Bois" (also known as "Sherwood Café) has no qualms mixing French and American cuisine. Frequented by an "artsy" crowd (the owner’s own appellation), Bernard has indulged his penchant for antique collecting by displaying an astonishingly diverse bric-a-brac of antiques for sale.

Sébastien Ayache, owner of "Salon de Quartier", a hair salon, is, at twenty-six, the youngest of the owners of French businesses on Smith Street. He’s now planning on opening a salon in Manhattan, a move that much more satisfying because, two and a half years ago, he found Manhattan rents too high and came to Brooklyn to look for a better deal. When he was offered a space to rent on Smith Street for next-to-nothing, he jumped at the chance.

"We have it all here," Ayache said of the neighborhood. "It’s calm, but it’s alive enough to be able to party whenever you feel like it. And we’re not far from the beach: Brighton Beach is next door."

Indeed, the potential of the neighborhood is just now being reflected in its prices: rents have boomed, in some instances tripling. "A lot of French people in Brooklyn have started coming back here," Ayache said. "The French community is more stable than in Manhattan. It’s a small family, but an authentic one."

Calmer than its neighboring borough though only three metro stops away, the surrounding neighborhood attracts a relatively well-off population, though not well-off enough to live in Tribeca or the Upper West Side. A young expatriate like Ayache can really feel at home here. "I stand out because, unlike the others, I’m not a restaurant owner," he said.

In fact, the density of restaurants on the street is a source of concern for Bette Stoltz, the president of the South Brooklyn Local Development Corporation. Stoltz believes it is in everyone’s interest to leave place for small businesses.

Jean-Pierre Marquet, who arrived fourteen years ago and later founded the "Marquet Pâtisserie", said he’s observed the "arrival of the Yuppies."

"It’s a little like Soho, which has become a museum," he said.

Who could have foreseen this evolution? Certainly not the developers, who, only a few years ago, wouldn’t have bet a dime on Smith Street.

Symbolic of its new status, Smith Street celebrated the French National Holiday, July 14, in the presence of Brooklyn’s mayor, Marty Markowitz. All the members of the French restaurant community participated to make it a special event, as if to remind everyone that the street hadn’t lost its provincial charm. Stoltz dreams of making area into a trendy, livable neighborhood patterned after the Parisian neighborhood Canal Saint Martin. If it hasn’t happened already.

Banania Café–241 Smith Street, telephone: (718)237-9100
Bar Tabac–128 Smith Street, telephone: (718) 923-0918
Café Luluc–214 Smith Street, telephone: (718)625-3815
Le Patois–255 Smith Street, telephone (718)855-1535
Uncle Pho–263 Smith Street, telephone (718)855-8737


Translated by Brian and Christelle Beard

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