Drinking Martinis in Paris has recently become something of an expensive and indulgent habit of mine. Or more specifically, drinking Martinis in the City of Light’s many grand hotel bars.
Paris, where I now call home in between international cocktail safaris, is not a cheap city. But I find myself drawn to these legendary establishments and the Martini, the king of cocktails, seems like the appropriate measuring stick of their abilities. Here’s what I found on my Martini marathon across the capital.
Le Bar, Four Seasons George V Hotel
The George V Hotel is a temptingly short walk from my apartment in the 7th arrondissement. Double-parked outside the establishment on a recent visit was a Bugatti, a Lotus and a Lamborghini. Through the lobby is the flagship watering hole, which is a jewel box of a room—it’s simply named Le Bar—and is a more understated affair than its location might suggest.
It might be, in fact, one of the city’s most serene and elegantly appointed spots to enjoy a drink, Martini or otherwise. Seated at the small marble bar, the stately bartender sports a quizzical look bordering on utter confusion when I ask for a Martini made in my preferred ratio of equal parts vermouth and gin.
The gin selection is a collection of most of the usual suspects recognizable to even a casual drinker, but I also spy the stout apothecary-style bottle of Monkey 47. This relatively new German gin may be obscenely overpriced, but with its complex mix of 47 botanicals, it is one of the best examples of its kind available today. The barkeep stirs it with an annoying nonchalance. A Martini needs to be stirred with equal parts concentration, purpose and love. Now you know. I wish he did, too. The result is tepid, which he fixes abruptly once I send it back.
With a rejuvenated and icy v-shaped stem now in my grasp, I listen to a piano in the nearby lobby play that song from “Titanic.” I hum along with a certain degree of self-loathing. Dubious song choice aside, it does cast a blanket of calm over the room and I begin to relax and enjoy my surroundings.
The Hemingway Bar, The Ritz
Of all the grand hotel bars in Paris, the Hemingway Bar, a Lilliputian shoebox tucked away at the back of The Ritz, is most definitely the most famous. Partly because it was once a favorite of the eponymous author when he lived at the hotel at various times between 1921 and 1928. His spirit lives on, not just in name and the paraphernalia that covers every wall, but in flamboyant head bartender Colin Peter Field, who knows more about Hemingway’s life than arguably anyone alive today.
Field is not here on the night I visit and his eccentric presence is missed. He’s someone widely known to effortlessly manage the needs of celebrities and civilians alike. (There’s a reason why Kate Moss wrote the intro to one of his cocktails book.) There are now several Martini options on his large fold-out menu. Its Dirty Martini is billed as “the world’s first and only clean dirty Martini,” whatever that means. I skip that and instead have the bartender use the delightful citrus bomb Tanqueray No. 10 in my preferred 50/50 Martini. (An equal parts version of the drink would have been de rigueur in the 19th century.)
The notion of a 50/50 is now somewhat peculiar in Paris and gets me some odd looks upon request. I’m used to that, since it’s far from popular anymore. But I’m sure glad I insist on this occasion, since my Martini is essentially just frozen gin with indiscernible traces of vermouth. There’s a cube of frozen vermouth, which I assume is supposed to soften the drink, but it doesn’t. I later discover that my cocktail (and everyone on the menu) costs a sobering €30.
The Bar, Hotel Plaza Athénée
After a lengthy refurbishment, The Bar at the Plaza Athénée is as gaudy as I remember. A few years back, I had one of the greatest meals of my life in its adjoining three Michelin-starred restaurant, helmed by legendary chef Alain Ducasse. The cocktail menu at The Bar was once listed on a LED screen with accompanying photos that were so ugly, it made me wonder whether it was some kind of joke. It wasn’t.
Now the menu looks like it was designed by an amateur and printed at the local Kinko’s. I order a Martini and am steered towards Tanqueray Dry, which can hold its own in any gin cocktail. Refined yet punchy, it smacks of citrus and earthy juniper, like a walk in a pine forest. The drink is delivered in a very reasonably sized glass, though, it’s not cold enough for my liking.
I order another (probably a mistake; no one really needs a second Martini), but I opt for Beefeater 24 this time with its subtle notes of grapefruit and green tea and ask for it to be stirred for a few more revolutions, achieving that extra chilly bite that I desire. Ah, that’s better. Life inside the Plaza is not so bad after all. A grapefruit twist is the move here folks, should you ever find yourself in a similar predicament and garniture becomes a matter of concern.
Bar 228, Le Meurice
At Le Meurice on Rue de Rivoli, among the glistening boutiques and parade of Manolo wearing shoppers, Monsieur Ducasse boasts another impossibly extravagant restaurant with two more of those coveted Michelin stars. The adjoining bar, called 228, also carries a special limited-edition version of Grey Goose Vodka that was a collaboration between the chef and the brand’s master blender, François Thibault. It has notes that are described as brioche, almond and coffee, so much for vodka being flavorless and odorless.
Never did I think I’d see the day that I’d spend €36 on a Vodka Martini. Well, that just happened. Perhaps the only thing more shocking is the fact that I actually enjoyed a Martini made with vodka. It was prepared by veteran head bartender, William Oliveri, who has stood behind this lovely little bar since 1978. Was my Martini any good? Yeah actually, it was. I have another.
Le Bar, Hôtel Le Bristol
At Le Bristol, on the glitzy Rue St. Honore, the hotel employs a piano player. But my dreams of enjoying a drink while listening to some Beethoven or classic jazz are dashed, since, sadly, the pianist is in the lobby and a DJ is in its bar. I’m subjected to a melody of awful lounge tunes that are far too upbeat for the room. It’s a shame really, as it would otherwise be a rather comfortable little oasis. The selection of gins is fairly limited but, fortunately, well chosen.
I settle on Star of Bombay, the new release from Bombay Sapphire, whose botanicals include Calabrian bergamot and ambrette seeds from Ecuador. I catch the attention of the young bartender mere seconds before he was about to shake my Martini. Phew! Catastrophe avoided. I take a seat by the fire and enjoy the three types of free cashews on the table. (At least, I hope they’re free.) The Martini is €30—which by now seems the norm in these rarified hotel bars. I would have stayed for another, but the thumping music was the deal breaker. Au revoir!
Le Bar, La Réserve Paris Hotel & Spa
La Reserve, a stunning little hotel hidden away behind the Champs-Élysées, boasts a plush bar replete with red velvet banquets and marble and gold finishes. Scouring the back bar, I settle on a delightful French gin called Citadelle, which has notes redolent of fresh flowers in a spring garden. While my drink ticket languishes waiting for the harried bartender’s attention, I decide to explore the hotel. I wander through the Michelin-starred restaurant, past a peaceful courtyard, into the green velvet piano lounge and finally ending up in the fumoir with its own private garden and something called an “honesty bar.”
When I return to the main bar a few minutes later, my Martini sits waiting for me, glistening in the sunlight. I can tell that it’s been shaken and not stirred, as I requested. I know this, because a shaken version will have dozens of tiny air bubbles bobbing on the surface. It’s unfortunately not the texture I’m after. The lesson here folks is not to look away when your Martini is being prepared. Not even for a second. No one can be trusted.
Le Rooftop, The Peninsula
My next stop is The Peninsula, which is just a stone’s throw away from the Arc de Triomphe. On Le Rooftop (seriously, that’s what it’s called), I’m faced with a meager choice of four gins, so I take a chance on something from the Cognac region called G’Vine. I’d bore you with my pompous tasting notes but it’s shaken so hard that all nuance is lost. Back in hotel’s lobby, however, there is a wonderful little bar where one can fall into lovely oversized armchairs and sip a colossal Martini made with the rarely seen Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve.
This is a monster of a gin, not for the faint of heart, created by Desmond Payne, the category’s longest-serving master distiller. He ages it for several months in French oak barrels that previously held Lillet, the most elegant of all fortified wines. This bottling is typically very expensive and such a drink might run you about $50 in the United States, so here it feels like a relative bargain at €30. During the day, the doors open out onto a large terrace, while at night, the room is sealed off from the outside world and is one of the nicer spots in Paris to enjoy a Martini. This time I don’t specify that I prefer it ‘wet’ to see what their house proportions are and what arrives is something bold, bracing and contemplative.
Les Ambassadeurs, Hôtel de Crillon
I finish up my sojourn around Paris at the most recently renovated of the city’s iconic hotels: The Crillon. Standing proud overlooking Place de la Concorde and situated adjacent to the imposing American embassy, it’s little wonder that this grandiose property has hosted many presidents, dignitaries and celebrities during its storied past. Only re-opened in 2017 after a three-year overhaul, its flagship bar, located just inside the entrance, is as fine a place as any to enjoy a Martini in the City of Light. The new design straddles the line nicely between modern classic and gaudy and it somehow works. I can see myself drinking Martinis in here…often.
The range of gins is again quite modest but something called Ki No Bi from Kyoto, Japan, catches my eye. It’s very soft, almost to the point of neutrality and it’s served in a glass that is so mesmerizing in its beauty. This time, I’m sharing this experience with my friend Bobby Heugel, who owns several acclaimed bars in Houston, Texas, and is an unabashed Martini geek like me. While we’re both intrigued by a new gin made in Normandy by famed Calvados producer Christian Drouin, Heugel sports a wide grin as he enjoys his Tanqueray No. 10 Martini made to his preferred ratio of 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth.
While my tour was certainly not exhaustive, there are definitely some wonderful Martinis to be had in several of the city’s grand hotels. Many of these bars have long and storied histories, where the famous and infamous have spent too many hours and perhaps too much money on drinks. But there is something quite cathartic about settling into a corner table, ordering up a Martini and zoning out for a fleeting moment.
La vie est plutôt douce après tout!