VIVE LA FRANCE
Paris’ Oldest Continuously Running Cabaret Is the Anti-Tourist Trap
Formerly known as the Cabaret of Assassins, this long-running cabaret is the scourge of selfie stick-wielding tourists expecting France to bend to modernity and online reviews.
PARIS—It’s close to midnight, and a gentleman of a certain age sporting pants the color of a ripe tangerine is serenading me with a recorder inside a tiny cottage in Paris.
The little shack with the salmon pink walls and green shutters sits near the top of Montmartre hill, just steps away from the storied Sacré-Coeur basilica, and houses one of the city’s oldest cabarets: Le Cabaret Au Lapin Agile. The last of its kind in Montmartre.
Formerly known as the Cabaret of Assassins (more on that later) the snug, dimly lit interior comprises just two rooms, and is filled with heavy wooden tables and matching benches. A jumble of posters, oil paintings, copper pots, and other bric-a-brac lines the walls, and the light that filters through the red canvas lampshades is the sort of murky crimson that evokes a 19th-century bordello.
It was at the Lapin Agile that then-impoverished artistic greats like Pablo Picasso, Maurice Utrillo, and Guillaume Apollinaire congregated for boisterous, boozy evenings of lively French chansons in the early days of the 20th century when the village-like quartier boasted some of the cheapest rents in the city. Edith Piaf performed here in the late 1930s before she became a celebrity, and rumor has it that Utrillo was so attached to the place that he requested to be buried right next to it in the adjacent Cimetière Saint-Vincent.
In her book, In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910, British author Sue Roe describes the two-room cottage as part bohemian watering hole for down-at-the-heel creatives and part neighborhood pillar, where “everyone went to be seen.”
In the early 20th century, according to Roe, “the Lapin Agile soon became the center of the community in haute Montmartre.”
“The place,” she writes, “where artists gathered with artists manqués, the jobless bourgeois, or the black sheep of the family, the place where the local scoundrel became an autodidact. Dancers who had seen better days came up from the Moulin Rouge to sell opium… Most people, including Picasso, carried guns.”
Long before a pistol-packing Picasso set foot in the place, however, the tiny cottage on the hill had several incarnations. According to Roe, the building dates back to the reign of Henry IV when it was used as a hunting lodge. In the 18th century, it became a country tavern and gangster haunt called Ma Campagne, before being acquired in the 19th century by a retired can-can dancer.
The cabaret officially opened in 1860 under the name Rendezvous des Voleurs (Thieves’ Den), but was renamed Cabaret des Assassins in the late 1800s in reference to the images of infamous murderers that adorned the walls. One unsubstantiated rumor claims that the then-owner’s son was indeed killed there by a group of bandits, hence the macabre moniker.
It was the illustrator André Gill who unwittingly gave the cabaret its current name when he painted a sign for the joint in 1875 that depicted a rabbit leaping out of a frying pan. Regulars began referring to the cabaret as “Le Lapin à Gill” (Gill’s Rabbit). Over time, the name morphed into “Lapin Agile” (Nimble Rabbit). Its new proprietor, the eccentric Frédéric Gérard (known simply as Frédé) put the cabaret on the map as a bohemian Montmartrois hotspot in the early 1900s when Picasso became a regular. Frédé, who could be spotted strolling in the neighborhood with his pet donkey Lolo, often allowed patrons to pay for their drinks with paintings or poems.
Although the cobblestone lanes around the cabaret and the petite vineyard next door still resemble a French country village, Montmartre has changed dramatically over the last century. Forget opium dealers and irascible, gun-toting artists, the biggest danger you’re likely to encounter these days in haute Montmartre is a gaggle of tipsy, privileged teenagers blasting bad pop music, or maybe the odd, mildly aggressive Pekinese at the end of a leash.
Multi-million euro villas have replaced the artists’ squats of Picasso’s day, and housing costs have shot up over the past several decades. Most of the artists have long since moved out, and many small business owners can’t stay afloat in the current housing market either.
“When we arrived here 30 years ago, there was still a delicatessen, a baker, a tobacco shop, a haberdashery," Frédéric Loup, a Montmartre pharmacist, told Agence France Presse. “The problem is that rents have skyrocketed. Like real estate throughout Paris, land prices have exploded.”
Indeed, a quick perusal through local real estate rags reveals 60-square-meter (about 646 square feet) apartments fetching close to €900,000 ($1 million), while fixer-uppers at the less-chic bottom of the butte go for well over €1 million. Rental prices aren’t much better. For instance, a 40-square-meter (430 square feet) loft studio with a view of the Sacré-Coeur will set you back €1,861 ($2,072) a month. Not exactly in the realm of possibility for starving artist sorts.
The City of Light’s formerly-ramshackle northern suburb is also feeling the weight of mass tourism. I partially (and perhaps unfairly) blame the tourist influx on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical 2001 film Amélie, which became an international sensation and sparked a renewed interest in the neighborhood.
Today, some 12 million annual visitors traipse through Montmartre’s warren of winding streets, admire the cake-like, white cupola of the Sacré-Coeur basilica (which locals affectionately refer to as “the meringue”), and pose for selfies in front of La Maison Rose—a photogenic, pastel pink eatery just steps from the Lapin Agile that was once the subject of one of Utrillo’s works. The Café des Deux Moulins, where Jeunet’s peppy heroine, Amélie Poulain, worked as a server is still a popular stop on the Montmartre tourist circuit.
Nowhere is this tsunami of visitors more apparent than at the Place du Tertre, the cobbled square near the Sacré-Coeur, where sketch artists compete for tourist dollars with cheap souvenir shops and bistros of questionable quality that cater primarily to foreign tourists. Ironically, several of the art stores selling low-cost renditions of the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur feature wares that were not produced in the neighborhood, or even in France, but in China.
In the summer months, the crowds around the square are claustrophobically thick, and the only time I venture there, if at all, is early on weekend mornings when the streets are fairly empty. Bohemian painters may have mingled here a century ago, but the area’s artistic roots and onetime seediness have since become eclipsed by a tacky, theme park atmosphere that residents know to avoid.
The Lapin Agile, however, remains stalwart. Its nonagenarian owner has likened the cabaret to a boat “navigating through the heritage of French songs,” but it’s more like a rebellious island unto itself, firmly resisting the weight of passing decades, the changing face of the neighborhood, and the hoards of selfie stick-wielding tourists, some of whom are perplexed by the cabaret’s intractable Frenchness and blatant refusal to step into the 21st century.
“Please don’t waste your money,” reads one of the more scathing reviews of the joint posted on Google Maps. “It’s four hours of French-only folk songs with no breaks… There are no other instruments or acts other than singing with piano… This is not for tourists who don’t speak French.”
Confession: Although I’ve lived in the neighborhood for more than four years and have often passed it, I only ventured inside the cabaret for the first time about a week ago. As someone whose work schedule involves long hours and very early mornings, the four-hour show took a backseat to getting a decent night’s sleep. Moreover, I had (perhaps a bit too hastily) dismissed it as yet another Montmartre tourist trap à la Place du Tertre. However, the indignant reviews intrigued me and prompted me to reconsider. Especially this one:
“This show was not what I expected. To be fair, the performers were very talented at singing and playing instruments, but if you do not speak French I would not recommend this show.”
The disappointed tourist added:
“The five performers sang beautifully, but they were all over 60 years old and I felt like it was in the 1800s.”
The 1800s? Count me in! I quickly snagged a reservation. The day before the show, I stopped by the cabaret to chat with the owner, Yves Mathieu, a bespectacled 91-year-old who looks at least 15 years younger and has enjoyed a long career as a singer, even performing at Radio City Music Hall back in the ‘50s. On some nights, he still belts out a few tunes at the cabaret—just as his mother did in the late ‘30s when a school-aged Mathieu would watch her act from the sidelines. Mathieu inherited the cabaret from his stepfather almost 50 years ago, and runs it today with the help of his sons, Frédéric and Vincent.
We sat on a wooden bench in facing the front door beside a wall lined with china plates, and a photograph of his late wife (a striking Catalan singer) mounted on the other. I asked him why he thought the cabaret had endured for so long, despite the rapidly changing neighborhood.
“Here at the Lapin Agile, we don’t make concessions. It’s very French,” he explained. “There are some French songs performed here that date back to the 15th century.”
“You must always maintain authenticity… All that is authentic is eternal. In this artificial world people have an increasing need to return to the authentic. To their roots. It’s important.”
On the night of the show I tried to stop by a little early to get a good seat. No go. The small group of us waiting outside were informed that the doors did not open until 9 p.m. sharp. The silver-haired man who led me to my seat informed me that as it was the start of the country’s October school holidays, many Parisians had left for the week.
“Il sera un peu plus tranquille ce soir que d’habitude.” It will be a bit quieter tonight than usual.
I settled into the long wooden bench and perused the small menu that was placed on top of the dark wooden table etched with dates and doodles, including the name “Pauline,” which was carved into the wood in block letters. The menu offers a limited selection of wine, beer, and whisky. Food isn’t served. A reproduction of Picasso’s circa-1905 Au Lapin Agile hangs on one of the walls. In it, the artist is depicted as a morose harlequin who is shunning his former lover—Picasso’s real-life paramour, Germaine Pichot. Frédé, who commissioned the painting, is visible in the background strumming a guitar. Sotheby’s sold the original in 1989 for $41 million, and it currently hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
I was soon joined by two American tourists from Washington, D.C., and Chicago, respectively. The pretty young brunettes sported little black dresses that looked somewhat out of place in the cozy room, where slouchy sweaters and casual slacks appeared to be the garments of choice among the staff.
A cute, sweater-clad server stopped by with shot glasses filled with the house specialty—a cloying cherry wine—and explained that he too performed at the cabaret, just not tonight. I looked around the snug space. There were less than a dozen of us, and we were (perhaps unwittingly) segregated, with the French contingent occupying the right side of the room, and the foreigners on the left.
The show began rather abruptly when a group of six people clustered around one of the tables in front of the piano launched into a bawdy drinking song. The setup reminded me a bit of a tipsy glee club meeting, but the melody wouldn’t have been out of place in a dark, centuries-old tavern lined with wine barrels.
“Do you think these are the performers, or just people from the neighborhood?” the Chicagoan whispered.
The first two hours of the evening flew by, and included everything from homages to Montmartre to mournful love ballads. A set of performers—a long-married couple—sang a touching duet they had written for their son. There also was a fair share of 20th-century French classics by the likes of Dalida, Léo Ferré, and Georges Brassens. One singer delivered a particularly moving version of Jacques Brel’s “Mon Amour,” and another’s rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Foule” was so eerily on point that it seemed as though she were literally channeling the ghost of the iconic chanteuse.
There are no microphones, and the majority of the songs featured piano accompaniment, although a guitar and an accordion also made an appearance. And the recorder, of course. The man in the tangerine pants continued his serenade with a series of swallow-like trills, before leaning in for a kiss. I obliged him with a peck on the cheek, and the spectators and performers cheered us on.
These kinds of interactive performances are apparently typical at Au Lapin Agile, and are part of the fun. Thanks to the tight quarters, small audience, and unpretentious vibe, the lines between performers and audience members are blurred, and there were moments during some of the singalongs when I felt like I was at a house party that happened to include a few very talented guests.
As the show moved into the fourth hour, however, my posterior was starting to feel the effects of the wooden bench. The two Americans had ducked out before 11 p.m., although they claimed to have loved the show.
“I’ll have to come back when I speak better French,” the Chicagoan said.
There were only a few of us left by the time the clock hit 1 a.m.—the enthusiastic French audience on the right and the increasingly befuddled-looking tourists on the left. The show ended as abruptly as it started, and I thanked the performers and stepped outside. A light rain was falling and the streets were quiet. I was back in 21st-century Montmartre with its Instagram-ready facades and bourgeois calm.
Sore back (and butt) aside, I had never experienced a Parisian evening quite like this one, and I hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as I had. It wasn’t just the intimate setting and talented performers, however. There is something admirable about the cabaret’s steadfast devotion to tradition. Bad Google reviews be damned! In this quirky “anti-tourist trap,” the show goes on and echoes of Montmartre’s past come alive—if only for a few hours.