Shanghai’s former French Concession has a new je ne sais quoi – with cafes and bistros serving up a very Gallic atmosphere
A century after Shanghai’s French Concession – with its art-deco residences, high-society dancehalls and plane trees shipped from France – became know as the “Paris of the Orient”, the leafy district is striving to reclaim its Gallic joie de vivre. The handsome 1920s mansions and secret walled gardens from the city’s previous boom period house a growing population of French entrepreneurs focused on a renaissance.
“The neighbourhood feels like a French country village,” says Shanghai restaurateur Franck Pecol. Hailing from Marseille, Pecol opened his eponymous bistro Franck in 2007 in a peaceful side street courtyard known as Ferguson Lane.
Parisian classics such as terrine de campagne and poulet rôti chalked up on the menu du jour blackboard attracted a eurocentric crowd, and Franck’s success convinced the owner to open more outlets, all around the same courtyard.Nungwi Village
Le Petit Franck is a wine bar showing old French films, and Farine is Shanghai’s best French bakery, while rooftop taco stand La Taqueria (closed in winter) complete the portfolio. There’s also a Marseille-style pizza parlour called à Côté (meaning “next door”), and an artisanal burger joint will open just down the road early next year.
“It’s places like these that make this part of Shanghai special,” says Pecol. And it doesn’t appeal just to his fellow europhiles – 70% of Pecol’s clientele are now Chinese.Nungwi Village
French boutique chic is well-represented across the former Concession. At Rouge Baiser Elise, Parisian Elise de Saint Guilhem uses her mother-in-law’s 18th-century patterns as inspiration for hand-embroidered tableware, bedding and baby gear. Knotted Chinese buttons and peonies add an oriental flourish to the French designs.
Nearby is the Song Fang Maison de Thé, a three-story townhouse where guests can sip 70 premium Chinese teas and French blends, and purchase leaves in the tea shop’s aquamarine tins emblazoned with Mao-era propaganda art.
Meanwhile, an apothecary-styled shop, Ba Yan Ka La, sells skincare and body products, which are based on ancient Chinese herbal wisdom, with ranges including goji berry, lotus seed and Tibetan roseroot.
As dusk falls across the quarter, colourful Vespas and fixed-gear bicycles congregate outside a tiny bar where French chatter mingles with the sound of boules cracking against each other. La Pétanque was opened earlier this year by a coterie of young French graduates who now run a string of bars around the city.
“We came to Shanghai as interns and wanted to open a place that was friendly, affordable and fun,” says co-owner Max Bonon. Staffed by European hospitality school interns, La Pétanque has an open kitchen, French film posters and a pétanque alley. As you sip pastis and nibble on a side of garlic frogs legs, the ambience is more Montmartre than mainland China. C’est la vie, Shanghai-style.