Maybe you find it strange that I call Willi’s Wine Bar the first real wine bar in Paris. You could, of course, drop in at many Parisian bars and cafés before 1980 and have a glass of wine. Often, though, it would be a beaujolais or a sauvignon of unclear provenance. The sheer choice of wines at Willi’s and the fact that the producer was mentioned for every wine set it apart. It was not “un ballon de beaujolais, s’il vous plait”. Now, Paris is full of such wine bars, but Willi’s started it.
Englishman Mark Williamson opened Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris in 1980. The location in the first arrondissement, at 13, Rue des Petits Champs, could not be better. It’s a charming, narrow street near the Opera Garnier, the Palais Royal and the Louvre; in short, it is in the heart of Paris.
Willi’s actually turns 41 this year, but as it was closed much of 2020, the year of celebration will be 2021.
This is a longer version of an article published on Forbes.com.
I was not in Paris when Willi’s opened, but I remember my first visit to Willi’s in the early 1990s. An impressive wine list with great emphasis on the Rhône Valley (still Mark’s great speciality) but also on the Languedoc. I discovered many producers from these regions, thanks to Willi’s. Names that you had never heard of, from wine regions that were not so well-known. How times change.
And where else in Paris could you find sherry and even German wines? Willi’s has done its part to diversify the wine habits of the French. What better way could there be to educate yourself in wine?
Mark has used the corona lockdown time to write a fabulous book about 40 years with Willi’s. “Immoveable Feast, forty years of feeding the French” is the name. It is a mixture of memories from Mark and good friends in the wine business who helped and encouraged him, recipes of food Willi’s has served over the years, and lovely drawings.
I particularly enjoyed reading about an unknown Sylvain Fadat coming up from Languedoc to Paris in 1991 in his old Peugeot 305 (do you know why Peugeot models always have a “0” in the middle? It was the hole for the crank if you needed to hand start the engine…) trying to sell his white wine from ugni blanc and red wine from carignan, not the most sought-after grape varieties at the time. He and Mark hit it off, of course. Now Sylvain and his Domaine d’Aupilhac are superstars and his Languedoc wines new fetch the prices they deserve.
But it is the Rhône wines that are the centrepiece. If you go to Willi’s (how can you not?) take a look at the Rhône selection. It will make you wish that you are there for more than just a lunch or a dinner.
Patricia Wells, the American journalist and cookbook author, writes in the book how she drove down from Paris and met Marcel Guigal, August Clape and Jean Louis Grippat. This was in 1978; none of these producers were the icons they are now. Patricia was an early Rhône lover, and she could not understand how Parisian restaurants could ignore this amazing region. She was thrilled that Willi’s wanted to be different.
Another good friend who appears in the book is Jonathan Livingstone Learmonth (aka “the gull”), who already in 1983 published the second edition of his book The Wines of The Rhône, a true pioneering work and a bible for Rhône lovers. The book was launched at Willi’s Wine Bar, and several growers came up to Paris to celebrate. They brought wines with them, of course. Gérard Chave was there with his son Jean-Louis, then 16 years old, today one of the biggest names in the northern Rhône Valley. The launch party guests could enjoy the Chave Hermitage 1978, Guigal Condrieu 1982, Guigal Hermitage Blanc 1980 and a few other gems. Ah, how we wish we had been there, but it was well before we arrived in Paris.
Next time you come to Paris, plan a visit to Willi’s. You can enjoy a glass (meaning a few glasses) in the bar or have a meal at one of the far too rare tables. It’s a small place. But you should also visit the sister restaurant Macéo on the same street, number 15. If the wine bar is very Parisian bistro in style, Macéo is elegant dining (although very affordable).
And around the corner, on 47, rue de Richelieu, is Paris’ first tapas bar which doubles as a wine bar and wine shop. It is called The Juveniles. Mark and his good friend Tim Johnston opened it in 1986. It is now run by Tim’s daughter Margaux and her husband. In this troika, you will find wine lists that should make many other Parisian restaurants green with envy.
You can buy the book Immoveable Feast on Amazon. But much better is, of course, to get it at the bar at Willi’s or Macéo, while enjoying a good wine (try one you have never heard of before!) and a bite. And maybe listen to another of Mark’s stories. He’s usually around somewhere.
And Mark, congratulations on the first 41 years.