Crowded food markets and shuttered storefronts fill the City of Light in the wake of coronavirus closures.
Dispatch From A Paris Without Restaurants
Credit: Andrey Konovalikov / Getty Images

Sundays are generally quiet in Paris, but mornings can be hectic as many markets, grocery stores or independent epiceries are only open for business until about 1 p.m. So when the government announced on Saturday night that all non-essential shops, cafes and restaurants would now have to close as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wondered how the French might fare with this loss of … fare. At around 10:30 a.m., I popped my lavender-scented hand sanitizer in my pocket and headed for my local market in the 12th arrondissement, the Marché d’Aligre. (Produce markets are considered “essential.” Each of the 20 arrondissements has at least one; many have more than that. The Marché d’Aligre is one of the few open every day but Monday.)

What I saw blew my mind. People were shopping, shoulder-to-shoulder, as if it were any other Sunday. This didn’t feel like doomsday prep. There was no sort of urgency. The buskers singing Edith Piaf songs were still entertaining shoppers who were feeling Peruvian avocados for ripeness and sniffing clementines from Corsica as if it were any other weekend. And, oui, it happened to be a beautiful spring one at that; a balmy 55 degrees. 

On one hand, I admire their resolute, laissez-faire attitude. At least it keeps panic at bay. (Though, to be sure, throughout the week toilet paper and pasta did fly off the shelves at regular grocery stores only to be restocked the next day, and most pharmacies put signs in the window that said they were out of masks and hand sanitizer—but had soap and Viagra!).

Yet, where was the social distancing we were all meant to be practicing? The night before, President Macron had urged all citizens—especially those over 70—to stay home unless absolutely necessary or to vote. (A confusing message if I ever heard one, but I digress.) And still, the lines at the butcher, cheesemonger, and bakery spilled onto the street with people waiting back-to-front, front-to-back for their blanquette de veau, Brillat Savarin, and pain de campagne.

“We are outraged by people’s stupidity,” said my neighbor, chef Omar Koreitem of Mokonuts, whom I texted later that night to see how he and his wife Moko Hirayama and their daughters were doing. Their restaurant Mokonuts and sister cafe Mokoloco, which only opened in November, would now be closed until at least April 15. “Streets were packed!”

Despite being busy themselves all last week, he said they made the decision to do takeaway only at Mokoloco starting Monday and to cut breakfast and limit their lunch covers at Mokonuts. “And then the shutdown happened.”

“Now it’s up to everyone to play the same game,” he wrote.

While they divvied up what was left in their fridge and gave it to staff and close friends, other restaurants and cafes took more entrepreneurial measures.

Brutos, a meat-centic spot in the 11th arrondissement, sold off their herb-roasted chickens by packing them up in to-go bags they got from nearby cafe Broken Biscuits, who themselves offered the last of their pastries, milk, granola and coffee. Le Mary Celeste, over in the Marais, lowered the price of their oysters to 50 centimes a pop until 4p.m. on Sunday, while their sister restaurants Candelaria and Hero began touting that their tacos and pork buns would be available on delivery services Deliveroo and Uber Eats. (For their part, Deliveroo began offering “contactless” deliveries in which orders could be left at one’s doorstep with permission.) Daroco, a pizza joint in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s former atelier over in the 2nd arrondissement, promoted a sale on Monday to off-load perishable products such as mozzarella, dough, fresh pasta and charcuterie. 

Some bakeries—which, like the open-air markets, are considered essential and therefore remain open—debuted new services and shared their own supplies. 

Circus over on the Left Bank, moved up the launch of their “Flyin’ Circus” delivery app in which users can order organic sourdough bread to be delivered by bike to anyone in the first through sixth arrondissements. “Bread is a commodity,” read the Instagram post announcing the new service on Sunday. “We want to keep the bread supply at flow.” 

While across the river by Bastille, Ten Belles Bread was generously giving away starter to amateur bakers who wanted to try their hand at kneading at home during what many believe will be a stricter quarantine with a nightly curfew once the president readdresses the nation on Monday evening. 

For restaurants and bars who more quickly shut stoves and taps, they’re now faced with offering gourmets and gourmands more than just something tasty: optimism. 

“We are devastated,” chef and co-owners Bertrand Grébaut and Théo Pourriat of Septime, Clamato, Septime La Cave and D’une Ile in Normandy wrote on their Instagram. “It is a difficult time, but by no means definitive. We know that the restaurants will reopen, the glass will again be filled, and we’ll all cook in our kitchens again soon.”

Echoing this sentiment, Gregory Marchand, chef of rue de Nil restaurants Frenchie, Bars à Vin, and FTG tagged his posts: #forceetrobustesse: strong and steady.

Sara Lieberman is a New York-born, Paris-based journalist who contributes to AFAR, Conde Nast Traveler, Fortune, The New York Times, the Washington Post and more. Follow her on Instagram @saraglieberman.