Inside The Red House, Paris' Coolest Expat Bar
It's the kind of neighborhood bar we all wish we had.
I moved home to Boston from Paris in the winter of 2014. During the two years I lived in the City of Light, I did most of my drinking in expat bars—romanticizing the long-extinct scene of 1920s Paris. I hung out at places like Stolly’s and the Bottle Shop (two excellent bars you should visit the next chance you get), but I missed, perhaps, the best expat bar of all—Red House.
The exterior of the bar is painted fire engine red. At night, the interior is dimly lit by red Christmas lights—if you peek in from the street, a massive longhorn skeleton appears to glow hot as it keeps watch over the bar’s patrons and a collection of what appear to be Virgin Mary statues perched on a mantle beneath the bovine remains.
The Red House is famous for its cocktails, all of which are of a quality one might expect from the world's hardest-to-get-into bars. But Red House isn't that kind of bar—sure, it gets packed on the weekends, but its customers aren't the type of self-conscious hipsters who clamor to get into exclusive parties so they can Tweet about getting into an exclusive party. They're at Red House to drink, play some pinball, and listen to DJs spin some good records. Red House feels like your favorite neighborhood bar, and a single stop is all it takes to make someone want to return night after night.
I met the bar’s owner—an American with an easy smile named Joe Boley—a few months ago while visiting some old friends. Our conversation went late into the night, and we wound up at Red House well past closing time listening to “Young Americans” sipping perhaps too many Negronis. I wanted to know more about Red House—how it all started, why it all started, how it’s become what it’s become—so I caught up with Boley recently to get some answers.
That conversation—lightly edited and condensed for clarity—is below.
So what year did you move to Paris?
I immigrated to Paris 13 years ago.
You’re from New Mexico, and I’m wondering: what were you up to there before you fled for France?
I actually grew up in New Mexico and moved around quite a bit after, landing in Houston for six years where I finished school, studied math, worked as a plumber, and started bartending.
So when you got to Paris, and before you opened Red House, what were you up to?
I was managing Bottle Shop, which is part of a group of old expat haunts in the city, the oldest of which is Stolly's. I had a child on the way and dropped the idea of trying to get a doctorate in math in a language I didn't know how to say "odd" or "even" in. I got offered the manager spot after Scotty—who now owns Dirty Dick—left, and it's been full-throttle ever since.
What was your Paris like before opening the bar? Was the bar a reaction to the scene at the time?
Definitely, and it still is, but I was a lot less informed back then. There has always been a huge polarisation, a massive gap between hype and trendy and snobby, whether it's a 5 euro coffee in St. Germain or a rude doorman that makes you wait to get into an empty bar—unfortunately if you wanted something good, these were your best bets. And then there are the neighborhood bistro-bar dives, which are really dives—you've been to them. I've gotten food poisoning from drinking out of a glass—more than once—but the thing is, if you wanna have fun, unless looking at yourself is fun, these places are your only choice. The place in between—good quality, fun, unpretentious, and honestly priced—is what the American bar is for me, and that's what Red House is centered around.
Was it your intention to make Red House an expat joint, or did it just sort of happen that way?
No, and then yes. I wanted it to be a neighborhood spot, accessible to all. I'm not big on "concept bars." My brother had been living in Williamsburg and called it “Candy Land for spoiled adults.” So, what did I want Red House to be? A few months before opening, Stolly's had their 20th anniversary party, and something like 50 or more people came in from out of the country to celebrate. That's a bar. That's what Harry's was about—the bar as an oasis at the end of the desert.
The expat thing has just grown, mostly when I stopped trying to assimilate and started to miss my culture. Halloween karaoke? Who doesn't love that. The only 4th of July cajun crawfish boil in Europe? Got it. I got sick of celebrating Thanksgiving on saturdays, so we did a potluck at the bar—if you brought a plate, food was free. If not, it was ten euros. People brought in so much food I didn't charge anyone and I haven't since. And it's far from being only Americans as well. Everyone loves it. Although I will bust your balls if you think bringing a baguette qualifies as participating in the pot luck.
Is the late night, after hours hang typical? My night felt like I imagine most expats want Paris to feel—like 1920s Paris—but I suspect most expats, especially just the interlopers (of which I now count myself having moved home), never actually get that Paris because they're mostly hanging out in, I don't know, some overpriced tourist trap in St. Germain. That's a special thing to have created. Can you talk about that a bit?
It was an atypical continuation of a typical night. You can't run a bar and be in it 4 hours past closing if you don't want to go bankrupt and die before 40. Look, 1920's Paris ended a century ago. It doesn't exist. Most of the edgy bohemian places that were here when I moved here are gone. Read Paris-based authors from the time—have you ever tried to bar hop in Montparnasse? Miller's old haunt on Clichy is a tourist pizza place. Hemingway is dead. Has been for a long time. And Sartre and Burroughs. You create for the future and I think a bar can be a great agent for that.
Many people have told me it was their best Thanksgiving—one of best regulars took a 13 hour bus from Italy to get there for it. We've had four weddings, mostly broke young Parisian regulars, one of which was during our Christmas party so the bride ended up dressed like Santa Claus. You get the idea—I could go on and on.
Talk about the neighborhood (the 11th arrondissement), generally. For my money, it's the best for food and drinking in the city at the moment. And it seems like everyone gets along, like all the bar owners and restaurant owners are truly routing for one another.
Hands down. Food is amazing in Paris right now, and usually the price for quality is obscenely low. All my favorite bars, restaurants, natural wine bars are close by and we all party at each other's places. A high tide raises all ships. It's a generation, not only expat by any means, that is guilty of opening "their favorite bar." It's never the best business model, but what the hell, you get to love what you're doing.
If there's one thing you could say about the bar, or one thing you want others to say about the bar, what is it?
Others? I want to go back. Myself? It's still my favorite bar.
The Red House, 1 Rue de la Forge Royale, +33 143670643