FRENCH EXPERIMENTS

Delicacies

French experiments

After decades of late-night boredom, a trio shook up the Paris bar scene – then transferred the successful recipe to restaurants and hotels and exported it to other countries.

October 2021, Reading time: 18 minutes

Trio Infernal: Romée de Goriainoff, Pierre-Charles Cros, Olivier Bon, l.t.r. Photo: Addie Chinn

You drink cocktails in New York or in London. In Paris, the Kir Royal was the non plus ultra for what felt like an eternity when it came to mixing a drink from several ingredients. The French may know a thing or two about wine and champagne, but cocktails were never their thing. That was true until the day Olivier Bon, Romée de Goriainoff and Pierre-Charles Cros appeared on the bar scene. The trio started a trend that no Frenchman would have bet a dime on at first: American-style venues, a little speakeasy, a little basement club, a little classic hotel bar. The revolution began on a quiet, cobblestone side street in Sentier, a neighborhood that was not trendy at all back then, almost 15 years ago. The bar is easy to miss, with only a small metal plaque pointing to the front door. Behind it is the Experimental Cocktail Club, a dimly lit place with bare stone walls, heavy velvet curtains, a few sofas and an old piano. Behind the heavy counter, however, young bartenders operate, mixing all the cocktail classics to perfection as well as their own highly creative drinks.

Pro at work at the Experimental Cocktail Club in Paris.

“We realized that there should be a new approach to bar life in Paris in the 21st century.”
– Romée de Goriainoff –

Bar The Shell at the Hotel Grand Boulevards.
Photo: Karel Balas

Success comes literally overnight. Parisian hipsters enthusiastically embrace the new cocktail culture, and foreigners living in Paris pounce on the first tasty drinks available in their new home. Within a few months, the ECC makes it onto the pages of the Financial Times, right into the land of top mixologists. There, people wonder who these Frenchmen could be who are turning Paris nightlife upside down and serving cocktails instead of champagne. Olivier Bon, Romée de Goriainoff and Pierre-Charles Cros have known each other since elementary school and had already shown an interest in Margarita, Manhattan and Martini Dry as teenagers. Independently, they spent a year in the U.S. during their studies, learning not only how the American economy works, but also that a cocktail bar doesn’t have to be old-fashioned. “We realized that there should be a new approach to bar life in Paris in the 21st century,” says Romée de Goriainoff. First, Parisians had to get comfortable with the cocktail shaker. The point was to make them understand that the purpose of mixing is not to sell low-quality crap, but that at ECC you get top-notch drinks made from choice ingredients to go with the cool ambiance. “Alcohol is bad for your health. Then at least it should taste good,” is the trio’s credo. The message is getting through – some Parisians are surprised to discover that not everything that comes from the U.S. is inherently undrinkable.

Perfect sundowner at the Menorca Experimental bar.
Photo: Karel Balas

“Our entrepreneurial approach was American from the start.”
– Pierre-Charles Cros –

Michelin-starred chef Gregory Marchand at Restaurant Frenchie, Hotel Grand Pigalle. Photo: Geraldine Martens

Sabbaba Montesol, rooftop & cocktail bar in Ibiza.
Photo: Ana Lui

“Our entrepreneurial approach was American from the start,” explains Pierre-Charles Cros, “we didn’t want to open another neighborhood pub for our friends, but to build a solid, professional and future-oriented business model.” As role models served Studio 54 founder and boutique hotel inventor Ian Schrager, trendy hotelier André Balazs and, of course, the Costes brothers, who had created a cool, internationally hip meeting place with their Parisian luxury hotel Costes, its bar and restaurant. By now, the ECC founders can compete with any of them. One by one, they opened more bars in Paris, ventured to London and New York with their ECC concept, and expanded into the restaurant and hotel sectors. “We always felt that we should go in the direction of the hotel business,” Olivier Bon recalls, “but it took seven years before we were financially solid enough to venture into a hotel project.” It all began in 2015 with the Hotel Grand Pigalle in the up-and-coming SoPi (South of Pigalle) district of Paris, and it clearly shows the direction the journey would take: Hotels that offer cool bars and great restaurants in addition to chicly designed rooms, comfortable beds and competent, friendly service. You should start the day there with a really good breakfast and end it in the evening with a great cocktail in a hip bar. All within the hotel walls. Today, the Experimental Group focuses exclusively on hotel projects – not only in Paris, but also in London, Verbier, Venice and Menorca. Right now, the iconic Grand Hotel Montesol in Ibiza Town is being transformed into an Experimental property. The cool restaurant with street terrace and the sensational rooftop bar have been finished and open since late summer, and the rooms of the former Hilton Curio will be completely redesigned from January 2022. After Menorca, Ibiza is already the group’s second Balearic destination after Menorca: “Both were gut decisions – and they were really good opportunities where everything fit,” says Oliver Bon.

“In any case, we would like to be present in the major European cities in the next few years.”
– Oliver Bon –

Experimental Châlet Verbier. Photos: Mr. Tripper

Experimental has become a brand that motivates people and sends signals. “If we go to Menorca, not only guests but also other hoteliers and restaurateurs will follow us,” Romée de Goriainoff believes. But it also works the other way around: Verbier, where Experimental has been operating a 39-room chalet for a few years, was already the destination of many of their customers anyway. What was missing there was a relaxed, chic hotel with a food and bar concept to match. “We knew that if we opened something there, it would work without a problem,” says Oliver Bon. And so it has. The carefully growing group deliberately positions itself between pretty individual hotels, small local hotel groups and the houses of globally active chains. Experimental is international, independent and yes, always a little experimental as well. With its concept of offering a 40- to 50-room hotel with great design, excellent gastronomy and the best service, it is quite unrivaled. At the moment, the founding trio has Rome and Milan in its sights, Lisbon is another desired destination and the German market also beckons. “In any case, we would like to be present in the major European cities in the next few years,” says Oliver Bon, “and also in a few exotic locations.” In other words, everywhere they like to vacation themselves.

Chronology of the experiments

2007: Experimental Cocktail Club, Paris

Underground ambience, innovative drinks and talented mixologists have made the bar a landmark for cocktail lovers. To this day, this remains a favorite hangout for hip city dwellers. 37 rue Saint-Sauveur, 75002 Paris, tel. +33 1 45 08 88 09, experimentalcocktailclub.com

2009: Prescription Cocktail Club, Paris

This chic bar in Saint-Germain will close in January 2022, be completely renovated and redesigned, and relaunch with a new look, new team, and new offerings no later than March. 23 rue Mazarine, 75006 Paris, tel. +33 9 50 35 72 87, prescriptioncocktailclub.com

2010: ECC Chinatown, London

Cocktails made in France are special even in England – as is the 1920s-style decor. The cocktails represent a fusion of two cultures and are complemented by an unusual selection of vintage spirits. 13A Gerrard st, W1D 5PS London, tel +44 207 434 35 59, experimentalcocktailclublondon.com

2011: La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, Paris

This place isn’t about cocktails, it’s about wines. A team of experienced, curious and adventurous sommeliers offers 600 references, including small, little-known producers, as well as a selection of delicious tapas. 7 rue Lobineau, 75006 Paris, tel. +33 9 54 90 20 20, compagniedesvinssurnaturels.com
Photo: Nancy Ricard

2013: La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, London

This bar in Covent Garden was designed to look like a classic English pub. The wine selection offers a list of about 1000 references from France and around the world, including hard-to-find products from innovative producers. 8-10 Neal’s Yard, WC2H 9DP London, tel +44 207 734 77 37, cvssevendials.com
Photo: Addie Chinn

2013: Experimental Beach, Ibiza

Chic beach club with comfortable loungers and umbrellas on a pristine stretch of beach south of Las Salinas salt flats. The restaurant serves light Mediterranean cuisine, a carefully crafted wine selection, plenty of excellent cocktails, and good music. Playa des Codolas Salinas, 07818 Ibiza, tel. +34 664 331 269, eccbeach.com
Photo: Ana Lui

2014: La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, New York

A slice of Paris at the crossroads of Nolita, Soho and Little Italy with a colorful and relaxed design reminiscent of the flagship in Paris. There are more than 1000 wines from around the world to choose from, about 30 of which are also served by the glass. Plus: a selection of seasonal tapas. 249 Centre st, 10013 New York, Tel. +1 212 343 36 60, compagnienyc.com

2015: Hotel Grand Pigalle, Paris

37 rooms in a typical Haussmann building in a prime SoPi location (South of Pigalle). The decor mixes retro with modern touches, and the rooftop suites offer fantastic views of the city. The hotel houses the innovative Frenchie restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Gregory Marchand. 2 rue Victor Massé, 75009 Paris, tel. +33 1 85 73 12 00, grandpigalle.com
Photo: Kristen Pelou

2017: Henrietta Hotel & Restaurant, London

Prime location in the heart of Covent Garden, with 18 elegantly designed rooms in shades of pink and blue as well as plenty of Italian design. Italian-influenced is also the hotel’s restaurant, Da Henrietta, serving delicious Mediterranean cuisine. 14-15 Henrietta st, WC2E 8QH London, tel +44 203 794 53 13, henriettahotel.com

2017: Balagan, Paris

The best Levantine cuisine with the diverse flavors of the Middle East: fanciful meze, Moroccan-Israeli artichoke ragout, festive mansaf lamb, Jerusalem-style sea bass and couscous. The restaurant is located in the Renaissance Hotels Paris Vendôme within shouting distance of the upscale boutiques of Rue Saint Honoré. 9 rue d’Alger, 75001 Paris, tel. +33 1 40 20 72 14, balagan-paris.com

2018: Hotel Grands Boulevards, Paris

50 comfortable rooms decorated in warm colors, with mirrors, designer furniture and four-poster beds, many with balconies or terraces. Plus: Italian-French courtyard restaurant, Shell Cocktail Bar with creative drinks, unique rooftop terrace. 17 blvd Poissonière, 75002 Paris, tel. +33 1 85 73 33 33, grandsboulevardshotel.com
Photo: Karel Balas

2018: Experimental Châlet Verbier, Verbier

Among the snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps: 39 minimalist-comfortable rooms and suites designed with open-concept spaces and lots of natural light. Plus: a bistro by Parisian chef Gregory Marchand, a rustic-chic farm club, and a bar serving the group’s innovative cocktails. Route de Verbier Station 55, 1936 Bagnes, phone +41 27 775 40 00, experimentalchalet.com
Photo: Mr. Tripper

2019: Menorca Experimental, Menorca

Idyllic hotel in a 19th-century whitewashed finca among pine groves, juniper bushes, and wildflowers. The 43 rooms and villas are in country house style with urban touch, and the Mediterranean cuisine in the hotel restaurant is prepared with seasonal produce, much of it from the hotel’s own garden. Sant Llorenç, Menorca, tel +34 627 36 94 31, menorcaexperimental.com
Photo: Karel Balas

2019: Il Palazzo Experimental, Venice

In the Dorsoduro district, not far from the Guggenheim Museum and Galleria dell’ Accademia, stands a red-brick palazzo with 32 bright rooms and suites and a garden that overlooks a canal. The property includes Ristorante Adriatica, serving fine Italian cuisine, and a cocktail bar. Fondamenta Zattere, Dorsoduro, 30123 Venice, tel. +39 041 09 80 200, palazzoexperimental.com
Photo: Karel Balas

2021: Sabbaba Montesol Restaurant, Ibiza

Restaurant opened at the end of the summer on the first floor of the Montesol Hotel, with a large terrace. Original Levantine specialties and fine Mediterranean food come from the open kitchen and robata grill. This is accompanied by a careful selection of Spanish and other wines from the Mediterranean region. Paseo de Vara de Rey 2, 07800 Ibiza, Tel. +34 871 51 50 49, sabbabamontesol.com
Photo: Ana Lui

2021: Sabbaba Montesol Rooftop & Cocktail, Ibiza

Opened also in late summer, there’s a unique bar on the Montesol’s rooftop terrace overlooking the old town. Cocktails, sangria or beer are accompanied by interesting culinary creations such as pulpo laffle, daikonnoli and lamb chop lollipop. Paseo de Vara de Rey 2, 07800 Ibiza, Tel. +34 871 51 50 49, sabbabamontesol.com
Photo: Ana Lui

2022: Grand Hotel Montesol, Ibiza

Historic hotel from the 1930s in the old town of Ibiza. Starting in January 2022, all rooms will be renovated and decorated in chic hippie-bohemian style. The opening is planned for the summer. Paseo de Vara de Rey 2, 07800 Ibiza, Tel. +34 871 51 50 49, granhotelmontesolibiza.com
Photo: Ana Lui