Jim Haynes has a CV that just won’t quit. A Louisianan raised in Venezuela, Haynes did his US military service in Edinburgh, started a theatre in London’s Covent Garden and spent 30 years teaching sexual politics (in English) at a university in Paris, where he hung out with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and James Baldwin.
But he’s best known for the Sunday night dinners chez Jim (01 43 27 17 67; www.jim-haynes.com) in a belle époque atelier in the 14e. It’s the original Paris supper club, where people meet, greet, eat, drink and, well, do whatever people then do together – all for a suggested donation of €25.
We asked Haynes for a little background to one of Paris' dining icons:
Same old song: how long has this been going on?
It all started in 1978. I’ve always had house guests – it’s hard not to in places like Edinburgh, London and Paris – and I once put up a ballet dancer who liked to cook. She made dinner for me and my friends once or twice a week, which turned into a regular Sunday night event for everybody. And when Cathy couldn’t cook we began to have guest chefs.
So still crazy after all these years about entertaining?
People ask me all the time why I continue. I don’t know. Inertia? I just think, well, it’s Sunday. It’s time to do dinner.
Overnight sensation or slow boil?
The event grew organically from the beginning but right now we’re full every week. I did an interview with NPR (National Public Radio) in the USA early in 2009 and then the mint-makers After Eight shot a TV advert here. That pushed the numbers way up. In good weather the crowd spills into the garden and can go as high as 130 but I prefer between 60 to 70 people.
It was a standing-room-only crowd last night, a veritable club frotti/frotta (roughly ‘rub club’).
About 130,000 people have passed through the front door and many romances leading to relationships, marriages and babies have started in this room. I watched a shy French gal and a timid German guy who could barely communicate sit on that sofa one Sunday night. They’ve now been married for 18 years and have three kids. And they speak three languages fluently!
Has travel – have travellers – changed since you fed your first
People haven’t changed. I think there will always be two basic ways to travel: to go around the world and see things as a tourist or to participate in local life as a traveller. Why do people like one city and dislike another? They got involved with locals in some way in the first and not the second. All the people who come to my dinners are travellers as they are getting involved – even if they don’t always know it.
What keeps you glued to the spot?
I love all big cities but particularly Paris because it’s a small big city. Each arrondissement is like a little town; I rarely leave mine as I’ve got everything I need here. And I’m a real local now; everyone calls me Mr Jim. It’s endearing.
Words of wisdom for the Paris virgins out there?
Talk to people – even it just involves a 'Pass the salt, please' directed at the next table. A lot of friendships have started that way. But bear in mind one rule among the Parisians: never, ever, start a conversation without saying 'Bonjour' first. Ignore that and you’ll be dismissed as impolite. In fact, you’re a rude bastard.
Jim Haynes’ may have been the first, but his is hardly the only supper club in Paris. As in so many other world-class cities – London and Hong Kong (where they’re called speakeasies) spring to mind – they’re popping up like toadstools after rain all over the French capital. But where dîner chez Jim is less about the food and more about socialising and perhaps even pulling, the newer clubs focus on multicourse gastronomic meals (eg Hidden Kitchen, see below) and visiting the 'in' adresse (restaurant) of the moment with a local foodie (eg Paris Supper Club). You’ll get an excellent meal and they’re still great places for meeting people.
Here are some of the most popular ones. Expect to pay from €80 per person and be sure to book well in advance. If you don’t get a spot bear in mind that many post on Twitter if they have a cancellation or last-minute place available:
Chez Nous, Chez Vous (01 45 30 58 92; www.cheznouschezvous.com; 116bis rue St-Charles, 15e)
Hidden Kitchen (www.hkmenus.com; 28 rue de Richelieu, 1er)
Paris Soirees (06 43 79 35 15; www.parissoirees.com) Twice-weekly Paris events hosted on the Île de la Cité by Patricia Laplante-Collins.
Paris Supper Club Run by the excellent local dining blog The Paris Kitchen.
Talk Time (01 43 25 86 55, 06 20 87 76 69; www.meetup.com/TalkTime) Michael Muszlak’s Saturday night food-and-bilingual-chat in the Latin Quarter, organised through the New York-based group Meetup (www.meetup.com).
Rediscover new sides to Paris with insider tips from local experts, full-colour neighbourhood highlights, an a detailed guide to eating in Paris with a menu decoder and guide to finding the best foodie secrets in the Lonely Planet Paris city guide.