When I lived in Paris (2014-2015) I was deeply entrenched in its history and fascinated with learning about local lore, legends around the city, and uncovering its secrets. I was so committed to finding out more—delving into what made Paris, well Paris—that I took a semester-long class called Les Légendes et Mystères de Paris (or The Legends and Mysteries of Paris).
I ventured around the city hearing stories about how Montmartre got its name and all about the stories of Saint-Denis, the idea that there might be a hidden code crafted into the architecture of Notre-Dame, amongst other folklore.
The city is enchanting, to say the least, and I’m pretty sure you could never uncover all of its secrets even if you lived there your entire life. However, there is one secret that you can discover for yourself in an afternoon: the hidden gem of a restaurant located in the crypt of the L’église de la Madeleine, or the Madeleine Church, just outside the heart of Paris.
Ready to head to the underbelly of Paris to discover the world’s coolest “soup kitchen”? Let’s take a look!
This Greek-looking church that sits just outside the heart of Paris has a hidden gem in its crypt-like basement. I actually discovered this place after I had already moved away from Paris whilst researching for a manuscript I was working on. But I made sure it was on the top of my to-do list for my next trip to Paris…and let me tell you, it did not disappoint!
Through a narrow arched passageway, the crypt of Madeleine used to serve as the sleeping quarters for priests who were visiting the church. Still retaining the ever-present limestone look of Paris and those sort of eerie lights, the former sleeping quarters are now home to three dining rooms!
The hidden gem, dubbed Foyer de la Madeleine, is a non-profit restaurant that’s mission is to serve meals to those in need.
Immediately when you enter, you’re greeted with grandmotherly warmth by the numerous volunteers. Everyone that works here is a volunteer—aside from the kitchen staff. This underground canteen serves upwards of 300 hungry people at lunchtime, throughout the workweek.
It’s a cacophony of sounds in this subterranean eatery—a mix of French, the laughter of starving students, stories spilling from elderly residents, along with posh businesspeople looking for a modest reprieve during the day.
The food is hearty, rather provincial, and unequivocally French.
For a fixed price of 9 euros* per person, you’re presented with crusty bread, an entrée, a main dish, and dessert or a cheese plate (more on that below!).
A bargain and unique experience? Yes, please!
In talking with the ladies who volunteer in the restaurant, I learned a bit of information about the origins of Foyer de la Madeleine (mind you this was in my elementary French, so some of this information might have been *slightly* lost in translation).
One of the volunteers shared that the neighborhood has been a rather posh meets the working-class area for quite some time. The 8th and 9th arrondissements are made up of residential blocks (my apartment was actually in the 9th), along with some popular shopping streets. The Palais Garnier Opera House, the Galeries Lafayette, and Printemps are only about a 10-15 minute walk from the church.
She explained it was founded in 1969 for girls working in the department stores that needed somewhere economical to get a hearty lunch as they weren’t making high enough wages for meals in places surrounding the stores.
Since the end of the 19th-century, Madeleine always had rooms and offerings to accommodate those coming into the city and would serve them snacks. Many citizens were coming in from the south, looking to make a better life for themselves, but Paris, as always, proved to be quite expensive. In order to better serve these people, the Foyer de la Madeleine was founded in April 1969.
The official declaration of their mission is, «d’accueillir toute personne que la condition amène à séjourner dans le quartier, de façon à resserrer les liens de la Communauté et d’apporter à ses membres une entraide spirituelle ou matérielle. Un espace-déjeuner leur permet, aux heures d’ouverture, de disposer d’un lieu de convivialité et de solidarité, de la présence de prêtres, de participer à des réunions-débats et de s’informer des divers mouvements ou activités paroissiales et culturelles ».
The translation: To welcome anyone to the neighborhood, no matter their condition, in order to strengthen the bonds of the community and bring spiritual and material assistance to those in need. During the opening hours of the lunchroom, these people have a space of solidarity and warmth, a place to participate in discussions, learn about activities in the church, and embrace cultural heritage.
Yes, so long as the restaurant is open; its opening hours are Monday through Friday from 11:45 am until 2 pm. Please note that it is closed annually at the end of the year for a week or so, and about four weeks in August (when most people in Paris go on holiday as well).
To get a meal, there are two options: you can pay 15.50€, or become a member for 7.00€ and then pay 9€ for lunch for the rest of the year.
All proceeds go toward the church’s charity, which I think is pretty cool. If you’re only going to be in Paris for a spell, you can gift your card to someone else or keep it as a sweet souvenir of your time in the City of Lights.
Once you have paid, you show your membership card and receipt to a volunteer at the desk where you can then purchase additional drinks or wine. I was surprised by the wine selection—they had an array of reds and whites, with most of them priced at below 10€. (I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, one of my favorite reds came from Carrefour and was on sale for all of 3€—I’m not sure which part I liked more, the price or the wine itself).
Let your eyes wander along the dimly-lit corridors and find somewhere cozy to sit! There are numerous family-style tables where you can chat with others or you can sometimes find a table just for yourself. I really like the community aspect of this place.
This is not a 5-star gourmet meal by any means. It’s got an old fashioned sort of charm and the meal is modest but hearty.
If you’re after an unusual experience in Paris sequestered away in the basement of a church with tons of quirk, this is definitely for you!
After you’ve found a seat, one of the lovely volunteers will come by with a tray of choices for your entrée and then your main course a bit later. While the dishes change frequently (and are posted in the front of the restaurant) some of the occasional options include: ratatouille, herring and potato salad, tabbouleh; the main dish could be something like chicken with a lemon sauce, fish served with provencal tomatoes, or pork roast with fries. Dessert is something simple and sweet: chocolate mousse, yogurt, or a cheese plate.
While the restaurant isn’t super well known, it does have its regulars. I would suggest going as early as possible (11:45 am on the dot), as some selections may run out. The staff is extremely accommodating and genuinely want to be there. I mean several of the ladies took the time to speak with me and understand my basic French. That’s dedication!
The entrance is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it! In fact, very few people know that there’s a restaurant located in the basement of Madeleine.
The entrance is through a dark green door on the Marché Aux Fleurs side of the church—you’ll see a line of flower booths and around the middle of the church is a sign that says “Foyer de la Madeleine.” If you keep your eyes peeled, you’re bound to stumble upon it. If you don’t see it at first, it might mean you’re on the wrong side of the church…just keep walking around the perimeter. 😉
Madeleine, in the 8th arrondissement, is the closest Metro.
If you’re looking for a hidden gem in Paris, could use a hearty and inexpensive meal, and the warmth of friendly volunteers—I would highly recommend making a visit to Foyer de la Madeleine during your next trip! Another benefit? The profits the restaurant brings in go back to aid the impoverished and homeless.
I’d call that a win-win!
Have you discovered any hidden gems in Paris or have you dined at Foyer de la Madeleine? Let us know in the comments below!
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