When Holybelly opened in 2013 at 19 Rue Lucien Sampaix, it set a new standard in quality for the age-old union of food and coffee in Paris. The 30-seat establishment came out firing, serving world-class third wave coffee alongside neo-diner breakfasts of fluffy pancakes and egg and sides until noon, when the stunning seasonal lunch specials kicked in.
The concept puzzled Parisians at first. Was it a cafe? Or perhaps a restaurant? The chefs bustled about in gleaming whites, after all. “I think people struggle to put us in a category because we’re not a coffee shop, but we have really good coffee, and we’re not a restaurant, per se, but we have really good food,” says co-founder Nico Alary. “It’s not hard for Melbourne or New York, where every place is like that, but here we were kind of the first.”
We assure you, not every place in New York or Melbourne is nearly as good as Holybelly. Despite the confusion, the cafe soon developed a loyal following, and brunch regularly drew crowds that spilled onto the sidewalk—perhaps even a little too often. “There was always a line and we were worried that people would associate us with, ‘I love Hollybelly and I love the food, but it’s too busy, let’s go somewhere else,’” says Alary. The space quickly outpaced the original vision chef Sarah Mouchot and Alary set out to create, which led to an expansion in 2015.
But the lines continued apace, and the couple had hesitations about further growth. They worried about Holybelly losing its soul, a carefully cultivated balance of good food, good coffee, and good service they pride themselves on. But when a space opened up down the street at 5 rue Lucien Sampaix in 2016, they decided to go for it. A year later, Holybelly re-opened there with 100 seats, inviting patrons to tuck into all-day breakfast from the comfort of snug leather booths and white-washed brick.
Mouchot and Alary still had the smaller, empty space at 19 rue Lucien Sampaix. They mulled over what to do with it: a roaster? A natural wine bar? But Paris had enough of those. “We thought, what about we just do another cafe, but we just do breakfast and lunch very differently?” says Alary. HB5, the “new” space, inherited the menu of big delicious breakfasts and daily specials, while the historic HB19 takes a more intimate approach to breakfast and seasonally inspired lunches. The menu is structured around a large selection of sharing plates and several daily lunch specials, a format that will enable Mouchot to showcase her talent in the kitchen and make the most of what’s in season.
The two locations complement each other: the founders were careful to preserve the Holybelly identity at both, while crafting two completely different dining experiences. Where HB5 channels cafe casual in leather booths, wood, and brick, HB19 offers a more intimate setting with teal velvet upholstery, marble, and tile. “HB19 is going to show what Sarah can cook and that precision she has for breakfast cooking that she also has for lunch cooking,” Alary tells Sprudge. “At HB5, a dish had to be a meal, so she was kind of limited in the things she could do. At HB19, she can do whatever she wants. It’s perfect for seasonal cooking because there’s no format. Maybe some days we’ll have ten plates and five another day, depending on what’s available.”
There are no pancake stacks at HB19 (don’t worry, they’re available all day down the street at HB5). Instead, Mouchot has run wild on a sweet and savory small plate experience, with dishes like soft-boiled eggs with buttery mouillettes, gravlax, haloumi slippers, beet salad with crunchy buckwheat nubs, kasha porridge, and mini-donuts with dulce de leche. The coffee here is also similar but different. Belleville Brûlerie still shines at HB5, where a more developed and accessible roast profile pairs wonderfully with hearty breakfast specials. At HB19, Swedish roaster Koppi accompanies what might be described as more delicate dishes, harmonizing well with the small but growing selection of natural wines on offer. In both cases, the coffee experience still stops short of a geek-out. “We stop before it gets too technical. So we do everything super well, everything’s weighted, calibrated, we use reverse osmosis water, but I always tell my baristas we’re not the kind of place where you can just make coffee,” says Alary, who would rather return to a place with good service and bad food than amazing food and poor service. “For me it’s about finding a balance between being a restaurant and a cafe.”
The interview portion of this feature with Alary was conducted just one day after HB19 opened. I found the space bustling with regulars, as though it had never closed. Alary attributes the easy transition to the experience the team has gained over the last six years, and a restaurant has evolved to reflect the owners’ own growing up as business partners and hospitality professionals.
“We’re still Holybelly,” says Alary. “We told our front of house staff, stay relaxed, friendly, dress however you want. It’s just really what you put in the plate and the coffee that changes, but we’re the same.”
Kate Robinson (@KateOnTheLoose) is a freelance journalist based in Paris. Read more Kate Robinson on Sprudge.