Under the Louvre's majestic arcades facing the once-controversial glass pyramid by architect IM Pei, the jewel-toned Le Café Marly has the same breezy sense of style and self-confidence as the Parisians and world travellers it attracts. This is where Gilbert Costes spends most of his days, but you won't find him holding court under its high moulded ceilings. Instead, Gilbert and his brother Jean-Louis devote their time to quietly expanding their restaurant and hotel empire, which began with a single brilliant idea.
The story of the Costes brothers could have been a banal one: two teenagers from rural Auvergne, like so many before them, move to Paris to make their fortunes in the restaurant business. Gilbert studies law while working in bistros run by family friends; Jean-Louis gets a diploma in restaurant management. In 1983, Jean-Louis buys a café in Les Halles near the Centre Pompidou. Then he does something unexpected: he asks Philippe Starck to decorate it, borrowing an outrageous sum of money to pay him. With its avant-garde décor, sleek waiters and light-hearted menu, Café Costes was an instant success, proof that Parisians were ready for a revolution in café culture.
Since then, the Costes brothers have continued to take risks, buying and investing in some 45 restaurants and hotels throughout the city (some, like Café Costes, have been sold as part of their overall strategy). At the centre of the network are Gilbert and Jean-Louis, but many family members and friends are also involved as managers and partners, including Gilbert's son, Thierry, who manages several key Costes businesses and runs the funky Hôtel Amour with two friends from high school.
Along with Le Café Marly, the ultra-hip Hôtel Costes (now 12 years old) perhaps best illustrates the family style, with its tongue-in-cheek Second Empire décor by Jacques Garcia and beautiful staff who screen and sort clients at the entrance, but the spare and sculptural Georges on top of the Centre Pompidou is also a classic Costes address, as is the slightly faded Café Beaubourg, one of the siblings' original ventures.
The surest way of knowing if you're in a Costes brasserie is to glance at the menu. Gilbert and Jean-Louis coined the use of menu abbreviations (PDT for pommes de terre and HO for huile d'olive), taking a playful approach to food new to Parisian restaurants. Their greatest strength lies in offering something for everyone - a whole butter lettuce for the rake-thin model, a steak for her rugby-player boyfriend.
You won't find croque-monsieur, but you will get club sandwiches and comfort food, such as creamy mashed potato. A signature dish is le tigre qui pleure, Thai-style spiced beef originally a speciality of fashionable non-Costes restaurant Thiou.
Given their success, the Costes brothers have many imitators, although other cafés rarely get it quite right (most can't afford Jacques Garcia, after all). When you see red lamps and velvet chairs in a corner bistro that has kept its 50s tile floor and Formica bar, you know the owner has tried to borrow a little Costes magic.
Famous for their discretion - Jean-Louis drives a Smart car to check on the progress of his renovations - the brothers almost never speak to the press. Luckily for us, Gilbert had just returned from a trip to Australia when we approached him for an interview. He was so taken with this country he agreed to share his favourite Paris places with Gourmet Traveller.
A COSTES ADDRESS
"Le Café Marly, in the heart of the Louvre, faces the glass pyramid and has a sunny terrace. The customers are very pleasant and it's quiet with no traffic noise, creating a holiday atmosphere. There's plenty of sunlight, yet it's protected from bad weather thanks to the arcades. This café is timeless, elegant and international. During the day, I adore the Marly's atmosphere; it's quite unique, and there can't be many places like it in the world. It reminds me a bit of the Caffè Florian in Venice."
Le Café Marly, 93 rue de Rivoli, 1st, +33 1 4926 0660.
A FUN NEIGHBOURHOOD
"The Louvre-Palais Royal neighbourhood in the first arrondissement is in the heart of Paris and encompasses the quays of the Seine, the Louvre museum, the Palais Royal and the Avenue de l'Opéra. It's full of beautiful buildings such as the Ministry of Culture (facing the Palais Royal gardens), which is quite exceptional. You only have to walk 100 metres to understand how much there is to see in this area. While it's the site of important tourist attractions such as the Louvre, it remains a neighbourhood where real Parisians live. You could easily spend a whole day on foot in this area, starting with coffee at Le Café Marly and then visiting the Louvre. In the afternoon, you could go for a stroll around the neighbourhood and finish with dinner at French fusion restaurant Senderens."
Senderens, 9 place de la Madeleine, 8th, +33 1 4265 2290.
A MARVELLOUS MUSEUM
"I love the Centre Pompidou for the building's design and everything that's inside it: the entire 20th century is represented, as well as artists of today. The building is contemporary, with a unique architecture, and it attracts Parisians. The kind of tourist who goes to the Centre Pompidou is cultured and international, interested in both art and architecture - someone who is open to seeing another side of Paris."
Centre Pompidou, place Georges Pompidou, 4th, +33 1 4478 1233.
A PRETTY PARK "The Parc Monceau has a particularly good location in the 17th arrondissement near the Champs-Elysées. There are other beautiful parks in Paris, such as the Buttes Chaumont or the Bois de Vincennes just outside the city, but it's often a trek to get to them. This is a lovely park that's neither too big nor too small and it gets plenty of sun in summer. The Parc Monceau attracts people of all ages from the neighbourhood and has a very good atmosphere."
A SECRET BISTRO
"Chez Julien is a great bistro, partly because of its location facing the Seine and just behind the Hôtel de Ville. A couple of steps from the Ile St-Louis, it's well hidden and has a vintage Parisian décor of the kind that's so rarely seen any more. The traditional bistro fare perfectly matches the setting."
Chez Julien, 1 rue du Pont-Louis-Philippe, 4th, +33 1 4278 3164.
A GRAND RESTAURANT
"Le Grand Véfour, in the Palais Royal gardens, has a magnificent interior and beautiful gastronomy that is very traditional. Some dishes have been slightly updated, but the cooking is always excellent. Many of the Michelin two- and three-star restaurants in the city don't have attractive décors; at Véfour it's a truly authentic Parisian setting, full of history."
Le Grand Véfour, 17 rue de Beaujolais, 1st, +33 1 4296 5627.
A CUTE AND COSY BAR
"Mathis is a tiny bar off the Champs-Elysées where le tout Paris gets together. It's popular with all kinds of artists and is open all night; it's also quite snobbish and selective. I like the cosy atmosphere and the music."
Mathis Bar, 3 rue de Ponthieu, 8th, +33 1 5376 0162.
A MUST-VISIT MARKET
"The Aligre market is in the eastern part of Paris, a bit removed from the centre. It's a big, bustling market that attracts a fascinating mix of people, from working class to chic. This market, which consists of street stalls as well as the covered Marché Beauvau, is one of the most legendary in Paris."
Place d'Aligre, 12th.
AN EXTRAORDINARY BUILDING
"The Cinémathèque Française by Frank Gehry is a fantastic piece of architecture. It's a beautiful and quite unique building. Anyone with an interest in contemporary architecture should definitely see it. I also enjoy admiring the buildings all along the banks of the Seine. One of the best ways to do this is by boat, even if taking a boat ride designed for tourists isn't something that most Parisians would do."
Cinémathèque Française, 51 rue de Bercy, 12th, +33 1 7119 3333.
A SPECIAL SEASON
"Spring, when the leaves are unfurling on the trees and you can go for a stroll without suffering from the heat."
A LUXURIOUS BOUTIQUE
"Hermès is a beautiful boutique that's both traditional and contemporary. When you visit the Faubourg St-Honoré branch, you can take the opportunity to see the other luxury boutiques along this street. I like Hermès because its products are practical and Parisians shop here, particularly those who ride horses."
Hermès, 24 rue du Faubourg St-Honoré, 8th, +33 1 4017 4717.
A WEEKEND OUTING
"On a Saturday, you'll often find me at Les Puces de St-Ouen, a very pleasant flea market and one of the best places for a stroll in Paris. There are always plenty of interesting people walking around. I think the best markets within the Puces are the Marché Serpette and the Marché Paul Bert. I like them for the beauty of the objects on display and the friendly vendors."
Puces de St-Ouen, avenue de la Porte de Clignancourt.
A BEAUTIFUL BAKERY
"I'm not a big expert on pâtisseries but I love Gérard Mulot because his boutique is attractive in a rather traditional way and his cakes are very good. Pierre Hermé also makes delicious pastries but his modern boutique doesn't appeal to me as much."
Gérard Mulot, 76 rue de Seine, 6th, +33 1 4326 8577.
A SECRET PLACE TO STAY
"L'Hôtel in St-Germain is not really such a big secret, but I particularly like it for the décor by Jacques Garcia and the very good restaurant, which not so many people know about."
L'Hôtel, 13 rue des Beaux Arts, 6th, +33 1 4441 9900.
AN IMPRESSIVE PARIS VIEW
"On top of the hill at Montmartre you have all of Paris at your feet - there are rooftops as far as the eye can see. Montmartre has several spots that have great views of Paris, but perhaps the best is from in front of the Sacré-Coeur cathedral. It's touristy, but it has to be done."
Rue Chevalier de la Barre, 18th, +33 1 5341 8900.
A PEOPLE-WATCHING PICNIC SPOT "Designed by a contemporary architect, the Pont des Arts is a wooden footbridge between the Louvre and St-Germain. Parisians often hold picnics and parties on this bridge, which makes it a fun place. You can also picnic on the banks of the Seine, but they are not as clean as the Pont des Arts."
A FEW MORE REASONS TO LOVE PARIS
"I love the diversity of the cultural offerings in Paris, the late-night parties, the restaurants that are open all night and the nightclubs. You can go to the theatre or the cinema, take a long walk along the quays or visit the Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes just outside the city. There is always something to do at any time of day or night."