Every good bar should have a hint of the illicit.
In Prohibition America, illicit was any bar at all, and throughout the ages in the dirty suburbs of Paris, it has looked like a dingy cave of a bar with revolutionaries and communists whispering over dark wine. A candle flickering. A bartender wiping glasses with a manky towel – no one really knowing where he stands politically, save to say he’s discreet.
Yes, my imagination is getting away with me. However, it’s easy to do when I’m seated at a table in 11e Cave, because it’s exactly the vibe this new wine bar in Old Kingston is trying to recreate.
11e Cave is the space that owner Louis Couttoupes and manager Tom Blakely have wanted to open ever since they created Onzieme on the corner of Eyre and Kentucky streets in Kingston and saw the storage cellar underneath.
“Many of the run-down, industrial Parisian suburbs had ‘wine caves’,” Tom tells me.
Onzieme means ‘one of 11’ and represents the 11th arrondissement, or suburb, of Paris. If Onzieme is the suburb, 11e Cave is its wine cavern.
“We wanted to channel that gritty vibe,” Tom says.
Gritty vibe it is. Betrayed to the street only by its red door – which says Bar à Vine – it’s a grim flight of steps after that. You’re not really sure you should be here, but that, of course, means you should. The stairs open into a dimly lit room with scraped concrete walls, exposed pipes, an intense red bar at one end, and Porto Sandeman poster-esque art on the walls.
I scrape my stool across the bare floor and – despite the chalked food menu of cheeses, oysters and sourdoughs, and despite the truth, “when in a wine bar, order wine” – I order two successive cocktails.
The first is Fig Cosmo with Gollion figs, vodka, fig leaf, Cointreau and grape. The second is a Pear and Thyme Martini, a gin, vermouth, pear and thyme mix so delicate it’s like alcoholic dew on pears.
11e Cave opened on election night for the first time.
“We literally got the license on the Friday,” Tom tells me. “We wanted to open then, but it was just pushing things.” The Saturday was busy, with drinks flowing until midnight.
It’s unsurprisingly quieter at opening hour on Tuesday. A classy group arrives shortly after I do – a good thing, but there’s always that sense of slight annoyance when someone else knows your secret bar exists. It turns out they’ve been following owner Louis’ dining exploits all the way from his days at Bar Rochford in the Melbourne building, to the pop-up Kiosk in Kingston, to Onzieme, and now, to this latest literal dive into proletarian Paris.
“It’s so good to have these places bring life to Old Kingston,” Celia from the group tells me. It’s true. Everyone knows Braddon and The Foreshore. Yet if ever a place deserves a dimly lit street bar like this, it’s Canberra’s oldest arrondissement.
And while in 2022 Canberra we can’t hope to spot a muttering cluster of Leninists in fear of persecution – perhaps some political manoeuvrings will be hatched over oysters and French wine in this helluva cellar?
11e Cave is located under Onezime on the corner of Eyre and Kennedy Streets in Kingston. It’s open from 5:30 pm till late Tuesday to Saturday. Walk-ins only.