PARIS (AP) — Swapping burgers for lobster souffle and rusty welding for a state-of-the-art canopy roof, Paris' mayor this month unveiled a $1 billion revamp of the city's dilapidated main shopping and transport complex, Les Halles.
Paris authorities view the building project — which made central Paris a construction site pockmarked with cranes for seven years — as an opportunity to gentrify the 70s complex that was often voted among the city's the biggest eyesores by disgruntled Paris residents, and also attract a share of the millions of tourists who visit the city every year.
The previous incarnation of Les Halles became associated more with the myriad gangs of youths who traveled in on regional trains from the less-affluent suburbs to hang out there than it was for its rich past — as the gilded food market and shelter the French king would use to impress merchants in the 12th century and the culinary heart of the city that 19th-century novelist Emile Zola famously called "the belly of Paris."
Today, a giant, green high-tech glass-and-metal undulating "canopy" roof designed by architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti sparkles in the spring sunshine.
And 35 new stores and restaurants hope to restore the site its culinary and cultural prowess, including a posh brasserie by Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse and a literary eatery designed by Philippe Starck with the slogan "Feed Your Mind."
But not everyone is convinced that the attempted gentrification of Paris' main artery to the poorer regional suburbs will work.
"I think it's a bit patronizing," said Paris resident Alice Betout, 31. "It feels a bit like Paris is trying to give culture to the masses, so to speak. When young people come here from the suburbs on the train they just want to hang out. What are they going to do with a literary cafe, foie gras and garlic snails?"
For others more amenable to the new structure, it still seems like an expensive gamble.
"This is a working-class place ... and so the shops which are here ... were conceived to do cheap business," said 71-year-old pensioner Jacques Merlino, nostalgic about the old Les Halles, a market he remembers from before it was torn down in the 70s.
"Ducasse, Starck and all that are in opposition to that (profile). So will this become chic, with a working-class edge?" he asked. "History will answer this question."
The new canopy is a stark contrast to its predecessor — a hangout so engrained in youth and urban culture that Les Halles is even cited in French rap songs.
But Ducasse — whose restaurants include London's Dorchester and Paris' Plaza Athenee hotels, where dinner can cost $500-$1,000 — says the new brasserie, Champeaux, is not out of touch with its surroundings.
He believes it will be popular with those who frequent Les Halles, since the brasserie prices remain surprisingly affordable. Some have called it "democratic gastronomy."
"What we do can never be disconnected to the economic reality of where you are. It's a young and busy place with a big traffic of — I'd say — the working-class chic," said the chef as he admired his restaurant's view onto the magnificent 16th-century Saint Eustache church.
A deviled egg will set you back 6 euros ($6.70), a hand-cut steak tartare 20 euros ($22.50) and lobster souffle a mere 22 euros ($24.80).
"We want any customer to be able to come into Champeaux and ... dine, have a drink, nourish himself. You can also spend more! But it's an important access key," he added.
Ducasse said that Champeaux was named after a restaurant that used to occupy the historic grounds in the 19th century, which was pulled down at the advent of World War I.
Opposite, the high-tech eatery "Za" has more bookish ambitions.
Designed by Starck, diners come in and order organic delights, with the aid of an iPhone application, that are delivered to the customer on a conveyor belt to the table.
Za's owners struck a deal with three French publishing houses to print out books while clients dine, thanks to a huge printing press at the side of the cafe.
Any book — maybe Zola's 1873 novel "The Belly of Paris" or George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" — can be printed off in under 10 minutes, to be collected as the diner leaves the restaurant.
"It was a slightly mad idea we had to create this combination of quick, chic and hipster because we don't know if it will work yet," said Za owner Philippe Amzalak, who said that the rise in real estate prices in the surrounding areas might attract clientele with more spending power.
"The areas around have evolved a lot ... (but) it's a mix and a gamble at the same time to see if the upgrade renovation will work," he added.
A waitress at Za, 23-year-old Juliana Abessole, who comes to work from the suburbs on an RER suburban train and used to hang out in Les Halles, said that the literary cafe attracts a completely different profile of person to the mall than she's used to seeing.
"When you work in the suburbs you won't see the same people as here. The people are classier, and have another standard of living than us," she said.
"In the suburbs, we have another language."
Thomas Adamson can be reached at: http://twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP