If you’re anything like me, your ideal evening in St Tropez will be a calm affair. It will involve an aperitif in one of the bars on the port – for form’s sake – followed by dinner in an unfashionable restaurant in the small village streets behind. This should ensure the absence of DJs, cacophony and Naomi Campbell.
It will continue with a moon-lit stroll out towards the quieter Graniers and Canebiers beaches before a tranquil last drink, perhaps on the terrace of La Ponche hotel.
Then again, if you’re in St Tropez by night, there’s a good chance that you’re not anything like me at all. You will want the works – lights, electro-beat, drinks you really can’t afford and the chance of spotting someone truly famous (it’s generally Bono) at 4am on the dance floor. You will, in short, want the tingling summer sensation that you’re absolutely where it’s at.
Here’s my selection of such places. Two points: I’ve tried to be as objective as possible, relying not only on my own judgement but casting the net wider, among people who really like such establishments. And secondly, nightlife in St Tropez (and elsewhere in France) means bumping into the English words “before” and “after”.
This is simply explained. “Un bar before” (or just “un before”) is where you go prior to bopping off to a proper night-club. It fills in the hours between dinner and midnight – the earliest possible hour of arrival at a club. Showing up at 2am is much cooler.
And “un bar after” (“un after”) is the – usually calmer - place you repair to after leaving the night-club, for a final drink, a final dance or even an early breakfast.
Les Caves du Roy
(Byblos Hotel, Avenue Paul Signac; +33 494 566800, www.byblos.com)
Others may make counter-claims but les Caves – within Le Byblos - remains the star of St Tropez nights, as it has been for 40 years. You can tell that by the queue to get in (50 yards or more), the price of drinks and the fact that, if you do get in, you might be boogying next to Beyoncé or Clooney. There’s no doubt that people you’ve heard of gravitate here eventually.
What they get is a place which walks a fine line between trash ‘n’ kitsch (electric palm trees!), flashing high-coloured oriental glitz and mega-bucks washed away on the turn of a shapely ankle. Recent renewal – the first since the 1970s - has lightened some of the excesses but it remains boisterously OTT. And DJ Jack-E still looks as hip as a coal-shed.
But people go because people go (like all such successful places, it’s a self-sustaining little bubble) and pray that the doormen will let them in. It helps if you look good and behave reasonably while waiting in line. If you’re already plastered, forget it. Qualify, and entry is free – though drinks prices start at around €30. In these surroundings, though, that’s doing it on the cheap. If you want to fit in, then think some €700 for a bottle of house champagne.
And, if you truly want to impress the girls dancing on the tables, well, there’s always the presentation case containing a salmanazar (12 bottles-equivalent) of Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque champagne, plus jewellery from Van Cleef & Arpels. It costs €100,000.
Spending the price of a house on a (big) round of drinks doesn’t seem that outrageous when the blood is up, the beat strong and bilionaires abundant. Even if you spend only a fraction of that, you’ll still be broke – but you’ll also be able to say that you were there ... at the most famous, prestigious night club in Europe.
(Résidence du Port; +33 494 971470; www.viproom.fr)
Jean Roch’s place is the second of St Tropez’s big three nightspots and, quite honestly, looks a bit more sophisticated and less wacky than Les Caves. In place of encroaching kitsch, it’s predominantly white on walls and banquettes – though the great chandelier over the dance floor adds what someone called “a trippily baroque touch”. You’ll know what that means, of course.
In the early evening, this - the sister establishment to the Parisian VIP Rooms - starts as a restaurant with Med cuisine and cool mood music. Then it segues into club-life (‘The St Tropez Clubbing Republic’ is one of its tags), with electro-bopping activity concentrated upstairs on the big mezzanine, amid walls of light. You might find yourself bumping into Giorgio Armani or Karl Lagerfeld – both seen here recently – so could perhaps order a new suit or two.
Entry is free, but almost as difficult as at Les Caves, and you won’t be drinking much here, unless you have a fortune similar to that of VIP owner Roch (who doesn’t actually drink at all). Or unless you’re as lucky as 400 clubbers were one night last year ... when an unnamed billionaire suddenly bought bottles of champagne for everyone. “That’s better than spraying it around,” says Roch – who bans such wasteful practices, anyway. The VIP is, as someone put it, “less manufactured” than the other headliners. If you’re new to top-end, all-night, very expensive clubbing, this may be the place to start. If you can get in.
(Passage du Port; +33 494 970756; www.papagayo-club.net)
According to some regulars of the St Tropez headline hotspots, the Papagayo is the “most unbridled” of the three. I didn’t notice this. Then again, I go just to look around and leave, rather than immerse myself in excess inappropriate to my age. None of the places looked terribly bridled to me – but I’ll of course take the regulars’ word for it.
Strangely for a world-famous night-club, the Papagayo opens at 9am ... as a bar/lounge for breakfasts and coffee. A damned good place it is, too, with one of St Tropez’s loveliest terraces looking across the port. It continues in this mode through lunch and the afternoon and onto dinner. Then, around midnight, the high energy kicks in – as it has done for the last 40 years – and if you’re hoping for a quiet post-prandial cognac, you’re in the wrong place.
If, on the other hand, it’s important for you to see P. Diddy, you may be lucky. He celebrated a recent birthday – among the sofas, long tables, buzzing bright whiteness, a pressing squeeze of babes and strobe lighting on the futuristic first-floor dance floor. Someone summed up the Papagayo as “illicit behaviour and dirty deeds” and you don’t get much cooler than that.
And – a nice touch – the restaurant re-opens around 4am, so folk drained by the furious activity might find renewed sustenance.
(5 Rue Sibille; +33 494 971612)
Slotted away on a small street behind the port, here’s a slightly less high-octane spot which looks as if it’s arrived, untrammelled, from the 1970s. (In case you’re wondering, that’s a compliment.) Open from 7pm, it offers simple Med food and a music-bar atmosphere that gets more raucous as the evening progresses. Expect themed evenings, live music on Sundays and some particularly attractive and terribly under-dressed go-go dancers.
And expect them any time; Chez Maggy is one of the few establishments open all year round.
The place shuts at three am, categorising it as “un before”. In other words, you still have time to make it to one of the flashier spots, which shut at 5am. But, after a few lively hours here, you might find that your mojo has been entirely worn out.
(Place de la Garonne; +33 494 972256)
Even the wildest party animal occasionally requires a slightly quieter night – and that’s when you go to the Octave. Here, in what is essentially a sophisticated piano bar, you can generally chat without bellowing too hard over any disco beat. You might sip a cocktail on the comfy banquettes in the low-lit interior – or move out to the terrace.
Of course, things can get a little more exciting. Visiting pop stars occasionally get up and play an impromptu set. Liza Minelli was so happy at the Octave that she did just that. And dancing on tables is not unknown – especially in the early hours of the morning. But the general ambience is, for St Tropez, rather laid-back. And if that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.
Bar du Port
(7 Quai Suffren; +33 494 970054; www.barduport.com)
Here’s a hi-tech spot bang on the port and re-furbished in 2008 to “keep in the St Tropez vibe”, as my younger acquaintances say. That means many mirrors, a simplified space, much white and the now-expected wall lights piloted by a computer. They’ve also added a proper DJ cabin and perhaps the funkiest toilets in France. Taps are tubes descending from the ceiling. Turn them on and wall panels light up with silhouettes of human figures. It’s all quite a surprise.
As other port-side establishments, the bar opens early in the morning – either for breakfast or for the very last coffee of the night – and changes atmosphere as the day wears on. Views over the soccer pitch-sized yachts from the terrace will have you dreaming of unattainable riches. The place shuts at 2.30am, so qualifies as “un before”. St Tropez’s golden youth trips off to the all-night establishments. The golden not-so-youthful might feel that, by half-past two, they’ve fulfilled their contract with glamorous nightlife.
(1 Quai de l’Epi; +33 611 957643; www.tsar-st-tropez.com)
From a cool terrace by the port, Le Tsar flows inside to a bar-lounge which, with its Chesterfield-style armchairs and all, looks a little like a country house salon under the influence of mind-bending substances. It’s where you go either before or after tempestuous times in the nearby VIP Room.
You also mind your manners: the big guy by the bar may indeed be Mike Tyson. Regular Russian nights pull in some of the Moscow big-spenders and, more bewitchingly, their lady friends. You probably won’t get a table – the place isn’t huge – but it’s worth a try. Few St Tropez bars have a more interesting clientele.