As sweetly tuned as Chuck Berry's cherry-red '53, this quite marvellous rock 'n' roll bar is the pick of the bunch on rue Jean-Pierre-Timbaud. Not that the owners have fitted it with Americana or waitresses on rollerskates; the L'il Garage is as basic as the real car-fit business a few doors down the road. Stuffing bursts out of the bar stools and skip-salvage chairs accompany wobbly tables of ill-matched colours. Regulars cluster around the twin decks at the bar, while music-savvy Frenchettes giggle and gossip at the back.
The bar contained within this beautifully restored belle époque building sparked the Oberkampf nightlife boom. Its booths, mirrors and adventurous music policy put trendy locals at ease, capturing the essence of café culture spanning each end of the 20th century. After more than 15 years, the formula still works - and is copied by nearby bars.
Opposite the landmark Charbon the spacious Mercerie has cleaned up its act: after years of full-on grunge it has succumbed to the draw of shabby chic - or, to put it another way, a fashionable level of dishevelment. This was probably wise, as the novelty of sticky tables was beginning to wear thin, and the move has been appreciated by the party freaks who still cross town for its loud, eclectic music, live DJ programme, and cheapo happy hour (7pm to 9pm), when you can cane the house vodkas in flavours such as apricot, mango and honey. The back area, with its tea lights, provides intimacy if that's where your evening's headed.
Unlike some places that eschew good food for alcohol and a funky interior, colourful Ave Maria scores highly for all three. The kitsch interior is decked out in a canopy of chinoiserie parasols and a vast collection of Hindu gods. Music, a combination of reggae, funk, soul and dub, is cool but unobtrusive. Strangers sharing wooden benches devour exotic dishes from the Brazilian-inspired menu, which combines meat, spices, lentils, rice and fruit. Cocktails are equally quirky and start at just €4.50.
Far enough (five minutes) from rue Oberkampf to feel off the beaten track, the Gutter is not out-and-out libertine, but you're on the right lines. Certainly, a come-what-may approach to music, drinking and eye contact abounds in the crowded venue. Decor, assuming you can see it, consists of a few LP covers and the kind of colour scheme often put to good use in adventure playgrounds. Reasonably priced lunches (food is a French and North African mix), the occasional live band, chess and card games complete the picture.
The 'Grocery Store' is rue Jean-Pierre-Timbaud's answer to La Mercerie: a big old space filled with junk. Cupboards of kitsch china and lampshades made from kitchen sponges are an inspired touch. The beer is equally well chosen - Flag, Sagres, Picon and Orval by the bottle - and the unusual €8 house cocktail involves basil and figs. DJs rock the joint: expect a €5 cover price for big names or live bands (including open-mic nights). Oh yes - and it has the most brazen toilet walls this side of town.