At Justine's, childhood friends Olivier Calmant and Pierre Pelegrin treat the bistro as their home. "It’s pretty much our living room" Calmant told Eater. "We did the same shit when we lived together in France 30 years ago. We think of it as a place where there’s music, and then we serve booze, and then we serve food."
Calmant is the bar manager at the restaurant co-owned by Pelegrin, and the true foundation of Justine's is their massive 3,000+ record collection, which they started as children back in the suburbs of Paris. The records live behind the bar, in the back of the restaurant, as well as in the duo’s respective homes. Calmant talks with Eater about creating a massive record collection, the musical progression of a night at Justine’s, and that one time he drove alongside the Ramones.
How did the record collection start?
People ask me, ‘Why did you open Justine’s?’ Because we wanted to listen to music. So to do that, we have to serve booze and food. It’s the equation. From day one, this is going to have to be vinyl, because we’ve never stopped listening to our vinyls. We brought them from France. We grew up in the suburbs of Paris, so we would go take the subway to go USA Records, and dig for hours, and then come back with a pile of 40 vinyls. Some of them, we had no idea who they were, we just read about it or the cover looked good.
What are your go-to records?
Depending on the mood. It’s funny because it works every time: Sometimes there’s a dip in the night, and I put Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall on, and everybody’s like [he snaps] "Oh! Okay!" That’s the one to wake up everybody.
What defines the musical atmosphere at Justine’s?
Usually blues, because we love blues. When I say blues, it’s more like rhythm and blues, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s R&B. I like people who come in and go, "We never hear anything like that anywhere else." We like to dig.
What is the musical progression of a Justine’s night?
We have three crowds. We open at six and sometimes, we have 40 people waiting outside because it’s such a small space. Usually it’s people that are not from the east side, they drive from Westlake or further out. I put on jazz a lot, blues, and then some foreign music. Then around nine o’clock, it just gets a little louder somehow. Then I play funk music, New Orleans, and some rock and roll. We start playing the Stones and stuff like that. Then comes eleven o’clock, we get more rock and roll, some punk rock. Once in a while, there’s a song we really like so we put it louder.
Do you play records all the way through or pick and choose songs?
The rule is you play at least one side. Never cut the record in the middle of the side. I think it’s good because if you love the artist, then it’s enough to hear it, and if you’re not really crazy about it, it’s not going to last for two hours.
Do you play customer requests?
It depends. Usually we don’t, because that’s the only reason why we work here, is to play our music. Don’t take away my fun. It depends on the request. Somebody asked "Do you have some Lynyrd Skynyrd?" No. If somebody requests something really odd, I’d be like, "Oh yeah, hold on."
Do you geek out over music with people?
Oh yeah. Some people are knowledgeable, but they don’t really care. There was some guy, he asked me for a record. I put it on, and the whole time, he’s talking. I was like, "Do you want to talk about it or listen to it? I’m all about listening to it. but you’re not listening to it."
What’s your best musical experience?
We went to see the Ramones in ‘86, and they played at a club called the Back Room back then, it’s now Emo’s. I was super excited, standing right in front of them, they were smoked up, and they were all alive, it was the original line-up. It was amazing.
I had to leave at four thirty in the morning to go to Houston to deliver some classic cars. There’s not a car on the highway. Then, all of a sudden, we pass this limousine. I’m driving a 1959 Cadillac with big fins. I see a window go down, and it’s Joey Ramone. He’s like, "Cool car."
Do bands perform in Justine’s?
When we opened this place, we said we’re going to do exactly what we want to do. People ask, "Can we play at your place?" We’re like, "No, actually, it’s not really a live music venue. It’s when we feel like it, we’ll do it." We had this show with Omar Souleyman. Pierre called me and said "I want to bring him." So he called the manager and we brought him here.
What’s the perfect drink for listening to records?
Me, it’s mezcal or tequila. I think tequila is great, it gives you energy. Then there’s the French 75 would be the best. It’s bubbly and fresh, like lemonade.