After just a few hours’ exposure to the city’s urban bustle — so very up-to-the-minute yet so very tied to the past — it all came back to me. As I navigated the narrow, ancient streets of the Left Bank and the grand boulevards of the Right Bank, and watched the Seine shimmering between them, I mentally played a game of “these are a few of my favorite things.” I noticed the elegant gray stone buildings with their wrought iron railings; the charm of the sidewalk cafes, where you can often tell a waiter’s length of service by the length of his apron; and that pervasive aesthetic sense that makes a work of art out of every shop window from the optician to the pastry maker to the fashion designer.
And the food! Devotion to the arts of the table is part of the French character. Their reverence for craftsmanship and tradition makes it possible for cheese makers to produce and sell literally hundreds of regional varieties, for bakers to remain faithful to labor-intensive formulas for buttery croissants and long, crusty baguettes.
Freshness and flavor typically win out over convenience, and open-air markets thrive despite their lack of parking and exposure to all kinds of weather. The French still have an intimacy with their food sources that can make the butcher-shop window seem exotic to an American tourist; some game birds are displayed with feathered heads and feet intact
Restaurants of all kinds beckon: sidewalk cafes; bistros, with their casual often homey fare; brasseries, inspired by the brew pubs of Alsace; salons de thé, or tearooms, specializing in tea (or coffee) and sublime sweets and pastry; as well as more formal full-service restaurants of every style and price range.
If you don’t feel the need to dine on the premises, there are all sorts of specialty shops offering culinary riches: fromageries, or cheese shops; boulangeries, or bakers, who sell fresh bread; patisseries , or pastry shops, full of precisely elegant sweets; charcuteries, loosely translated as delis, whose mission is cooked meat in the form of sausage, ham, salami and pâté; chocolatiers, or chocolate shops, full of tempting confections, often freshly made on the premises.
For the tourist, Paris imposes a twist on the old lament: so much to eat, so little time. On this trip, I indulged in a journey of culinary nostalgia. My traveling companion was in Paris for the first time, and he didn’t seem to mind that we did not seek out the new, but revisited some old favorites.
Our night flight from New York arrived in Paris just in time for breakfast, so after checking into our hotel, we headed for a café. Despite the nip in the air, we sat outside, sipping our café au lait — strong coffee with steamed milk — and nibbling our croissants and buttered baguettes, watching what seemed like the entire world pass by. The tab for this entertainment wasn’t cheap. We paid 45 francs, or about $7 a person. In French cafés, however, you pay for real estate; you can sit as long as you wish. If you’re in a hurry and don’t mind standing, a coffee at the bar is generally less expensive.
For the rest of the day as we explored on foot, street food was on the menu: spicy pork hot dogs on baguettes, with hot mustard; les sandwiches; tuna or ham or salami on oversized slices of crusty white bread called pain de mie, cut on a diagonal; and a giant hunk of pastry filled with praline cream.
Comedy, Not Quite Stand-up Style
Dinner that night was an exercise in nostalgia for me. We dined at Meaulnes, at 13, rue Git le Cour, one of my old favorites. I’ve never seen this place listed in a guidebook, but it offers the tourist a unique combination of good food and a chance to mix a bit with the Parisians and others who dine there. Tables casually piled with books, magazines and antique postcards give the place a bookish feel that is appropriate to its location near the Latin Quarter–the area dominated by Paris’s most famous university, the Sorbonne. (It’s called the Latin Quarter because students of long ago did their lessons in Latin.)
But the atmosphere at Meaulnes is far from serious. Midway through the evening, Charbit pulls up a chair in the center of the small dining room and tells jokes. He enlists someone in the audience to translate into English for the inevitable traveler who doesn’t speak French, and laughter ripples through the room as his “stories,” as he calls them, are told in French and English in turn. Charbit says he took up the custom several years ago, when a happy table of guests began telling jokes so loudly that the whole room could hear them. Because everyone seemed to enjoy the merriment, he continued the practice himself.
Charbit himself takes your order, carefully translating each dish on the menu for those who need it. We dined on salmon Normande , prepared in the style of Normandy, in a sauce of cream and mushrooms simmered with white wine, and an equally rich chicken rissolé, or chicken browned with a sauce of cream, mushrooms, wine and potatoes. Both were accompanied by eggplant gratin and peas in tomato sauce. We ordered the prix fixe menu, which included a sampling of salads and dessert — sweet, sinful caramelized figs with vanilla ice cream, and a buttery apple tart. We left sated and chuckling over Charbit’s take on the difference between a dollar and a ruble. (A dollar.) And the difference between a Jewish mother and a terrorist. (You can negotiate with a terrorist.)
A Craving for Crepes
The next day, exhausted and a bit jet-lagged, we were late for breakfast and decided to go directly to brunch. We were craving crepes, so we checked out several spots in the neighborhood before settling on the Creperie Saint Germaine at 33, rue Saint-Andre-des Artes. Like most creperies, it served savory buckwheat crepes and sweet sugar crepes. I chose a mushroom combination and my friend opted for ham and Emmenthal cheese. We shared a dessert crepe, sweet and gooey with warm chocolate sauce. It was a good thing we were about embark on a full day of walking.
The Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysée, the Eiffel Tower — we saw them all and more. It was late when we finally headed for dinner at La Coupole, one of the old-time cafes of the Montparnasse district on the city’s bohemian Left Bank. These cafes were gathering places for such artists and writers as Chagall, Léger, Sartre and de Beauvoir, as well as the American expatriates of the 1920s, Hemingway and his cronies.
La Coupole, at 102, Boulevard du Montparnasse, opened in 1927, and what makes it a bit different from the others is the series of columns positioned around the large dining room. These were painted, fresco-style, in the year the brasserie opened, by artists of the Paris School, and in them you can see examples of cubism, fauvism and post-impressionism — the revolutionary art movements of the period.
The place was acquired in 1988 by Jean Paul Bucher, who owns the Brasserie Flo chain, comprised of some 15 brasseries all over France. Many of these are, like La Coupole, landmark restaurants, and Bucher has restored them lovingly.
Parisians seem to love raw bars, and La Coupole has a well-stocked one; its plateau de fruit de mer, or platter of fish and shellfish, is generous. We were looking for something more intriguing, and we found it in a prix fixe menu called Le Menu Quatre Saisons. It included three courses, a bottle of mineral water and a half-bottle of wine from the region of Aix.
At this meal, I ate venison for the first time. I had heard it dismissed as tough and gamy, but this meat was rich and soft as butter, served with a flavorful sauce and a puree of beetroot. My friend chose the filet of dorade à l’ anchoïade, a Mediterranean fish prepared with a zesty sauce flavored with anchovies.
For starters, I had opted for ravioli with scallops in a velvety cream sauce, while my friend had selected the foie gras de canard, or duck liver pâté. Dessert was a luscious tarte tatin, a classic apple tart. We spent the meal happily sampling from each other’s plates.
The Absolutely Best Ice Cream
We devoted the next day to the Louvre, and after seven (yes, seven) hours, stopping only for a restorative Coke, we still hadn’t seen the whole thing. We hobbled out of the museum, overwhelmed by our visit with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and I.M. Pei. Surely it was time for some refreshment, but I suggested that we pass up the inviting cafés of the Right Bank, and instead, take the Metro (the subway) to Paris’s two famous islands in the Seine, where we could explore and indulge in one of the city’s favorite treats.
We surfaced on the larger Isle de la Cité, home to the imposing Notre Dame Cathedral. After admiring its flying buttresses and gargoyles, we crossed the bridge to Isle Saint Louis, the smaller, quieter island that affords some of the loveliest views of the city. But at that point, the view was not what I had in mind. I wanted ice cream, specifically ice cream from Berthillon, at 31, rue Saint-Louis-en-I’lle, an establishment known for its more than 60 sublime flavors. In summer, the line extends down the street — and even in cold weather, it can be crowded. With good reason. The intensely flavored wares — from tangy passion fruit to rich chocolate — are some of the best you’ll ever taste. Ever. We each ordered double cones and licked and slurped our way through the quiet streets of the island.
Dinner with the Ghosts of Poets and Writers Past
By the time we had circled the islands and crossed back to the Left Bank, we decided we were ready for a real dinner. My friend wanted to get a look at the Sorbonne, so we figured we’d find someplace to eat in the heart of the Latin Quarter. As we made our way through the serpentine streets, “someplace” turned out to be Polidor, at 41, rue Monsieur-le-Prince. Old enough to make La Coupole look like an infant, Polidor opened in 1845, when the era of restaurants was still dawning. (Restaurants emerged after the French Revolution of 1789, when the chefs to the aristocracy found themselves in need of other employment.)
Polidor began as a cremerie and later added a restaurant. Over the decades, it has served writers such as Rimbaud and Verlaine, Valery (who came so often he had his own napkin drawer) Gide, Joyce, Hemingway and Kerouac. Today, still decorated with lace curtains, brass and antique fixtures, it attracts a mix of university types, artists and businesspeople, all sitting shoulder to shoulder at long common tables.
We were hungry by the time we arrived, and Polidor’s self-described cuisine familiale –family-style cuisine — was just what we needed.
My friend ordered oeufs dur mayonnaise , hard-boiled eggs with fresh mayonnaise. Salmonella isn’t as prevalent in France as it is here, and the French still make liberal use of fresh mayonnaise made of raw eggs. There’s nothing like it.
I ordered the assiette de crudités , a plate of raw veggies in vinaigrette. Each restaurant has its own version of this dish, and at Polidor it includes shredded carrots and diced beets in vinaigrette, celeri remoulade (chopped celery root in mustard mayonnaise) and tomatoes. Again, we ate happily from each other’s plates, agreeing that the two dishes together made a perfect light meal.
That, however, was not our goal. After a long day, we were ravenous. My friend ordered the beouf bourguignon, a hearty dish of beef cooked with mushrooms, onions and red wine. I ordered confit de canard, cooked duck that has been preserved in its own fat. The house red wine was a perfect accent.
A Picnic Fit for a King
The following day, we planned an excursion out of town to Versailles, to see the fabled palace of the French kings, barely an hour out of Paris on the commuter rail line. To prepare for our journey, we visited the open-air market near our hotel, the Marché Rue de Seine/Rue de Buci. The markets of Paris are so enticing that you wish you had access to a kitchen; the next best thing is a picnic. We chose several cheeses from the fromagerie and a crusty baguette from one of several boulangeries. In the supermarket on the same street, we bought a knife, several kinds of ham and salami and a big bottle of Coke.
We brunched on the train, wondering all the while if a conductor would come and scold us. Then, in Versailles, after touring the palace, we went out to investigate the grounds, imagining how they looked in the days of the Sun King. Today, this is a popular picnic spot for French families. We pulled the remains of our brunch from our knapsacks and ate a late lunch before heading back to the city.
As evening fell, we picked up our bags from the hotel and headed to the station to catch our night train to points south. I had booked us a sleeping compartment, and to my glee, it looked just like the one in the movies. We were settling in, when a knock came on the door. It was our steward. Would we care for a light meal?
But of course, we answered. Would he bring a menu?
Where To Stay
Everybody who travels to Paris falls in love with a neighborhood or two. I always stay on the Left Bank, in a sector of the 6th arrondissement (Paris is divided into 18 arrondissements, or districts) between the Seine and the Boulevard Saint Germaine de Pres near the Carrefour de l’Odeon. This neighborhood bustles night and day with a collection of bookstores, art galleries, chic clothing stores, movie houses, restaurants, cafes and an open-air market.
Wherever you stay, it’s a good idea to consult a good travel guide for an explanation of how French hotels are classified by the government according to the amenities they offer. One rule of thumb for booking a moderately priced room: find out if the bathroom is in the room or down the hall. If you have a preference for shower or bath, ask about that too; some rooms have one or the other, but many hotels have a variety of combinations to choose from.
Here are two hotels in the neighborhood that are moderate in price but not in charm. Both have friendly staffs who speak good English and all the necessary amenities.
Grand Hotel de l’Univers
6, rue Gregoire-de-Tours.
66 rue de Seine