Sunday, July 20, 2008
Eating in Paris
Macarons at Ladurée, Rue Royale
Even on our very first visit to Paris, almost twenty years ago, with four kids in tow, we managed to enjoy some of the wonderful food available, although for the sake of the budget we focussed more on the great sandwiches available, dividing those marvels of baguettes split and stuffed with Niçoise or picking up a roast chicken, some baguettes, and some cheese to eat picnic-style in a park.
The following year, Paul and I went back on our own for a ten-day walking tour in the Auvergne and then he left me on my own for another ten days. I had loved our time in France as a family the year before, but had become very aware of my twenty-year old, pre-marriage, pre-children self, sitting on a shelf somewhere, daydreaming about travel, and had decided to resurrect her. I was terrified when I kissed Paul good-bye at the airport and headed to the train station to head south to Aix, but exhilirated as well. Luckily I had enough decent French to express myself if people were patient -- and they generally were -- and I managed quite well. Travelling alone, I met people more easily and got into conversation at one point with some young Americans, travelling through France on their honeymoon. They claimed that they were living on bread and ice cream (well, love too, I bet!) because they didn't know how to order food in a restaurant. I couldn't believe anyone would forego such an important pleasure for such a goofy reason -- personally, I think I would simply have pointed at any yummy-looking dish being delivered to a nearby table and indicated through sign language that I'd have that too.
I also met an interesting American woman who arranged to meet me in Paris (we first met on the train in the Dordogne, I think) so that she could have company for dinner (although I must admit I may have been a bit naïve -- there were some indications she may have had other hopes as well). As a single woman, she hadn't felt comfortable going into restaurants on her own. I've long felt perfectly fine doing this although I used to need a book as cover. My stay in Aix changed that for me: eating outside at tables where the chairs faced out to enable diners to enjoy the parade of passers-by, I revelled in the anonymity and realized that, short of staring rudely, I could enjoy looking at my surroundings as I ate. It's a gift I've appreciated ever since, and I still occasionally think of that experience when I get shown to a table on my own.
But the last four visits to Paris I've shared with Paterfamilias and although we have never experienced the culinary heights of a Michelin-starred restaurant, we've enjoyed a range of eating in the City of Light. The first two springs I had a little list -- mainly gleaned from some of the Paris blogs, David Lebowitz's especially (and I even spotted him at one of his recommended places -- he was leading a small tour and was very tolerant of my celebrity-spotting behaviour), but also Clotilde's, and even Eric over at Paris Daily Photo will occasionally mention a restaurant he favours. Somedays we would make a particular eating spot our walking destination for the day -- we once headed all the way out past the Bastille into a rather unlikely neighbourhood for tourists, to eat some beautifully simple and authentic crêpes with cider in a very homey little place where the server was clearly bemused to have tourists stop by; sometimes I'd just have the list with me to see what might be within striking distance of the morning's art gallery or museum or shopping. More often than not, we would find ourselves surrounded by French speakers, with servers switching into (limited) English for us, even offering English menus occasionally, although quite happy to stay in French if we made it clear that we preferred that.
To charges that Parisian restaurant service is rude, we would counter that it's sometimes curt in the interest of efficiency, but we've never experienced rudeness. Since waiting is considered a worthy career in France and the servers there are paid decently rather than dependent on tips, you will not learn your server's name and he or she doesn't have time to join in your conversation. I consider this a plus, although we have had some lovely chats with restaurant staff through the years, if and when they have a few free moments. In our experience, especially in the cafés and bistros, Parisian waiters tend to have more tables to look after than North American ones, and they haven't time to loiter while you decide what you're going to eat. So if you're not ready, they will nod brusquely and move along, and you may feel rudely dismissed, but your server will return to check on you when he's got a minute and you'll get your food as expeditiously as possible.
Over the past few years, we've built our own little list of places that we try to get back to each visit. Some get dropped -- the service at Angelina's was simply too poor this year so that marvellous hot chocolate is now, sadly, off the list; and some get added -- we serendipitously discovered a perfectly simple little crépe place right near the Luxembourg Gardens, all the other diners French, the price reasonable, the service friendly. If you'd like, I'll tell you about a few of these in my next post.