by Alan J. Shannon
Writing about Paris presents a bit of a challenge. What could I add to countless musings on a city with which Americans have been smitten since founding father Benjamin Franklin first visited in 1776? Of course, food is serious business in France—and in its capital city. But did you know that it's probably easier to encounter bad food in this city that is Mecca for foodies? While Hemingway's Paris, in which soul-stirring fare could be found at any corner bistro, no longer exists, there remains satisfying eating to be done here. Like any major tourist destination, plenty of mediocre—even awful—restaurants pepper the city, particularly in major destination 'hoods like Montmartre and the Latin Quarter. So use a reliable guide or ask friends—don't just walk into any restaurant oozing with movie set décor or Edith Piaf warbling in the background.
During an April family trip to the city of melt-in-your-mouth foie gras, I re-visited some old favorite restaurants and sites and discovered some new ones. And these I can tell you about.
While we Americans tend to think of Europe as never-changing, my visit proved otherwise. My first encounter with the City of Light having occurred nearly 20 years earlier while the Cold War still raged and before Chicago diners discovered the joys of restaurants serving French bistro fare, my most recent visit appeared to have wrought the most changes to a place I'd always pegged as changeless.
For starters, the City of Light has a bohemian/gay/Jewish/yuppie quarter that—when the weather cooperates, anyway—appears as lively as Halsted Street during Market Days. Twenty years ago, the Marais wasn't known for its gay bars, trendy restaurants or interesting shops—it was better known as skid row. In the past decade, though, this Right Bank 'hood has become an interesting Parisian amalgamation with characteristics of our own Wicker Park, Boys Town, and Uptown neighborhoods ( but with condos carved out of restored palaces instead of converted warehouses ) .
A focal point of the Marais is the 18th century Place des Vosges, an archetypal French square surrounded by a weathered brick building that's as picturesque European as it gets ( the perfect spot for Curious George to get into some trouble ) . Victor Hugo once called a townhome overlooking the square his own, and once again, the hip and artsy occupy the condos which now sit atop galleries, restaurants and cafés.
While the Louvre's Pei-designed pyramid entrance is hardly new, it's hard to believe the controversial addition wasn't present 20 years ago. Instead of entering through massive wooden doors on either side of the oldest sections of the colossal art museum, visitors queue up in the courtyard facing the Tuileries Gardens, before descending to the level of the one-time medieval fortress' very foundations.
Thanks to Napoleon and French kings with sticky fingers, the museum possesses a mother lode of masterworks, including a spectacular collection of classical statuary. After hitting the highlights—the unfinished Michelangelo slaves, a few of Da Vinci's master-works, the Venus di Milo, Winged Victory, and that portrait of a smirking Mona-what's-her-name—the endless corridors did a number on my feet.
When I'd viewed enough art to sodden my senses, I stumbled outside, limping a hundred yards or so to Le Café Marly. Overlooking the massive entrance courtyard and tucked within a loggia, the café offers perches from which you can soak up the view. I ordered a quintessentially French aperitif, Lillet Blanc, a flavorful concoction of fruits macerated in brandy and mixed with Bordeaux wines and rested my feet while 'hydrating'.
If the Louvre's mind-numbing collection of masterpieces has gotten you in the mood for something more profane, take in a smaller museum. Set back from Boulevard St. Michel, Musée Cluny, is housed in the ruins of 1st century baths and the 13th century mansion of the abbots of Cluny. With its remarkable collection of medieval art and artifacts, the Cluny offers a humanist's glimpse into the Middle Ages. From hair pins and whimsical grotesques carved on choir stalls, to remains of shoes, an enormous collection offers insights into earlier centuries. Outside, new gardens transformed a once uninspired park into whimsical grounds, complete with fashion-forward Parisians to match the progressive design.
While Paris has evolved, there remain plenty of spots in the city that haven't been transformed. The city's oldest restaurant, A La Petite Chaise ( founded in 1680 ) is just such a place. With a three-course dinner including aperitif and wine running about $60, three cozy rooms and gobs of history, the institution remains a favorite of tourists and locals alike. Just off Boulevard St. Germain, La Petite Chaise sits a short distance from the hotel where Benjamin Franklin and a Brit signed a treaty recognizing the independence of the U.S. In honor of the Treaty of Paris, I quaffed a kir followed by a meal of tasty rabbit in mustard sauce—paired with a Hemingway favorite, a bottle of crisp Sancerre.
In the middle of the Ile de St. Louis sits one of my favorite traditional restaurants, Aux Anysetiers du Roy. With its chef cooking atop a medieval-looking stove overlooking a petite dining room, murals and traditional French bistro fare such as escargots, boeuf bourguignon, foie gras, and fresh fish with beurre blanc, this wee spot has warranted a few visits.
While Jacques Cagnes' La Rôtisserie d'en face, a mid-priced spot tucked down a narrow Latin Quarter lane, offers satisfying eating, we return here for its sublime fondant which oozes with warm, earthy liquid chocolate. Served with a dollop of ice cream sitting in a fragrant puddle of Créme Anglaise heady with the scent of fresh vanilla, the transcendent dessert makes the eight-hour Chicago to Paris flight worthwhile—so my mom asserts.
While on the topic of treats, the city's famous ice cream maker, Berthillon, sells its glace at many establishments, but for the best selection, head to the original shop on Ile de St. Louis which often attracts throngs. While Chicagoans will wait in line to get into Crate & Barrel at Christmas, Parisians wait to get ice cream.
Thanks to a dollar that's worth close to—well, merde—dining out can take a financial toll ( a rather unwelcome change ) . Thankfully, street food, such as crepes ( smeared with Nutella or sprinkled with fresh-squeezed lemon ) found at one of the ubiquitous corner stands, as well as the open-faced, Gruyere-coated toasted ham sandwich known as Croque Monsieur, make for cheap and tasty meals.
Finally, this being the City of Light, no visit is complete without a trip to one of the cafés which pepper the stories of the Lost Generation. My family's fave, Café des Deux Magots, features two Chinese porcelain figures peering over a room that's changed little since Hemingway downed whiskies here. While the storied café may currently appear more the haunt of tourists, there remain local devotees of the joint who come to write, debate, discuss and catch a buzz ( whether from café créme served in small pitchers, or red wine ) below Magi who have stood watch over Simone de Beauvoir, Picasso, Grant Wood and Sartre. And me and my parents.
Le Café Marly, Palais du Louvre, 01.49.26.06.60
A La Petite Chaise, 36 rue de Grenelle, 01.42.22.13.35
La Rôtisserie d'en face, 2 rue Christine, 01.43.26.40.98
Aux Anysetiers du Roy, 61 rue Saint-Louis-en-l'île, 01.56.24.84.58
Maison Berthillon, 31 rue Saint-Louis-en-l'île, 01.43.54.31.61
Les Deux Magots, 6 Place St. Germain des Prés, 01.45.48.55.25