This is Paris and it is raining, which is as it should be. Paris rain is not as the rain of other cities. It is softer, benevolent. It caresses, rather than soaks.
Perhaps the main reason I come to Paris is because of the food. Not that I am a true gourmet. More a gourmand. It is perfectly possible to spend an arm and a leg on food in Paris. I am still in a state of shock after paying $17.50 for a single glass of beer. Granted, I was sitting on the pavement on the Champs Elysees and granted, I could have sat there all day. But I am still in shock. Normally I steer well away from such high-priced nonsense.
When you go to Paris – and you should go at least once in a lifetime – make your own discoveries. I am assured it is possible to get a bad meal in Paris. It simply has never happened to me. At the following restaurants you will only get great meals.
First and foremost, La Crémerie Polidor. If it was good enough for Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Andre Gide, Jack Kerouac, Paul Verlaine and Paul Valery, it is good enough for me. For lunch yesterday I had the plat du jour, which was cassoulet in the classic style. It cost $10.
This restaurant has never heard of nouvelle cuisine. Its style of cooking is still firmly embedded in the twenties. (In fact, it opened 20 years earlier.) As are its decor and standard of service. And the fact that it does not accept credit cards.
With my meal I had a pichet, a small jug, which is about a third of a bottle of Chateau Magondeau, a Merlot, which has won a Medaille Concours Agricole and is generally well spoken of. A full bottle would have been silly, but a pichet at $10 was just right. This system of serving excellent wines in less than bottle quantities is splendidi. In most restaurants you can have a carafe of house wine, which normally will be singularly nasty and probably will have come from Algeria or Morocco and be chemically treated. Sometimes you can detect that someone are the grapes first. You can drink it at a pinch. But you have to be desperate.
A step up from that is réserve maison, or réserve du patron. This is much better and very drinkable. At the top in quality and price are the wines which qualify for the title vin delimité de qualité supérieur (VDQS), or appellation d’origine controlée (AOC). These can be truly splendid wines, but can be pricey and a bottle much too much to drink for one person.
Some restaurants serve great wines by the glass or small jug and the good ones get the Coupe de Meilleur Pot, which is a much-coveted award. This means that you can sample the grand wines of France – and grand wines, indeed, they are – without doing dire damage to either your wallet or your liver.
The best places to experience this superior plonk by the glass are in bars run by the Ecluse chain which keeps expanding. Originally there was one Now, I think, there are five bars. On offer are Bordeaux wines by the glass, some of them grand cru. These bars also have, beyond argument, the best chocolate.
Back to Polidor for the moment. The ideal time to go there is around 1.30, when the first mad rush is over, but the atmosphere is still there. They don’t accept telephone bookings.
To get to it, take the Métro to Odeon on Boulevard St Germain de Près and walk through Carrefour Odeon and then up Rue Monsieur le Prince to number 41. It is not a flashy frontage and easy to miss. The unisex toilets are very probably a historic monument.
After eating a literary lunch, go back down to St Germain de Près and turn left. You will shortly come to three great Paris institutions: Aux Deux Magots, the Café Floré and Brasserie Lipp. It was at Aux Deux Magots in 1964 and 1965 Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir held literary court.
You can have a glass of wine or a tea, typically with lemon, or a coffee and huddle over it for hours without disturbing the waiters of Aux Deux Magots, who have seen it all.
Always and ever you will see some tables occupied by Parisian lovers. They lean forward over the table with their spines concave, their buttocks jutting and their legs intertwined under the tables. Looks damned uncomfortable, but they do it by the hour. In Aux Deux Magots there was a dark-haired couple – both handsome – who were seemingly frozen eternally in this posture of adoration.
If you are on a tight budget, there are many restaurants which serve better than acceptable food at ludicrously low prices.
One example is Chartier, in Montmartre, which is at 7 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre. Take the Métro to Montmartre, come out into Rue Montmartre and take the first turning on your left.
This is an immense restaurant, which looks like a set designer’s idea of a waiting room for the Orient Express – always crowded, always noisy. In the old French tradition, the waiter writes your order on the paper table-cloth. At dinner for two, one had fish soup (great), the other fresh shrimps (likewise), followed by veal (better than good) and shashlik (dreadful). To go with this, a bottle of Côtes de Provence rosé and some cheese to follow.
Total price 28 euros, under $40.
If you are on a very tight budget the answer is to picnic.
Start off with a loaf of bread. These are called baguettes, cost three francs each, and were the glory of France. Sadly, they have in recent years deteriorated because the bakers do not like working through the night to make fresh batches. So they make them the day before and deep freeze them. Another black mark to progress. Baguettes, nevertheless, are still better than any other bread.
To buy it, head for a boulangerie. Easy to find – they are everywhere and emit a glorious smell of warm bread. If you want the best baguettes, head for the shop with the biggest queues, Parisians know their bread.
Nearby will be a charcuterie – food shops in Paris come in clumps – where you can buy pâte, quiche, ham, saucissons (sausages) in all varieties, especially the dried, smaller kind. They will slice up the sausages for you. Many charcuteries also sell hot take-away dishes in plastic containers although I tend to avoid these as being too messy.
An example: for lunch in a charcuterie in the Rue du Faubourg du Temple I bought a portion of feuillette de jambon; a portion of museau de porc vinaigrette; some potato salad and a portion of salade Chinoise. There was enough there to feed me until I was full to groaning and yet it only cost a few euros.
Now, if you are a greater glutton than I, nip into the fromagerie, which will be somewhere on the same block, and experiment with cheeses you have never tried before. If you are quite open with the shopkeeper and confess ignorance you will sometimes find a selection of small portions being made up for you as a sampling kit.
Lastly, the wine. Treat yourself to a bottle with a cork in it. Again, tell the wine merchant the type of wine you want and that you are learning about French wines and you are poor. You will be pleasantly surprised at the friendly advice and assistance you will be given.
Where to eat your picnic? On a recent trip I ate my picnic meals in the little park at the Pont Neuf end of the Île de la Cité. Behind me, the Gothic wonders of Notre Dame. In front of me, the Seine.
I ate like a king in solitary splendor. I was alone, but I was not lonely, I had all of Paris around me.