Four Food Vignettes from My Life in Paris

I lived in Paris for several years in the 1970s. Things were cheaper then, five francs to the dollar, but gourmet dining in fine restaurants still was $$$ and out of my reach. I usually ate at North African restaurants, or enjoyed the humble, bland faire at the Cité Universitaire. I nevertheless had vicarious methods of enjoying la haute cuisine Française.

I once read an article about food writer Craig Claiborn winning a sweepstakes. The grand prize was $4000 to dine with one guest at any restaurant in the world. The restaurant chosen was Chez Denis, in the upper-crust right bank area, not far from the Champs-Elysées,,20065872,00.html

I remembered this article so when I had to move out of a friend’s flat where I’d been crashing on the couch, I moved into the Hotel Flaubert, right across the street from Chez Denis both because its proximity as well as the fact that I loved reading Flaubert. From my room I could see the fortunate ones going in and out of the place. One day I went in and they let me see the day’s menu—all hand-written. Even better, I got to go down to the cave à vin to see the 1850 madeiras and haut-brions and margaux, some of them going back to the 19th century.

Another vignette: my father had a Stanford University chum who’d set up a law practice in the posh area of Île St. Louis. I was a student living in Paris and normally eating at low-end restaurants; gros sandwichs tunisiens, couscous mouton. The only place on the Île St. Louis I could afford was the famous ice cream place, and even that stretched my wallet. So my father’s attorney friend took me along with his family to a nearby high-end restaurant on the famous island, just across from the flying buttresses that shore up the hind quarters of the Notre Dame cathedral.
At this small restaurant I gorged myself and drank great wine. I’d never eaten French food so good. I couldn’t finish my dinner. So I asked the garçon for a doggie bag: “un petit sac pour le chien, s’il vous plait?”. The waiter stiffened and said tautly, “ça ne se fait pas ici, monsieur”. (This isn’t done here). So much for my very American ways. That was many years ago. Now you can request a doggie bag.

My friends Dick Hall and his wife Michelle invited me over for dinner at their 6th arrondissement flat.  Michelle had just received an important parcel from her mom, who lived in Toulon.  She unwrapped the package and in it were 4 small birds.  They turned out to be ortolans, the rare delicacy eaten by French kings and presidents on special occasions and at their last meal.  Dick sliced the head off one of the small creatures and sucked the brains out.  I was disgusted.  They offered to make me, the American, a hamburger.  When I tasted it, it was very strong.  I asked about it and they told me, “Tom, c’est cheval”.  Horsemeat.   I politely excused myself and went out and got a Wimpy Burger.  McDonald’s had yet to invade France.

Another day, I committed a stupid blunder. I was again near the Champs-Elysées, and wanted to find a famous restaurant called Lasserre. There were two flics nearby, a portly one and a skinny one; they looked like Laurel and Hardy. Like an idiot I asked the thin man where Lasserre was…..he scratched his head. “ouais, c’est tout près d’ici” it’s nearby. But he couldn’t say just where. Then the big guy stepped in, knowing exactly where the famous restaurant was and how to get there. He was the gourmand and knew.

Final vignette: Five years later, when I had left the Ph.D program at UCLA and returned to Paris, I found a job teaching American-style English at a French school. My friend Stacie Widdifield, a friend from UCLA, was in Paris too. Her well-to-do grandmother was visiting Paris from her New Canaan, Connecticut home. She had made reservations at a great right-bank restaurant. The only problem was that the reservation was for 6:30 p.m. We arrived to an empty restaurant, puzzled waiters and a few scornful looks (“dumb Americans”) . It’s not nearly as bad as Spain or Argentina, where you arrive at the main course around midnight. But still, if you plan on fine dining in Paris, do not ever make a reservation before 8 p.m.


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  1. Mary Said...

    I lived in Paris in 1975-76, and I remember a hippy-style health food restaurant. I think “Mama” may have been in the name, and it may have been in or near le Marais. Do you remember it? It stood out because it was so not Parisian.

    • tom Said...

      i remember missing mexican food and i actually was forced to make a mexican combo plate for friends….not so great. also the mention of “health food” always brought snickers from the French… was only health food in the US because there was so much junk food…..French food is local and healthy….don’t need health food…but now things have changed, McDonalds and Pizza Hut have invaded, so maybe health food restaurants are needed!!!