PARIS — It is a question I have come to dread: Can you recommend the perfect bistro?
The reason it’s so hard to give my visiting friends a good answer is that the Paris bistro scene is in full transformation. And the trends are moving in contradictory, and worrisome, directions.
On one hand, there’s a lot of really bad bistro food these days: dishes like onion soup and blanquette de veau that are mass-produced at large industrial sites, shipped to kitchens and reheated just before serving. If you’re not careful, you can end up paying serious money for a meal that was vacuum-packed or frozen just a few hours before.
At the other extreme, there’s “bistronomy,” a movement among mostly younger chefs who are trying to update the tried-and-true classics using fresh, seasonal ingredients. The décor tends to be modern, the presentation pretty, the portions smaller. Some have become so trendy that you have to book several weeks in advance at the un-French early hour of 7:30 for a table that must be vacated two hours later when the next shift arrives.
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None of that for me. Call me old-fashioned, but my idea of the perfect bistro is a place where the dishes are traditional, the ingredients seasonal, the service attentive, the price acceptable and my relationship with the chef close enough that I can visit the kitchen when the meal is over. Julia Child put it best in her posthumous memoir, “My Life in France”: “The kind of food I fell in love with,” she wrote, was “not trendy, souped-up fantasies, just something very good to eat.”
Good bistros are essential to this city and to me. After living here for 12 years, I can report that despite the disturbing changes afoot, the old-style Paris bistro — an unpretentious place that celebrates honest food and wine, a cozy atmosphere and great conversation — is alive and well.
Ideally, this bistro has a zinc-topped bar with a heavy wood frame where I can sit and have a drink before dinner, and an owner who doubles as a magician and can always find a table for his friends (including me and mine).
“I want all my clients to feel like they’re coming to my home for dinner,” said Sébastien Guénard, the owner and chef of Restaurant Miroir, a bistro in Montmartre. “I hate to turn people away. I always keep three or four tables free — just in case friends show up. And if they don’t, well, imagine the pleasure when a stranger walks in on a Friday night with no reservation and I say, ‘Of course I have a table for you!’”
Guénard is so much a part of the neighborhood that he often stands outside before the dinner rush to hang out with the neighbors. This is the place where the postman can leave a package for someone who’s not home and where students at the high school down the street can park their skateboards during school hours. When Didier, the local guitar-strumming wino, stops by to ask for a glass of something, even with nothing in his pockets, he is never turned away.
“The sharing — that’s the bistro spirit,” Guénard said. “Without it, I’m nothing.”
Part of that spirit is the flexibility to give clients what they want when they want it. Laurent Chainel has made Bistrot Valois, his newly renovated place near the Palais Royal, a nearly nonstop dining experience, from morning to evening every day except Sunday.
There is no requirement to order from a fixed menu. You want two extra-large organic hard-boiled eggs topped with huge globs of perfect homemade mayonnaise and served with twice-cooked French fries at 11 a.m.? Done. A Coke with your rare veal chop? The waiter won’t look at you funny.
“You won’t find foam or sun-dried tomatoes here,” Chainel said. “You won’t find a tiny piece of meat and three carrot slices as a main course. My goal is to give a soul to the old bistro.”
Le Bistrot Paul Bert, a rock-solid place in the 11th Arrondissement, has all the qualifications for the ideal bistro: simple, straightforward cooking with just the right creative tweaking of the classics, and always the signature côte de boeuf. It’s so good that the fanciest hotels send their bistro-craving clients there.
And then there’s the service. One evening, my older daughter, Alessandra, insisted that her best friend try her favorite chocolate mousse cake. When dessert time came, so did the bad news: no chocolate cake that night. Alessandra was crestfallen.
“Give me a minute,” the waiter said.
He disappeared, and then came back with a gorgeous chocolate confection on a plate — from the seafood restaurant next door.
Too many Americans?
But another essential of the great bistro is that it feels truly French. It’s unsettling to arrive at one of your favorites and discover that it’s been so thoroughly reviewed back home that you find yourself seated in a room where all the diners are also American.
Tables are close together in most bistros, which makes it easy for the visitors on either side of you to wedge their way into your conversation to ask where to find vintage Chanel and how to avoid crowds at the Louvre. Of course I realize that, as an American myself, I’m asking for special treatment (and that this article will only make things worse). But I am apparently not alone.
“A couple of Fridays ago, an American guy came up to the bar to complain,” said Bertrand Auboyneau, the owner of Paul Bert. “He said, ‘I’ve been living in Paris for 20 years, and I didn’t come here to be put in the American room.’”
We Americans are certainly not the only group that can dilute the French flavor of a bistro, but our presence is often harder to miss.
“Americans have really loud voices,” Auboyneau said, “so you can’t pretend they’re not there.”
He has tried screening reservations to avoid taking too many from Americans.
“I may just stop taking reservations on the Internet,” he said. “If you have to call and speak in French, maybe it will be a deterrent.”
Far from the tourist crowds
Benoît Gauthier, the chef and owner of Le Grand Pan, is able to avoid most foreign diners, not because his cuisine is lacking but because of his remote location in the far southwestern corner of Paris — a good 10- to 15-minute walk from the closest Metro stop. You have to really be motivated to get there.
The son of a butcher from the Corrèze, the south-central region of France where locals believe they produce some of the finest cattle in the land, Gauthier whips up a five-course tasting menu from a closet of a kitchen. His specialty: big fat cuts of veal, beef or pork on the bone for two. And there’s always a surprise for friends, like a Mont Blanc that’s not on the menu. Like his father, Gauthier is a rabid rugby fan, and the front room is lined with signed rugby balls from around the world.
For anyone who wants a very old-fashioned experience, there’s Le Quincy in the depths of the unfashionable 12th Arrondissement. Open the door and discover a place frozen in 1950s Paris. You almost expect Gen. Charles de Gaulle to walk in.
It’s more auberge (country inn) than urban corner hangout, with a wood-beamed ceiling; an old map of France, a painting of a pig’s heads and decorative plates on the walls; and a very large stuffed rooster in the corner. The tablecloths and napkins are checked pink with the words “Le Quincy” woven into the fabric. No credit cards are accepted.
The owner, Michel Bosshard, 77, covers his big belly with a white chef’s apron and always wears a red bow tie. He welcomes his guests with slices of a fat, garlicky, cured sausage that he cuts with a large knife and serves with a pleasant, bubbly white wine from the Loire.
“You have to drink it without making a face because it’s a gift I offer you,” he said.
There is nothing nouvelle about the cuisine: leek tart, garlic-rich escargots, frogs’ legs, goose liver foie gras, stuffed cabbage, blanquette de veau, cassoulet, and rabbit in white wine and shallots. A classic terrine made with pork neck, chicken livers, eggs and cognac is served with a raw cabbage salad tossed with mustard-garlic vinaigrette. This is no place to be squeamish: There are also veal’s heads, andouillette sausage (made from smelly intestines) and pigs’ feet.
You want dessert? How about communal bowls of chocolate mousse, rice pudding, génoise cake, fresh pineapple, sliced oranges, conserved chestnuts and figs, even stewed prunes? They arrive at once.
One night, a group of 30-somethings was celebrating a birthday at the table next to ours. At the end of the meal, Bosshard heated large snifters of prune de Souillac over a Bunsen burner. Why choose such an old-fashioned place, I wanted to know.
“They have the best escargots in France,” one said.
Another added, “The food is exactly the way my grandmother made it.”