On a stifling August night in 1974, I was led down a steep flight of stairs into a vaulted basement in the Latin Quarter. In my madras jacket, I immediately felt like a dork. Everyone else in the dining room was wearing jeans, and my mortification was magnified by the fact that both of my brothers were also wearing madras, while my sister was sporting a daffodil-yellow frock. Plunged into the heart of bohemian Paris, a place I’d always dreamed of, I was suddenly desperate to be elsewhere and furious with the aunt who’d told us we couldn’t miss this restaurant, a real old-fashioned bistro that had been a memorable find on her most recent trip to Paris.
Still, I liked the slightly musty smell of the room, which reminded me of a country well, and the sour stink of the Gauloises that were sending up small curls of blue smoke from every table but ours. The bread was delicious, and it was a relief when the waiter understood Mom’s French, especially since a wonderful salad of sliced tomatoes in a silky mustard vinaigrette—so simple, but so good—arrived a few minutes later, along with a pocked white porcelain plate of sizzling snails for Dad, who insisted I try one (I gulped it down with a big sip of water). Then, after a stately pause, the graying waiter returned with a heavy copper casserole, which he set at my end of the table. Lifting the lid, he released a fleeting cloud of steam. The mingled aroma of wine, beef, and onions was so intoxicating it seemed an eternity before everyone had been served and I could dig in. I burned my tongue, never quite realizing that I was experiencing my first round of primal pleasure at table. Nothing had ever tasted as good to me as the shiny mahogany sauce, an amazing mixture of wine and butter, that glazed the tender chunks of beef on my plate. That boeuf bourguignon, served at a long-vanished restaurant on a street I barely remember how to find, left me with an irresistible craving for more—more Paris and, most of all, more French food. So much so that 21 years ago I moved to Paris.
Last fall, I decided that spending all my time chasing talented young chefs around the city as they moved from kitchen to kitchen (usually before opening places of their own) was only part of the culinary equation. I set out to rekindle an old flame, tracking down those restaurants that, while not especially chic anymore, deliver the kind of soul-satisfying boeuf bourguignon on which French cuisine was built. I started with L’Ambassade d’Auvergne, which continues to serve some of the best regional food in Paris. Anyone who loves real French cooking cannot afford to live in fear of fat. At this outpost near the Marais, creamy lentil salad comes with a healthy dollop of goose fat, while blanched cabbage leaves are layered with a fine filling of pork, salt pork, pork liver, Swiss chard, and fresh bread crumbs before being popped into a hot oven where all the flavors fuse into a superb terrine—a brilliant work of edible masonry. The “embassy” also understands basic tableside theater: After serving a generous length of grilled auvergnat sausage, the waiter returns with a copper saucepan and a wooden spoon to whip the aligot—that heavenly concoction of potatoes, cheese curds, and garlic—into a cascade of melting sheets, a coup de théâtre that dazzles the occasional tourist while reassuring the serious Parisians that French cuisine is still alive and well.
Running late for my next stop, I rush into La Grille, a peculiar dining room (it reminds me of Miss Havisham’s) festooned with lace, straw hats, and dusty dolls, as my friend waves away my apologies. “What a wonderful idea to eat here,” she says. “I’d forgotten about this place—so much character.” Geneviève and Yves Cullerre have run La Grille for nearly half a century, turning out almost anthropological classics like duck terrine with hazelnuts, mackerel poached in white wine, and his plat de résistance, a superb grilled turbot in black fishnet stockings (thanks to the scoring of the grill) with a sublime beurre blanc. I live in dread of the inevitable day when the Cullerres retire to some sunny place by the sea. Then again, I might just tag along.
I also hope that Michel Bosshard (“Boboss”) at Auberge Le Quincy won’t hang up his indigo cotton apron anytime soon. With his blue-framed glasses and teasing style, Boboss is as much a part of the ambience as the bric-a-brac that fills this cubbyhole of a restaurant. After greeting me with a big slice of saucisson to nibble on while reading the menu, he insists I have the caillette, an Ardèche specialty of small patties of grilled pork, pork liver, Swiss chard, and herbs that have been rubbed with fat from the caul (the lacy membrane enclosing an animal’s abdomen). I’d been dreaming all day about the foie gras, but he is firm. “If you hate the caillette,” he says, “I’ll bring you some foie gras.” But I don’t, not this caillette—whose bed of mesclun dressed with vinaigrette is the perfect “grassy” foil for the rich meat. I move on to rabbit cooked in shallots and white wine, ending the meal with one of the best chocolate mousses in Paris—all fine with Boboss.
For a meal that’s equally animated but more anonymous, I love La Tour de Montlhéry, one of the last of the night restaurants that fed the workers at Les Halles before the market decamped to the suburbs. Like the décor, the menu here is as authentic as a Doisneau photo—grilled marrowbones, oeufs en gelée, calf’s liver with bacon, and massive côte de boeuf, all accompanied by a cheap but harmless Beaujolais from the barrels inside the front door.
Atmosphere is also the lure at the magnificent Le Train Bleu, inside the Gare de Lyon rail station. The nice surprise here, though, is that aside from being the best place in town to savor the visual opulence of fin de siècle Paris, the ornate dining room also serves some surprisingly good French food. Ignore the contemporary dishes (like scallops sautéed in tamarind-spiked jus de poulet) and go straight for the escargots or oysters to start, followed by grilled sole, steak tartare, or the succulent leg of lamb, which is carved tableside on a silver-domed trolley and served with a delicious potato gratin made with Fourme d’Ambert, a wonderful blue cheese from Auvergne.
As an American, I remain neutral in the ancient quarrel between the French and the English but still find it curious that the French derisively call the Brits “rosbifs” (roast beefs) when they’re such avid boeuf lovers themselves. Just watch the way hungry Gauls go for the hearth-grilled côte de boeuf at Robert et Louise, a rustic hole-in-the-wall in the Marais with exposed half-timbers and a grumpy house poodle. Almost everything here—from the crusty sautéed potatoes that come with the storied rib steak to the great dishes like boudin noir and confit de canard—is cooked over an open fire.
Beef is also very much the focus at Au Moulin à Vent, in the Latin Quarter, where the walls are decorated with shiny copper saucepans and the menu is vast. Make it easy on yourself and go for either the Salers beef chateaubriand with homemade béarnaise sauce or the veal kidney flambéed in Armagnac. But be sure to start your meal with the frogs’ legs à la provençale, little bites of juicy meat on tiny bones in a wonderfully garlicky sauce—the best to be found anywhere. No place in Paris quite channels the jubilation that ended the privation of the World War II years like this standard-bearer from 1946.
I have a soft spot for Chez Georges, a bistro that succeeds brilliantly by flatly ignoring the passage of time. The last time I ate there, I had exactly the same meal I’d had 15 years earlier, when I met Julia Child, who also loved this place. “It’s not often I get real bistro cooking anymore,” she told me before ordering a frisée salad with lardons (“It never tastes as good at home as it does in France,” she insisted) and calf’s liver with bacon. I had the blanquette de veau. Just before dessert, a French designer stopped by to pay his respects, congratulating Madame Child for “civilizing” the American palate. After he’d gone, she asked, “Who was that? Oh dear, I hope this place doesn’t become fashionable.” Well, it has, as a quick look at the antiques dealers and fashion-house bigwigs filling the banquettes makes clear, but the kitchen turns out the same guilelessly retro cooking it always has.
For anyone who lives in Paris, few things are more treacherous than the nostalgia trap, that fretful and despairing mind-set that insists that everything tasted better in the past. Sometimes, though, restaurants change for the better, as I find with Josephine Chez Dumonet, a beautiful 1898-vintage place near the famous Poilâne bakery. Now under the management of Jean-Christian Dumonet, a second-generation owner, I find the food fresher and more vivid than it has been in a long time. The clientele has changed, too. Just as I finish a homemade terrine de campagne, a ripple rises up in the dining room. Joey Starr, France’s most notorious rapper, dressed in immaculate dove-gray sweats and a Yankees baseball cap, is shown to the table next to mine. After my meal—panfried foie gras; monkfish with white beans; and, finally, a plate of cheese from the nearby Quatrehomme fromagerie—Starr and I exchange sheepish grins as our Grand Marnier soufflés arrive at exactly the same time.
Later, walking home, I am elated that France’s bad-boy rapper also chose this place. I have no doubt that Paris’s old-fashioned restaurants will survive, and I also know that the boeuf bourguignon I ate in the Latin Quarter 35 years ago had been every bit as delicious as I’d remembered. Maybe even better.
ruth REICHL’s five favorites in Paris
L’Ambassade d’Auvergne 22 R. du Grenier-St.-Lazare, 3rd (01-42-72- 31-22).
Auberge Le Quincy 28 Ave. Ledru-Rollin, 12th (01-46-28- 46-76).
Chez Georges 1 R. du Mail, 2nd (01-42-60-07-11).
La Grille 80 R. du Faubourg-Poissonnière, 10th (01-47-70-89-73).
Josephine Chez Dumonet 117 R. du Cherche Midi, 6th (01-45-48-52-40).
Au Moulin à Vent 20 R. des Fossès-St.-Bernard, 5th (01-43-54-99-37).
Robert et Louise 64 R. Vieille-du-Temple, 3rd (01-42-78-55-89).
La Tour de Montlhéry Chez Denise 5 R. des Prouvaires, 1st (01-42- 36-21-82).
Le Train Bleu Gare de Lyon, 12th (01-43-43-09-06).