The great liebling wrote that "the primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite." He almost certainly would've thought the same when it comes to writing about restaurants. Finding approvable eating establishments while compensating one's appetite he called "field work." And to do it properly one needed to have worked one's way—over years usually—through the chosen menus and back, cross-referencing the offerings through varying seasons and microclimates, when and where the asparagus and morilles were just new, the Belons only hours removed from the cold Atlantic briny, the grouse still fragrant of the heath where last they'd slept. (We're speaking of Paris, of course.)
Ditto the wines. Everything needed to be tried, vetted, remarked upon, thought over, then tried again and often before a site could be administered the meaningful stamp of "favorite." (It helps, too, to know the proprietor, to have eaten on his cuff for years, to have sat at his dying wife's bedside and later walked mournfully with him out along the Boulevard St.-Michel and back to the restaurant for a magnum of Veuve Clicquot '19 and a hearty brandade de morue in her honor.)
I love Liebling. Only, sometimes when I read him on the subject of food and its best residences, I come away sensing I was born too late, that all my instincts are skewed, and I lack the authority even to like what I like. "No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures," he wrote. I may be that very forgoing man.
Alas, I am not a foodie (as I once told a cookbook writer when she asked me at a cocktail party in Tennessee if I was, in fact, a foodie. The word still frightens me). For one thing, I don't eat red meat (game yes, fish yes). I don't eat fried food, I don't eat potatoes, white rice, most bread, cream sauces. I eat butter only reluctantly (and if I don't know it's there). I generally steer a course away from dairy, most desserts, all pastries, cheese, high-sodium this, high-cholesterol that. And anything I do eat I never eat a lot of. (Liebling would've had me in a straitjacket.) I realize that at the end of my life I will not so much die as simply one day disappear due to the accumulated removal of all those things that I fear will kill me, but that are also necessary to keep me, if not alive and healthy, at least visible.
Some of each calendar year I abide in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the great saucier's paradis américain. There, naturally enough, I have my favorite spot, Marisol on Esplanade Avenue, where the menu changes every single day, there's always a fresh whole fish I can choose, a rich bisque made without harmful cream, a duck prepared simply, alongside some fresh legumes—all in addition to several superior selections I wouldn't select but that my wife would. Marisol is good because the food is various and wonderful, the room and presentation stylish but unpretentious, the price reasonable, and because there's no threat of foodie froufrou (entrées with pedigreed names, overlengthy wine lists, hors d'oeuvre towers). Plus, Pete Vazquez, the doughty chef, will likely never show up on the Today show wearing an artist's smock, or have a book signing at Borders, or make nightly victory laps of the dining room, inflicting himself on the clientele and distracting us from our meals.
Yet with tastes and preferences like these, it might be protested: Who could care less what Ford's favorite Parisian restaurant might be? He's not seasoned enough even to have a meaningfully favorite restaurant anywhere east of Billings.
The Polidor, however, has for several years been my most favored place to eat in Paris, owing to its straightforward menu of well-prepared, uninflected dishes—all fresh and happily various, if undaring (guinea fowl au chou, salmon with basil, poulet rôti, in addition to plenty I wouldn't think to go near: rognons in Madeira sauce, aromatic sausage made with tripe, rump steak with pepper sauce). There's also a goodly array of first courses (fifteen) that includes cold pike pâté, pumpkin soup, oeufs mayonnaise, and (of course, my preferences) the grande assiette de crudités and/or a spinach salad dressed with a light, tasty walnut oil.
The Polidor has been in more or less constant existence since 1845, when it began life as a simple dairy shop in the Latin Quarter, in the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince—down the hill a short walk from the Boulevard St.-Michel, or up five minutes from the Odéon metro. Polidor is always the first place I find a meal upon arriving in Paris (both lunch and dinner are served…no credit cards). And it is the place I invariably take visiting Americans to impress them that I'm a canny sort of fellow who knows Paris pretty darned well, well enough anyway to provide myself a good meal at an acceptable price in a place that's in-disputably Parisian (profoundly, self-acceptingly bourgeois) but also comfortably democratic of ambiance, so that you feel not exactly welcome but unexceptional within, and don't have to leave feeling furious at the French for merely being themselves, while silently stewing about being only an American yourself and aching to go back to the airport.
Ambiance surely is not all. But it's a lot. Polidor occupies one and a third large rooms with a ferny, glass-fronted window, and long shiny beveled mirrors down the side walls, causing the restaurant's interior, which is always crowded and usually of a golden, Belle Epoque hue, to seem even more crowded and enlivened. Numerous Americans come, and numerous Asians and Germans, too. But Polidor is traditionally a student-faculty and working-class bistro, and I have not heard English spoken much (the female waitstaff and the large, blond Rhine-maiden maîtresse d'hôtel seem never to speak it), though the yellow, laminated menus are largely, though not completely, bilingual—the 110-franc plat du jour, for instance, is apparently only for Franco-phones who like hachis Parmentier, chou farci, and a dessert of bavarois cassis. Suffice it to say that I, who could survive forever in France as long as I restricted my activities to taxis and hotel lobbies, do fine here. Passable French, though, is always a big help in France.