There is, of course, no bar. Reservations are inappropriate. (One waits outside, sometimes in the rain.) Smoking is seemingly encouraged, which I, a nonsmoker, enjoy. One is more or less waved rather than escorted to one's place at a long, wooden, oilcloth-covered table, where you eat beside and across from strangers with whom you share, if not a language, then certainly the congenial experience of the restaurant and its not extensive but pragmatic wine list, from which you would both be and feel wise to choose the Brouilly Domaine du Pla-teau de Bel-Air, no matter what you're eating.
Histories describing Polidor will tell you Gide and Rimbaud and Max Ernst and (surprise) Hemingway used to eat here (not together), that Paul Valéry kept his napkin in the napkin cabinet, and Joyce tried the tripe. But probably no one wrote anything here and wouldn't today (it's too full-up, the service too prompt for museful lingering). And no one tours the rather small, hectic kitchen, nor has to endure having to know his waitress's name or hometown ("Bonjour, Monsieur, je m'appelle Angélique et je serai…"). Non, rien comme ça.
My most recent arrival at Polidor occurred this past December, when I took my dinner one day and lunch the next, walking over from the Hôtel de l'Abbaye, in Rue Cassette. The first evening I brought with me a French movie producer friend of distinctly high-dollar preferences (her late grandfather has a gold-encrusted bridge over the Seine named for him). I was sure she'd know all about the restaurant and would tell me interesting things to write, might've frequented it when young before going on to classier rooms. But she knew nothing of it except that she didn't care for the Haton Brut Champagne at 190 francs per, felt disappointed there was no spécialité de la maison, thought the whole experience was "quaint," and quickly became so tipsy on the Brouilly that all talk of appreciating the atmosphere became somehow lost.
The following day I took a French friend of a different, more bookish, background, but also found that though she bore a long Left Bank history, she had never heard of the Polidor either. (In each instance I felt both good and not so good to be introducing Parisians to my favorite Paris bistro.) My friend (we'll call her Clementine) was, however, completely charmed and pleased by the place, put a big, happy smile on her face and went right along into the steak frites with lots of mustard, while I (getting rashly caught up in her enthusiasm) ordered the rognons sauce madère, which I seemed not to be able to eat fast enough owing to how well everything was working out, yet completely forgetting to ask if the kidneys were veal or lamb, thereby possibly subjecting myself to the mad cow. (Incubation, I've since been told, seems to be 20 years, which makes me feel relatively safe at age 56.)
Clementine's affectionate appraisal of the place was that it was the kind "one might once have found everywhere in France 50 years ago"—in smaller towns, and out in the country—but now not, due to the growth of French mall culture and the corresponding need for more hamburgers. "But here," she went on, "here is bohemian. Authentique." She slightly mouéd her lips and let her eyes roam the yellow-lacquered walls with elderly murals of long-ago Paris. We were in the crowded back room near the kitchen, where Rimbaud had liked it before debilitating pleasures drove him loony.
"I suppose it's not for everybody," I said, considering just then the sudden, irrational order of a tarte citron, while thinking it should be for everybody—especially us Americans—who're always wanting France to satisfy longings we scarcely know we have.
"Yes, maybe," my friend said, shaking her head and turning back fearlessly to her meat. "But. It is not the place to come alone. It's so busy."
"Yes. No." I agreed. "You'd always want to come with someone."
"Someone you felt comfortable with," she said and smiled a nice, comfortable smile. "No pretenses."
"Yes," I said, looking around at the room I liked so well.
"It's very French to think this way," she said. "It's very French indeed."
"Good," I said. And that ended it.