I remember my first day ever in Paris as one of the biggest disappointments in my travels up to that point. The “friends” hostel I was booked in was horrific, and I was sexually harassed as part of the check-in process. My evening trek up the Eiffel Tower was expensive and the lift was filled with the twang of a tour group from Texas. I learned that this amazing view sadly meant nothing to me without the glistening Eiffel Tower as part of it. And when I tried to salvage such a bad first start with a nice meal in a restaurant near the tower, I was utterly disappointed by the bland, touristy and way-too-expensive-for-a-backpacker dinner I endured. Oh Paris. Quel dommage.
Of course after that first day, Paris was wonderful. I spent two glorious weeks that December walking and absorbing as much as I possibly could of this amazing place. And in my many other trips since then, I have had the full gamut of Parisian experiences – the grungy bars near Moulin Rouge, drinking beer and watching the drunken world stumble by, a romantic afternoon picnic in Champs de Mars and hand-in-hand walks through the Jardin des Tuilleries on a Sunday afternoon, that first bite of a macaron from bakery extraordinaire Laduree while watching the cars juggle for space around the l’Arc de Triomphe. All glorious moments in Paris that I will always remember.
Surprisingly, for a foodie, I had never had that perfect Paris meal that everybody hopes for. I have had some nice lunches, a few reasonable dinners, and many delicious DIY picnics on previous trips to Paris. I had even learned (the hard way) that this city does in fact sometimes sleep, and having a meal in one of Paris’s proper bistros during the month of August was near to impossible.
Such was our disappointment when, for my husband Nick’s 30th birthday, we discovered that every decent bistro, every recommended restaurant, everywhere we had read about and planned to eat at, wouldn’t be possible on this trip because we had chosen to come in August when all the best places are “fermé pour les vacances“. Ugh. My North American brain couldn’t contemplate how these places could get away with actually closing down – aren’t they here to serve the tourists, I thought? Well the answer, in a word, is non. And while I was disappointed that trip as we sat in the Marais, dressed in our finest outfits to eat pizza, I vowed to do better the next time.
On our most recent trip, we tried to live as much as possible like Parisians – living in an apartment in the 12th, shopping in Marche d’Aligre, our local (non-touristy) market, drinking in teeny wine bars with the local tradesmen and shopkeepers, and doing my best to parler en francais as much as possible. We decided that a meal in the perfect Paris bistro would be the cherry on the sundae of our holiday, and so we went to work researching websites, guidebooks, and numerous blogs on the subject. Many places were mentioned, but the one that seemed much revered by locals, chefs, and Parisphiles alike, was Bistrot Paul Bert in the 11ième arrondissement. Reservations are a must we were warned, so off we walked on Thursday afternoon to check out Woody Allen’s favourite bistro and secure a table for Saturday night, figuring that making a reservation in person would be a less stressful experience than on the phone, as my flustered French sometimes requires a few hand gestures to get the message across.
We arrived on rue Paul Bert to find what could only be described as the quintessential Paris bistro. I wondered if Woody had actually filmed Midnight in Paris here. It was just too perfect – we MUST have a meal here it was decided. Sadly my polite request for a table, ANY table, on Saturday was met with a curt “non” and a glance to a waiter that to me said “how crazy are they to think we’d have any openings at this late notice?” Mon dieu. Sunday and Monday they were closed. They would reopen for lunch on Tuesday I was informed. We sunk out of the bistro feeling quite low.
A table at another bistro in the Marais was secured for our Saturday night dinner with Nick’s parents, who were joining us for a couple of days in Paris. And a lovely bistro it was, where we enjoyed a delicious meal and the ambiance that one can only experience in a picturesque street in the Marais. But still, that ultimate bistro experience we had hoped for at Bistrot Paul Bert eluded us.
We were set to leave Paris for London on Tuesday afternoon. Could we squeeze in lunch first at Paul Bert? We decided we must. After a harrowing few hours dragging too much luggage (and too much wine, cheese and shopping) to the station to deposit into lockers, we took the Metro to the 11th, arriving just after noon. Surely we could get a table easily on a Tuesday at lunch – I mean, who goes out Tuesday for lunch?
The woman at the counter was the same woman we spoke with the previous week. She shook her head in a “how do they STILL not have a reservation?” kind of way, but looked pityingly at us and asked us to wait. Five minutes later we were seated at a table for four that had originally been occupied by two gentleman. Somehow these kind men had agreed to share their table with the two anglais who didn’t understand the rules of bistro dining, and for that we were eternally grateful.
As for the meal itself, well what can I say except merveilleux. It was absolutely and completely worth the complicated journey we took getting to that moment.
We elected to go for the slightly higher priced set menu (there was a three course menu for either 17 or 36 euros), as it had a few more intriguing options and still seemed reasonably priced. Nick chose marinated sardines in lemon and pepper to start, followed by seared veal liver served with baby vegetables. My delicate omelette with baby girolle mushrooms was followed by a bistro classic I had never tried before – steak tartare with frites and salad. It seemed like the place to dive into a plate of raw meat, if ever there was such a place. We savoured every mouthful, trying to not only enjoy the food but soak up the Bistro Paul Bert atmosphere – the beautiful dark wood features, the rustic tiled floors, the ancient chalk board listing the dishes of the day, and our fellow diners, whom all seemed unfazed by the act indulging in such a fine meal on a Tuesday at lunch. Such is the norm it would seem. We also tried to keep our non-Parisian behaviour in check, and as such only managed to take a few blurry photos of our dishes and the restaurant. I quickly realised that to eat like a true Parisian, one must be more interested in experiencing the meal rather than the act of capturing evidence to brag to others with. We put out cameras away.
When the cheese board arrived to our table, I was overwhelmed, not just by the quality of the cheese selection, but also by the quantity of cheese in front of us – there were no less than six cheeses, large wedges of goat and brie, blue and crumbly, creamy and stinky, all sharing a thick wooden board that looked like it had been recently cut from a tree trunk. “Is this all…for US?” I asked the waitress incredulously in what I hope was a hushed whisper. She looked at me and then at Nick and waved her hand in that nonchalant way the French do so well – “You take as much as you like, then I’ll come and take the board to the next table.” At a table of boisterous workmen finishing their lunch, a rum baba arrived with an accompaniment of an entire bottle of rum. He took as much as he wanted. Portion-control apparently is not an issue here.
It would seem that at Bistrot Paul Bert, satisfaction was the goal of the experience. The staff wasn’t concerned with anyone overindulging, but more concerned that we were appropriately satiated with our Tuesday lunch. How very civilised. We certainly left that afternoon feeling full and completely satisfied with our ultimate bistro experience.
Thank god I didn’t have any Tupperware in my handbag.