A Lousy Taste of France
Eating out at the world famous Restaurant Chartier, Paris
How easy it would be for a solo traveller to avoid the faff that surrounds dining in Paris by visiting a cafeteria or fast food joint. There are plenty of places in Paris to choose from. The days of strict culinary snobbery are long gone and now parisian’s embrace McDonalds, Subway and Pizza Hut like the rest of us.
But no. My conscience wouldn’t allow it. How could I go to Paris and not be treated like dirt by a waiter wearing traditional rondin simply for having a terrible french accent. I live to experience things. I couldn’t live with myself if I visited Paris without going to a restaurant with snails on the menu.
So around midday on a rainy Saturday, I headed for the much famed Restaurant Chartier. All the guidebooks list this place. Located in the 9th arrondissement, it was opened in 1896 by two brothers as a worker’s cafeteria, selling cheap food in an area filled with exuberance. The Belle Époque intrior hasn’t really changed at all since the day the place opened, resulting in the building being classified in 1989 as a national historical monument.
I showed up expecting to join the end of a long queue. Instead, I squelched down an empty arcade and was helped through a heavy revolving door by a maître d’ who welcomed me and asked me how many of me there were. After establishing there definitely was only 1 of me, I was whisked into the centre of the dining room. The place was warm, noisy and heaving with people. Waiters rushed about the place with great urgency while patrons leaned into the table to hear one another. It was buzzing.
I was shown to a table of four. Three older french ladies were already eating. With some surprise, coats and bags were removed from my seat. They clearly hadn’t read that at Chartier, strangers share tables. I slung my bag and coat into the overhead coat racks, sat down and soaked in the unique atmosphere. Without a word, my waiter arrived and placed a folded sheet of paper in front of me; today’s menu, a thing of beauty, almost an iconic work of art that I wished I could keep.
To avoid any screw-ups and to gain the respect of my waiter, I had already looked at the menu online before arriving. I politely perused, just in case it had changed. Luckily, it hadn’t. The waiter rushed back, leaning right over the table in order to hear me. As I ordered in flawless french, he scribbled what I was saying down on the tablecloth. It all went swimmingly.
So, what did I have?
To start, Salade frisee aux lardons. You can already tell, Chartier isn’t going to be wining any culinary awards anytime soon. A glass bowl of scratchy, dressed lettuce leaves with croutons and lardons. It was actually rather enjoyable. Crucially, also very cheap. A couple of euros at most
To drink, a bottle of crisp, refreshing, slightly sweet cidre. It was just like Magners or Bulmers only considerably cheaper.
For the main, Choucroute alsacienne, a german-inspired dish from the Alsace region of France. A ridiculous heap of sauerkraut (fermented/pickled cabbage) with a frankfurter, a dense, meaty sausage, soft and lean pork and a single potato. The sauerkraut was bloody awful but the meat was nice and the potato, well, that was a potato.
To finish, Gateau de semoule au caramel, a cold semolina pudding served with crème anglaise (good old custard) and caramel sauce. It was recommended to me by the three ladies I was sat with whom I had blundered my way through conversations with. The lady sat to my immediate right insisted on speaking to me at length in french, despite me making it very clear I didn’t really understand what she was saying. At one point, she invited me to chip in some money towards their bill. I understood that and made sure they understood that that wasn’t going to happen under any circumstances.
The pudding was lovely and rounded off a generally poor but ultimately enjoyable dining experience. It’s not often I’m sat in a restaurant and am captivated by anything other than my mobile or those I’m sat with. Between courses, I gazed around the room, admiring the decor, watching patrons pour themselves more wine and giggling at the exasperated faces being made by the staff. It was all good fun and wonderfully parisian.
It was time to leave. The waiter, who had actually been polite and very pleasant, came over and asked if I wanted any coffee. I declined and my bill was totted up old-school-style there and then on the table cloth. I paid, took yet another photo, before being whisked out into the rain again via the revolving door.
Service is brisk and informal at Chartier. You’re not treated like royalty but you do at least get the impression that your patronage is somewhat appreciated. It’s a credit to the place that most people find themselves in a queue upon arrival. Indeed, when I left, a queue had formed down the arcade and out onto the street. There aren’t many places that can boast that people will happily to stand in the rain to eat there. Only in Paris.