I’ve just indulged in one of my little jaunts back in time to a city where I lived and loved for around 18 years. That was a while back, but on every return it’s all so utterly familiar that it could have been yesterday. A cliché I know, but oh so true – I feel like I melt seamlessly into the rhythm. And at this time of year, although none of those quintessential café-terrasses is functioning, the winteriness and fast-approaching ‘fetes’ give it a more mellow atmosphere. And Paris brasseries just beckon you inside.
Last year I managed to get the last train back to London before Paris was snowed in. It was serious – for several hours previously the elegant apartment where I stayed had been plunged into darkness by power-cuts. This time I lodged with friends on a barge: huge, warm, comfortable and moored beside that King of all Clichés – the Eiffel Tower. And it really rocked! On the other side was the Pont Bir-Hakeim which always reminds me of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, and an unshaven Marlon Brando lurching across it. Incidentally, whatever happened to the actor Maria Schneider? But that’s celluloid. Paris lives on regardless.
I have to say when you’re practically underneath it, the illuminated tower is an incredible sight – so huge and deeply rooted, those sturdy legs planted into the Champ de Mars and its ribs outlined in orange light, soaring high into a moon-less sky. Arguably the world’s most enduring urban symbol.
But priorities call. On the food front time was too short for scouting out new stuff so instead I indulged in three old favourites. Chez Omar was the first oldie but goodie, less brasserie, more bistro, largely untouched in 30 something years and a landmark of the rue de Bretagne in the north Marais. It still serves divinely succulent méchoui (slow roasted, tender lamb with a crisp skin), vegetable couscous and a pichet of rouge for the princely sum of about 30€, all in a setting that has barely changed since the 1930s.
Even better, after surviving the snarling Paris traffic-jams, we arrived to find the Tunisian owner himself, Omar, at the bar with his daughter and American son-in-law. It’s probably over 10 years since I last saw him, though I’ve eaten there in between, but his memory is pin-sharp – & he even trotted out my surname. So then came a couple of glasses of bubbly on the house for me and my companion (also affectionately remembered). Now THAT is the sign of a true restaurateur. Even better, Chez Omar doesn’t have a website and nor does it take credit cards (needless to say no Facebook, no Twitter either – what a relief and vive la différence). Google and you shall find.
More in tourist mode, but still an epic Parisian brasserie, is bustling Chartier (above), tucked away on the Faubourg Montmartre, its dark wood panelling, globular lights and art nouveau fittings beautifully intact. The brass hat-racks gleam too – though without any hats. The waiters in their long white aprons are as rude as ever, and the rapid in-out policy continues, but you can still soak up the ambiance and eat decently, if not fantastically. The main attraction is price: my endive and roquefort salad followed by sustaining pot au feu cost all of 16€, my friend’s rumpsteak and frites about the same, while a small pichet of Bordeaux hardly broke the bank http://www.restaurant-chartier.com/www/visit/
The grand gastro finale came just before I leaped onto Eurostar back to London. What better place for a catch-up with a pal of 25 years standing than Terminus Nord, that spectacular 1920s brasserie in the old Paris tradition of mosaic, mirrors, etched glass and glitter. I’ve always loved them, from touristy but glam La Coupole to the discreet Grand Colbert in the Galerie Vivienne, just below where I once lived. So at Terminus Nord I went for bust, burning euros on a dazzling platter of oysters (a dozen each of Fines de Claire no. 2 and 4, plus a half dozen creuses, plus a slab of foie gras and a bottle of Sancerre to wash it all down. Forget mucking around with mixed coquillages, this was the real deal. Then, as my friend peddled off into the night, dog in tow (who had snoozed soundly beneath the table as we sucked and slurped our away above-table), I staggered across the road to my train – and slept all the way to London.