After visiting a city like Paris, most people when they return home will talk to friends and family about the famous sights they saw. Why not? Paris is filled with internationally-famous landmarks, museums, churches, historic places, and all kinds of other attractions. My wife and I took our first but hopefully not our last trip to Paris during the summer of 2016, and as anyone would expect, we spent plenty of time planning our visit to ensure we saw as much as possible during the short week we were there. Several weeks before we left for Paris, we were talking to a colleague about our upcoming trip and all the sightseeing we had planned. He had been to the city more than once, and as a travel veteran, he gave us some valuable advice. He told us to schedule plenty of time to sit at a sidewalk café and soak up the Parisian atmosphere – the people, the sounds, the smells, and of course, the flavors. At the time of our conversation, I was thinking “we have too much to see to waste time sitting at a table sipping wine. We can do that anywhere.” I was wrong.
As is the case in many European cities, a meal in Paris involves much more than eating and drinking, especially in the evening. It is an opportunity to relax, reflect on the day, participate in engaging conversation, and enjoy some of the best food anywhere. There is absolutely no rush. The wait staff is not the least bit concerned, as in America, about turning the table. There is no sense of urgency to order as soon as you are seated, but getting a drink to start things off is certainly not a problem either. Depending upon the establishment, its location, the time of year, and the weather conditions, you may prefer to dine inside, but almost every bistro has sidewalk seating. We had some of our best meals in Paris at tables set just outside the door of bistros. There were a few exceptions, such as the Metropolitan, located in the section of Paris called The Marais a couple of blocks from where we were staying. This cozy little restaurant lives up to its name with wooden benches and other interior décor that are reminiscent of the train platforms from the early years of the Metro transportation system in the city. Chef Paul-Arthur Berlan, a semi-finalist on Top Chef in 2011, creates a limited but impressive collection of dishes. The menu was printed completely in French, and we were clueless. But, when we asked our attentive waitress for help, she was so gracious and said, “Even French people have trouble with our menu!” The food was excellent, and the atmosphere in the restaurant was perfectly reflective of what we observed about Parisians in general: they are such happy and vivacious people.
A significant part of the adventure of visiting a city in a foreign country is trying something new, and for me in Paris, this meant eating escargot for the first time. Someone told me that ordering escargot is simply an excuse to eat lots of garlic butter. I’m fine with that! Actually, the snails reminded me of another mollusk, saltwater mussels, that I have eaten many times on the Atlantic coast in the U.S. – incredibly delicious. Another important aspect of dining in Paris is the variety of cuisine you find there, which is usually the case in most cities with such ethnic diversity. One of our best meals was at a Roman bistro on the sidewalk under a large canopy within sight of the Arch de Triumph, where we feasted on grilled chicken over pasta with the lightest and most flavorful cream sauce I have ever tasted. Magnifique!
One day around noon after taking a dozen photographs of the Eiffel Tower, we wandered across the Pont de Bir-Hakeim (a bridge crossing the Seine River near the Tower) and up a series of steps just beyond the Passy Metro station where we discovered what was once a separate village known as Passy before it was incorporated into Paris in the 1860s under Napoleon III. At a round-about intersection, we walked up to a bistro to have lunch. We didn’t know at the time, but the place is called Le Passy. We had scrumptious salads at a small sidewalk table, and I indulged in a Mojito (or two). We were fascinated watching people walk by, coming from local markets and stores with packages in their arms. Other patrons were also having lunch, reading, or chatting. We were doing exactly what our colleague back home had suggested, immersing ourselves in a neighborhood of Paris and soaking in the culture of the place. To my way of thinking, this kind of experience makes the difference between touring and traveling.
I cannot end this recollection without mentioning our favorite breakfast spot, a small bakery just a few blocks down from our apartment. Miss Manon is not unlike a hundred other bakeries all around the city, but this one was so convenient, and the chocolate-filled pastries were exceptional. The women who manage the shop (could one of them have been THE Miss Manon?) were patient with us, even though it took us a few visits to understand the proper dine-in protocol: patrons look at the mouth-watering selection of goodies in the glass cases, make their selection, then find a seat and wait for the staff to bring their food to them. I think they told us several times, but here again, we don’t speak French, and their English was limited. We still got along marvelously. It was a bit cool in the early mornings, so we sat inside. It was fascinating to hear the interaction of the women out front with the men who were baking in the back and bringing out trays of fresh pastries, breads, baguettes, and tarts. At times the women sounded irritated with the men, but then they would laugh and shake their heads, and greet the next customer with a cheerful “Bonjour!”
We were able to learn about Paris from tour guides, museums, books, maps, and videos. We saw the amazing attractions, walked through the churches, strolled around the gardens, and wandered through the streets to experience so much of what the city has to offer. Even then, we did not get the sense that we were connected with the city. Only when we stopped, sat at a table, ate and drank, and watched and listened did we begin to hear the heartbeat of this enchanting place.