Why Oh Why Do I Love Paris?

When the pandemic lifts, all good Americans will want to go back to Paris.

As Cole Porter’s song says, “I love Paris in the springtime. I love Paris in the fall. I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles. I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.” I suspect most people do. And with the prospect next year of being able to visit again this glorious city, which Ernest Hemingway famously called, “a moveable feast,” I am already thinking about all I want to see and all I want eat.

I’ve been visiting Paris since I was in college, though I never lived there for an extended period of time, so that I have been able to pull back from its charms and discover them anew whenever I go back. The obvious appeal of the best-known tourists sites—the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles, Notre Dame—can be seen in mere days, but the city’s beauty, breadth and depth are what Thomas Jefferson said about the city: “A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.”

Any good guidebook will tell you about the hundreds of sites both on and off the beaten track—from Montparnasse to Montmartre, from the second-hand booksellers to the flea markets called les puces. The most thorough of these is the lavishly illustrated Knopf Guide: Paris, not for up-to-the-moment restaurants and hotels but for a comprehensive look at every neighborhood, museums (more than 60) and gardens. The book, on Amazon, is listed at $15.36 but used ones start at $2.20 at the moment; Paris hasn’t changed that much since the guide was published back in 1995 and revised in 2020.

Paris did change, radically so, in the mid-19th century when almost all of its medieval neighborhoods and architecture were razed during the reign of Napoléon III by Baron Haussmann, who made over Paris the way it looks today. The best history of the city, warts and all, is Andrew Hussey’s Paris: The Secret History ($11), a rollicking narrative of the city’s ever rebellious past, full of insurrectionists, scalawags, prostitutes and criminals of a kind you still find among the Yellow Vests and students.

Right now, because of Covid, Paris’s streets are relatively empty of tourists and prices for hotels and food are bargains, which I expect to be very much the case when Americans and others can easily travel there without quarantine. Grand luxe hotels like the Plaza-Athenée and The Crillon are all offering special packages, and while many restaurants are currently closed, they will be very eager to draw traffic with special meals and prix fixe menus. The gray patina of age that once affected the grand old Paris hotels has, over the past decade, been scrubbed clean by new owners after lengthy closures that brought them into the 21st century with all modern amenities.  These restorations have forced all other hotels, some old, some new, at and below the five-star ranking to bring up their level of décor, cuisine and service.

The best restaurant guide to Paris is not the dispassionate Michelin red book, which still awards the highest number stars to the most expensive dining salons (though its Bib Gourmand selections of much cheaper restaurants is very useful). I prefer the engaging, if idiosyncratic, compilation in Patricia Wells’s Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, first published in1984 and revised in 2014,  which gives a more affectionate treatment of her favorite restaurants, bistros, bakeries, chocolate shops and more. It’s $16.15 on Amazon but can be bought for pennies used.

I also like The Paris Café Cookbook by Daniel Young, listed at $19.07 but available for less than two dollars used. It focuses in on 50 of the cafés and bistros of renown, like Café de la Paix, Ma Bourgogne, Brasserie Blazar and La Coupole as well as his personal favorites, all with authentic recipes. Stephanie Henaut and Jeni Mitchell’s  A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War and Enlightenment ($13.79 and much less)  links famous French dishes with events in  French history, from poulet Marengo (named after a Napoleonic battle) to the controversy over the croissant.

The death knell for haute cuisine has been sounded about as often as for the demise of Broadway, and a new book by Michael Steinberger carries the plaintive title Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, ($12.78 and less) detailing how the decline in both standards and admiration for the glories of French cuisine has been long in coming. It’s far too sweeping as a jeremiad, for one can actually eat better in Paris now than ever.

For some insight into the way the Parisian mind works when it come to cuisine, read Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France,  and the Meaning of Food ($16.95 and less), a highly literate but engagingly readable series of essays on taste, wine and how Americans perceive French gastronomy, rightly or wrongly.

Like all modern cities, Paris offers marvelous and very varied fast food, so that you can eat splendidly at bakeries, crêperies, and charcuteries where you can make a delightful meal from a sandwich or a few slabs of terrine. One of the most famous Parisian charcuteries, Maison Gilles Vérot serves wonderful take-out items. Parisians take their culinary reputation very seriously, even for their museum restaurants, which offer very good value for delicious food. The Musée d’Orsay has three—Restaurant, Café de l’Ours for salads, sandwiches and pastries, and Café Campana for brasserie fare.

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris,” quipped Oscar Wilde. Come springtime in Paris, I’m hopeful all Americans will want to go again.

Source: Why Oh Why Do I Love Paris?


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