1950s Archive

An Epicurean Pilgrimage to Paris

Part I - The Left Bank

Originally Published July 1951

Nobody in his right digestion would deny that a firsthand study of Paris restaurants is a toothsome assignment, and it may seem ungracious for me to point out, in the very first sentence, that limitations loom large and forbidding in such a pleasant task. A mere individual, regardless of his previous knowledge, heroic intentions, and cast iron stomach, is powerless to confront the wealth of worthwhile dining places in la Ville Lunière as she glitters today, on her 2000th birthday. It would have been easy six years ago. In fact, as I now recall it, an appraisal of the restaurants would have been no work at all. There simply were no good restaurants in those lean days, unless you knew your black market. Today, it is safe to say that no basic ingredient is lacking to rival the French cuisine of old. Naturally enough, a new crop of fine places has sprung up since the war. Some old-timers have passed by the wayside in the past quarter century, but others maintain their splendor. Such noble names as Foyot, Voisin, Paillard, Montagné, and Marguery have disappeared, but others just as famous—Maxim's, Lapé, Vousc, Tour d'Argent, Larue, Café de Paris, and La Crémaillère—still glisten before the gourmet's eyes.

To record the change, assess the cooking, and classify the commendable places in Paris is the work, not of a peripatetic visitor but of a full-time platoon of native experts. Luckily for all of us, such a group of sensitive tasters and sniffers does exist—in the staff of the admirable Michelin publications. So, as a point of departure for a thoroughgoing study, it is wise to consult the only impartial publication which lists and classifies all the good Paris establishments today. This is Michclin' little red-covered pamphlet, written in English, and called Paris Hotels and Restaurants. If you can't find it in the bookstores, the Guide Micbelhi for automobilists contains essentially the same information. The editors have perfected an ingenious set of hieroglyphics which enables you to tell at a glance whether a hotel is sumptuous or simple, whether it is blessed with Such adjuncts as private baths, telephones, radiators, and that ultimate token of European comfort, a bidet with running water. They also bestow a plump star on restaurants whose cooking is excellent, a double star On the extraordinary ones, and an ethereal triple constellation on the utterly sublime ones. They are all in this booklet—the palace where you can entertain a duchess, down to the bistro where you can rub shoulders with the taxi-drivers and coal-heavers. It is the one complete, impartial, abbreviated guide to this absorbing subject, although the prices are a little optimistic for 1951. There is another charming treatise on the subject, Where to Dine in Lordon and Paris, published by the Ram' Head Press in London. It is a little more detailed!, containing streel maps and capsuled information in a double-page-width diagram. The late Julian Street also did a delightful book on this theme a couple of decades ago, but today it only emphasizes the high rate of mortality among Paris restaurants.

Having knocked journalistic practice into a cocked hat and recommended rival publications, may I point out that it is still rather confusing to be confronted with such a long list. The whole picture can only be sketched in abbreviated form. A briefer, more explicit list, with a few first-hand notes, might afford a better perspective. The Left Hank of the Seine is a good place for the experiment. In area it covers about a third of Paris. In the gastronomic domain it contains perhaps a quarter of the good restaurants, but some of the rarest. It' not too big to handle. Having raveled my sleeve on the café table mulling this matter over, I have decided that if I were to lender suggestions to a civilized friend, endowed with aesthetic sensibilities, educated taste buds, and a normal joie de vivre (and that, without any apple-polishing, is my idea of a GOURMET reader), I would submit about fifteen well considered names from the Left Bank. These restaurants would range from the palatial to the humble, from the dignified to the uproarious, but two factors would be absolutely constant: excellent cooking and individual atmosphere. Such a list has its dangers. Paris bonlcvardiers, if they are still called that, may well raise a quizzical eyebrow at some of the names. Others will rail at the omissions. (There are some glaring ones, and many are deliberate, due to a variety of reasons-neglectful service, an irascible patron, unpardonable pomposity, outrageous prices, or mere nouvean riche chichi.) Regardless of the perils involved, we will risk an honest little directory aimed at the visitor with epicurean leanings. It. should provide at least a cross section of the best and the most amusing places to be found south of the Seine in the summer of 1951. First, however, a few observations for those who have not been in Paris for some years.

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