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2000s Archive

It’s What’s for Dinner

Originally Published March 2001
Food critic François Simon would like you to know: A lot of people in Paris have just called out for pizza.

Whenever I read an article on my hometown in a foreign periodical, I feel like I’m living in a dream, a beautiful dream, so charming, but, like Peter Mayle’s vision of Provence, a frozen time capsule of French life before 1960.

I discover that, like all Parisians, I am supposed to drop by the market every morning before seeking out the flakiest croissants at my favorite boulangerie, take pastis before lunch, and then spend three lazy hours over a sumptuous meal attended by a team of waiters whose only concern is my culinary well-being. Perhaps before heading home I’m to run across Paris to find the most sublime cheese to serve after dinner.

Food is a delicious lie that makes us believe life is heaven. Want the truth? Then follow me to the Marché d’Aligre, just five minutes from my apartment in the Bastille, on a Sunday morning. Unfortunately, the yuppie couple next door won’t be coming with us. They hate the market, preferring pizza and take-out from the local traiteur. Judging by their trash, they’d rather drink than eat anyway. To make things easier, I’ve broken Sunday morning down as follows: Twenty-five percent of all Parisians are crazy about good food and are roaming the markets in search of it; another quarter couldn’t care less; a further twenty-five percent are on a perpetual diet; and the remainder are enjoying their grasse matinée—a nice late sleep.

Do join me and some of my neighbors, though, as we shop. There’s María, who will be grilling sardines for her Portuguese family this afternoon. And Ahmed. He’s having friends in for couscous later. All of us are groaning about the mushy apples, the watery tomatoes, and the tired old fish. Yes, there are excellent purveyors here, but we’ll have to seek them out—dare I say it?—just as in every other city in the world.

Let’s walk a little farther. We’ll pass a long line at McDonald’s and a sad bachelor walking into Picard Surgelés, a ubiquitous chain of stores dispensing frozen food. Yet even here things aren’t what they seem; there are excellent shrimp today, for example, better than those I saw at the poissonnerie earlier. And, thank heaven, nearby is À Sousceyrac, a classic old bistro that’s filling up fast for Sunday lunch. Let’s pop in. A wide selection of the Paris bourgeoisie is already comfortably seated. They start with a coupe de champagne, followed by foie gras, then roast quail and sautéed potatoes, cheese, Grand Marnier soufflé, some café, an Armagnac. All the women have apparently gone to the same hairdresser, the men to the same tailor. I once heard that a man was so subdued by his sumptuous meal that he slid slowly off the leather banquette and disappered forever.

Not long ago, everyone knew where to go for Sunday lunch and the right spot for a special occasion. Like shoes lining up in a closet, you simply picked the appropriate pair. Nothing is that simple anymore; the choies are staggering. Sushi, anyone?

Everything changed dramatically in Paris after the student uprisings of May 1968, although the foreign publications may not have noticed. Don’t look for the French housewife, slaving over the stove in her kitchen. Madame has gone off to work. Countless French mothers, it seems, have actually forgotten to pass on the recipes that they dutifully learned from their mothers. Oops. Sound familiar?

Right now, Paris has never been so open to new food. And Parisians, especially the young aren’t that interested in long, fussy meals anymore. They aren’t even demanding good food. They crave a scene. To accommodate those who would rather hang out than eat well, a new style of restaurant has grown up.

“It’s silly to expect a gastronomic demonstration at every Parisian table,” says Jean-Louis Costes, who, with his brother, Gilbert, runs some of the hippest restaurants in Paris—Georges, Café Ruc, L’Esplanade. “To eat as a gourmet in Paris these days is considered almost obscene.”

In the end, I’m grateful for all of our remaining three-star temples of gastronomy. After a superb dinner recently at one such place, an American friend proclaimed: “Paris is still the gastronomic capital of the world. It must be true.”

“It is,” I said. Then we clinked our glasses of Champagne.