Liberty, Equality, Gastronomy: Paris via a 19th-Century Guide
Starting in 1803, Grimod, whose family fortune had largely been lost during the Revolution, financed his voracious appetite by writing a series of best-selling guidebooks to the culinary wonders of Paris — its famous delicatessens, pâtissiers and chocolatiers — including the first reviews of an alluring new institution called le restaurant. His Almanachs des Gourmands were something new, the Michelins and Zagats of his era, and their offbeat style reflects the author’s larger-than-life character. Grimod was born in 1758 with deformed hands, one a birdlike talon and the other a webbed pincer. But he was not one to be held back, so he had learned to write — and dine — with metal prostheses. A social butterfly, he became a successful theater critic in Paris before the Revolution, survived the Terror and amused himself later by hosting literary salons in the cafes. And, of course, eating.
It was on the trail of Grimod one day last summer that I passed through the vaulted arches of the Palais Royal, opposite the north wing of the Louvre, and into a vast, empty courtyard. In Grimod’s day, the Palais Royal was the heart and soul of Paris, a rowdy entertainment center filled with brothels and sideshows that, despite its louche ambience, also boasted some of his favorite specialty food stores and restaurants.
For me, it was the first stop in what would become a week of wandering the modern city armed with a map on which I had marked streets mentioned by Grimod. One of the most exciting things about the Almanachs is that they include detailed gastronomic walking tours of Paris, called “nutritional itineraries” — each one a vivid window onto the past.
Fortunately, on my last day in Paris, the past and present seamlessly met, and for a change the restaurant seemed to come to me. I was strolling the Rue St.-Honoré near the site of another long-gone boulangerie when I noticed a tiny row of medieval structures attached to the Church of St.-Roch. One hole-in-the-wall turned out to be a minuscule restaurant complete with original pot-cluttered kitchen. It was called La Cordonnerie (the Shoemaker’s) and, according to the blackboard, it served cuisine de marché, fresh market food. I had accidentally hit pay dirt: the fantasy of a charming French boîte.
There were fewer than 20 seats in this intimate space, which dated from 1690, with blackened beams against the low white ceiling. The chef was a maestro in his cramped workplace, preparing alone the day’s menu of foie gras in homemade chocolate sauce and roast pork with field mushrooms. He was also the owner, I later learned, having inherited the restaurant from his parents.
I eagerly took a seat in the farthest corner, ordered without restraint, as Grimod might have done, and chatted, between sips of muscadet, with an elderly couple at a nearby table. They said they lived around the corner on the Rue St.-Honoré and came here at least once a week to enjoy the fresh market fare. “Always the full three courses at lunch,” giggled Madame. “Then a nap — and no dinner!”
I felt sure that Grimod must have eaten here at some time or another. He certainly would have approved of the setting. Of one of his favorite restaurants, Le Gacque’s, he wrote: “His salons are nothing sumptuous, but the cuisine is good, the wines excellent, and the prices moderate.” Plus, there was a friendly, unobtrusive staff.
Of course, a gourmand’s work is never done, at least not in Paris. After coffee, I had my guidebook in hand. Now if only I could find Sulleaux’s confectionery store, for some of his legendary petits fours. ...
THE REVOLUTION, HE ATE HIS WAY THROUGH IT
WHERE TO EAT
Le Grand Véfour, 17, rue de Beaujolais, 75001; 33-1-42-96-56-27; www.grand-vefour.com.
Au Rocher de Cancale, 78, rue Montorgueil, 75002; 33-1-42-33-50-29; www.aurocherdecancale.fr.
Le Procope, 13, rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, 75006; 33-1-40-46-79-00; www.procope.com.
Lapérouse, 51, Quai des Grands-Augustins, 75006; 33-1-56-79-24-31; www.laperouse.fr.
La Cordonnerie, 20, rue St.-Roch, 75001; 33-1-42-60-17-42.
WHERE TO SHOP
Mustards: Maille, 8, Place de la Madeleine, 75008; 33-1-40-15-06-00; www.maille.us.
Chocolates: Debauve & Gallais, 30, rue des Saints-Pères, 75007; 33-1-45-48-54-67; www.debauve-et-gallais.com.
Pâtisserie: Stohrer, 51, rue Montorgueil, 75002; 33-1-42-33-38-20; www.stohrer.fr.
Gastronomic literature: Librairie Rémi Flachard, 9, rue du Bac, 75007; 33-1-42-86-86-87.
WHERE TO STAY
The Hôtel de Crillon (10, Place de la Concorde, 75008; 33-1-44-71-15-00; www.crillon.com), offering over-the-top luxury, stands right next to the site of Grimod’s family mansion, now occupied by the building that houses the United States Embassy. Doubles from 770 euros (about $1,180 at $1.53 to the euro).
The Hôtel de la Bretonnerie (22, rue Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie, 75004; 33-1-48-87-77-63; www.bretonnerie.com) in the Marais district operates in a restored 18th-century hôtel particulier, or private mansion, with exposed wooden beams and a magnificent wooden staircase that creaks at every step. Doubles from 135 euros.
WHAT TO READ
Almanach des Gourmands by Grimod de la Reynière. Paper copies are rare, but scans can now be found on Googlebooks.
“The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture” by Rebecca L. Spang (Harvard University Press, 2000).
TONY PERROTTET is the author of "Napoleon’s Privates." His next book,
about the underground Grand Tour in the Victorian era, will be
published by Broadway Books.
This is a great article that captures very well the atmosphere of Paris. If you feel nostalgic suddenly, I would recommend you to do your own Paris Tour in New York.
Here are few ideas for you :
. Debauve et Gallais
20 East 69th street. www.debauveandgallais.com
. Maille Mustard
at Food Emporium, Citarella, Fairway. www.maille.com
. La Bergamote Patisserie
169 9th Avenue. www.labergamotenyc.com
. Silver Moon Bakery
2740 Broadway Avenue @105th. www.silvermoonbakery
. Pastis Restaurant
9 9th avenue. www.pastisny.com
. Le Paris
1312 Madison Avenue @93rd St (look at my post on Carnegie Hill. November 10th)
80 Spring Street. www.balthazarny.com