Paris rightfully claims many world-class distinctions, not the least of which is its position as one of the planet’s great culinary capitals. That claim-to-fame is enhanced by the historic backdrop of marvelously preserved buildings, churches, cobbled streets and sidewalk terraces which serve as the set upon which Paris’s dining scene is played out.
Paris confronts us with so much history and so much exquisite food and wine, it has always made sense to me to combine the two whenever possible, especially since the opportunity to dine in historic settings is perhaps the closest the modern visitor can come to tangibly experiencing a slice of history.
Eating is the most basic of human activities and shared pleasures. The sensations of taste and the pleasures of wine were the same for Julius Caesar, Louis XIV and Napoleon as they are for us today. Food and drink are a common bond connecting us to our our ancestors. By eating where they ate and, if possible, eating what they ate, one enjoys an interactive brush with the Past that surpasses the dry pages of history books or sterile strolls through museums.
You’ll never meet Ernest Hemingway or Picasso, but in Paris you can eat in the same cafés, and often at the same tables, as these legends. You can commune with the creative geist of George Gershwin over a cocktail in the basement piano bar where he composed An American in Paris, or you can dine in the houses where Lafayette lived, Voltaire died and Louis XIII was proclaimed king.
Sharing History across the dining table is an important part of our escorted trips to the City of Light and one of the reasons why our Moveable Feast excursions are so special. Fine dining establishments abound in every major city of the world, but to dine well in the kind of historic settings that we research and reserve provides a unique experience which you won’t find at home. And isn’t a unique experience why you come to Paris in the first place?
As an example, the following is a recap of the three dinners we’ll be hosting on our upcoming “Moveable Feast” trip this October.
Situated a few blocks south of the Paris Opera, Drouant overlooks the quiet and historic square, Place Gaillon. It has occupied this location since its opening in 1880 under the direction of an Alsatian restaurateur, Charles Drouant. By the beginning of the 1900’s, its regular clientele included the artists Renoir, Pissaro and Rodin and it was well established as one of the city’s fine dining spots. It retains that reputation to this day. While notable for its cuisine, especially since being acquired in 2006 by 3-star Michelin Chef, Antoine Westermann (Another Alsatian native), it is still most famous as the site of the annual Prix Goncourt presentation.
The Prix Goncourt is a literary prize awarded to the best new French author of the year; the equivalent of the American Pulitzer Prize. The Goncourt brothers were writers, publishers and literary critics who counted the great literary figures of Belle Époque Paris as their peers. Younger brother Jules died at the age of 39 from syphilis; an all-too-common occurrence in 19th-century Paris. With older brother Edmond’s death in 1903 his estate endowed the prize in Jules’ honor. For the past 102 years (beginning in 1914) the committee that administers the prize meets for lunch on the second Tuesday of each month at Drouant to discuss candidates, and in November the lucky recipient is invited to Drouant for lunch to receive his/her award. Some of the more illustrious recipients include Marcel Proust, André Malreaux and Simon de Beauvoir.
While the downstairs décor has been modernized in recent years, there is one room on the second floor which has remained unchanged for over a century – Le Salon Goncourt. This oval shaped chamber, encased in rich paneling, accommodates exactly 16 guests; the 15 members of the committee and the recipient. It is the most coveted table in Paris on the day of the presentation and it is in this historic private dining room that the 16 members of our Moveable Feast group will dine on our first night in Paris.
A multi-course menu prepared under the direction of a Michelin-star chef to the accompaniment of perfectly paired wines, with the ghosts of Marcel Proust and Simon De Beauvoir, in a sumptuous yet intimate private room rich in history . . . Not a bad way to launch a week in Paris, n’est-ce pas?
Dinner Cruise, aboard LE CALIFE:
A “must” for every visitor to Paris is a boat tour on the River Seine. It is one of those “Oh so touristy, but oh so fun” experiences and it does actually provide an excellent panorama of many of the great monuments, churches and museums. It is especially impressive if done at night when all the riverside monuments are spectacularly illuminated. The famous Bateaux Mouches boats ply the river hourly, their prerecorded loudspeakers describing the sights in spurts of French, English, Spanish and German. The problem with the Bateaux Mouches is the crush of humanity which is loaded like cattle onto these large vessels, and the cacophony of gabbing tourists, selfie-taking teens and impolite provincial bumpkins, all of whom detract mightily from an otherwise enjoyable 60 minute aquatic circuit of the city.
The solution to this challenge finds its best recourse in an upscale dinner cruise in a smaller, well-appointed boat, reserved specifically for a more genteel clientele. Our research has led us to select one boat in particular based on quality of food and overall experience: Le Calife
We are always impressed by the excellence of the cuisine and the presentation, especially considering that all the food is prepared on-board. Champagne and better-than average wines accompany the meal.
The dining deck is enclosed in large glass panes to provide quiet and to ward off potential wind and weather challenges. The cruise is perfectly timed to pass the Eiffel Tower at exactly 10:00 pm when the Tower illuminates the skyline with thousands of twinkling lights across its entire surface.
While Le Calife is not a historical treasure per se, it does allow us to combine a wonderful meal with a survey of some of the most historic and iconic landmarks of the City of Light. It is truly one of those “Not so touristy, but oh so fun” memories that our Moveable Feast friends take home with them.
AUBERGE NICOLAS FLAMEL:
For a combination of fine cuisine and historic surroundings this restaurant ranks near the top of our Ten-Best list. How many other dining spots can claim a rising gourmet chef providing a fabulous multi-course tasting menu in the oldest house in Paris; a house built over 600 years ago by a famous wizard?
Nicolas Flamel was an actual historical personage whose posthumous saga has become the stuff of legends. He was born almost 700 years ago and spent his life as a successful scribe and manuscript seller. Following his death, stories began to circulate that his earthly wealth was due to his discovery of an ancient text which contained the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, a formula for turning base metals like lead into gold, and for achieving immortality (One version of his legend claims that he still lives). While Nicolas’ prosperity was actually the result of a fortuitous marriage to a wealthy widow, the legend continued to grow and Nicolas has come down to us today as one of the great alchemists of all time. The alchemist/wizard reputation gained new momentum recently when Nicolas’ legend was woven into one of J.K. Rowling’s novels, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Regardless of the source of Flamel’s wealth, he and his wife were generous benefactors of several churches and charitable causes. With their wealth they endowed fourteen hospitals, three chapels, seven churches and several houses. In 1407 they completed a house intended as a refuge for the poor and homeless. The house still stands and its founding date makes it the oldest surviving house in Paris. The poor were allowed to stay there in return for nothing more than offering a few daily prayers. One of those prayers is still inscribed above the entrance.
For the past several years the building has housed a very upscale restaurant under the direction of Alan Geaam, a rising chef with two other highly rated restaurants in Saint-Germain-des-Pres and Les Halles. His Menu de Degustation (Tasting Menu) is a five course marvel. We always opt for the 5 wine pairings that accompany the meal. We think you’ll enjoy it as much as we do; definitely a meal fit for a wizard.
The selection of historic eateries changes on each of our seven day excursions. Future trips will include places like:
- LE PROCOPE: The oldest café in Paris, founded in 1686.
- LE TRAIN BLEU: The city’s most opulent dining hall, built for the World Exposition of 1900.
- CAFÉ DE LA PAIX: A registered landmark restaurant near the Opera where Europe’s royalty and America’s elite dined at the peak of the Belle Époque in the 1890’s.
- BOUILLON RACINE: A turn-of-the-century architectural masterpiece in the Latin Quarter that lay hidden under layers of paint and plasterboard for almost a century before recently being rediscovered and restored back to its original Art Nouveau splendor.
- LA CLOSERIE DES LILAS: The Lost Generation café in Montparnasse where Ernest Hemingway’s name is engraved on a small brass plate at the bar to indicate his favorite seat.
In addition to the three hosted meals, we build plenty of opportunities into our week-long trips for individual travelers to sample some of the less renowned but equally charming bistros and cafés. Lunch every day and dinner on four evenings are on your own. We encourage you to do some exploring to find that memorable little bistro, that perfect sidewalk café or that cutting edge restaurant in the outer arrondissements, run by a talented young chef on his or her way to Michelin stardom. Great food, reasonable prices and plenty of charm abound in these places. We are at your disposal to assist with recommendations or to help make reservations. Our preference, however, is that you report back to us on some marvelous new discovery you’ve made on your own. A significant portion of my favorites have come from fellow travelers’ discoveries.
Delicious food, historic settings,
good wine and good friends . . .
It simply doesn’t get any better.
CLICK HERE for more information on our “Moveable Feasts” in Paris.
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