I’ve been in love with the brasseries of Paris ever since I first unknowingly visited a very famous one, Au Pied de Cochon (At the Pig’s Foot) in Les Halles, as a booze-muddled twenty-year-old in the middle of the night a longtime ago. What instantly seduced me about these restaurants was their nonchalant loucheness and their contagiously happy atmosphere of other people’s good times.
The food may be better in the city’s bistros, bien sur, but it’s the brasseries that most guilelessly capture the insouciant glamour of daily life in the French capital. Now a Parisian for more than thirty years, my affection for these most emblematic of all Paris restaurants had recently been tested by a skid into mediocrity, when many of them were bought up by penny-pinching corporate-run chains. So as is often true of any long-term relationship, this one has had its seasons. But now that Paris is in the midst of a joyously accelerating brasserie renaissance, I’ve yet again fallen almost as hard for these places as I did on that unforgettable night in the mid-eighties. Let me explain.
After fending off insistent suggestions from my three companions that I join them in sharing a big tray of oysters—in those days, I wouldn’t have eaten an oyster at gunpoint—I ordered some onion soup, and then slid off the banquette in search of the toilets. Desperately relieved when I reached the end of my long and perilously blurry journey, I laughed out loud when I noticed that the door handle to the men’s toilets was a solid brass pig’s foot.
“Vous aimez les cochons?” asked the female restroom attendant who was seated next to a table with several bottles of Cologne, some mouthwash and a small basket filled with the coins of people who had tipped her. It took a minute, but I laughed again when my sodden brain rather surprisingly retrieved enough rusty school French to translate her question into English: Do you like pigs?
Well, perhaps I did, I thought, as I carefully made my way back downstairs to the big buzzing dining room. Pausing on the landing to steady myself, I took it all in for the first time, and felt a rush of pleasure when I realized I was actually part of this great metropolitan spectacle: a busy Parisian restaurant with a strikingly varied crowd of people eating and drinking with abandon in the dead of night.
“I realized I was actually part of this great metropolitan spectacle: a busy Parisian restaurant with a strikingly varied crowd of people eating and drinking with abandon in the dead of night.”
Only forty-eight hours earlier, I’d left behind the desk where I spent my days typing letters and reading manuscripts as the editorial assistant to a famous editor at a New York City publishing house and boarded a knee-cap-numbing budget flight to Brussels. My best friend, John, and I had decided to discover Spain together, a trip that would begin with a visit to his brother, who was studying in Barcelona. To break the long journey south using our second-class rail passes, we’d stopped in Paris for a night, dutifully trudged around the Louvre for a few hours and then slept all afternoon before going out to the discotheque where we’d met Gus and Peter, a pair of friends from Sydney. When the club closed, the four of us stood around on the sidewalk making silent calculations about how we wanted the evening to end, and when no one dared to go first, the Aussies, who were much more sophisticated than we were, suggested we go to Au Pied de Cochon, a brasserie in Les Halles.
This was an excellent idea, not only because we hadn’t had dinner but also because of the eager number of vodka tonics I’d gulped down on an empty stomach. This also gave us more time to sort out how the evening would end. For my part, I couldn’t decide which of the two handsome men from Down Under I fancied more, raven-haired Gus with the blue eyes or sandy-mopped Peter with the green ones. Swaddled in an ecstatic fuzz that had just been boosted by a glass or two of Beaujolais and weighing my erotic options, I hadn’t been paying much attention to the lively Paris restaurant where we’d ended up at 2.30am. To be sure, the fanciful wall sconces decorated with oversized bunches of polished glass grapes, the lean waiters in black waist coats with long white aprons, and the giddy sybaritic patter regularly punctuated by laughter had charmed me, but it would be many years before I understood where I was.
Triumphantly returning to the table, I pierced the thick cap of melted cheese on my bowl of soup and luxuriated in the allium-scented tuft of steam the slit sent up, a prompt that made me realize I was actually very hungry. The bone-deep bovine richness of the soup packed such a punch of primal pleasure, I momentarily forgot my more pressing preoccupation with the erotic lay of the land at our table, and then someone spoke to me.
“S’il vous plait, jeune homme.” I glanced at the rouged older woman with an ample bosom draped with a good dozen long strands of fake pearls. She smiled and lowered her eyes. “A lady never pours her own wine in public. Could you help me, please?”
I lifted the bottle out of the wine bucket on her table and poured out the last few drops of white wine. “I hope you’re not this polite when you have all of your clothes off,” said the lady with a cackle, and then she noticed that I’d returned her bottle to the bucket upside down, because it was empty. “Oh, merde!” she said, and pouted. “I guess I’ll just have to order a glass of Champagne.” Now a sturdy man in a sky-blue smock stopped at her table, grinned and kissed the woman on both cheeks, before whispering something in her ear that made her chortle.
“Oh, qu’il est beau, mon Gaston,” she purred, and for the first time I could decipher that beyond her present practiced time-worn charm, she had once been beautiful. “I’ve known him since he was just sixteen,” she whispered to me, paused to sip from the flute of Champagne that Gaston had doubtless sent her way, and then looked hard at our quartet. “You’re good-looking boys,” she appraised, and then, “Are you cousins?” We mumbled. “No, we’re just friends,” my friend John, who also spoke French, told her.
The tray of oysters arrived, and though I was focused on my onion soup, I could still feel her observing us. A few minutes later, she whispered something to me again, but I couldn’t hear, so I leaned sideways towards her. “Look at me,” she said, and when I did, she planted a quick hard kiss on my mouth. I recoiled but the shock left my cheeks blazing.
“Et voilá!” she said. “The reason I did that is so you’ll always remember this night in Paris at Au Pied de Cochon, and you’ll always remember me, too!” she told me, and with that she gathered up her belongings and left. The vignette of the unbidden kiss left the other three in hysterics.
“As long as I live, I’ll never forget the look on Alec’s face after he’d been snogged by an old French tart,” said Gus, the handsome Tasmanian. As it worked out, none of us would forget that night, but little did I know at the time that the most enduring gift of the evening had been my indoctrination into the occasionally febrile pleasures of the Parisian brasserie.
“the most enduring gift of the evening had been my indoctrination into the occasionally febrile pleasures of the Parisian brasserie”
After I moved to Paris, I learned the history of these places. The word ‘brasserie’ means brewery in French and many breweries in eastern France had simple taverns where people could drink their suds and eat hearty rustic food. After Germany annexed Alsace and much of Lorraine at the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), refugees fleeing life in the occupied region arrived in Paris and opened simple places that specialized in beer and the comfort foods they’d left behind, including choucroute garnie, a classic brasserie dish of sauerkraut garnished with sausages and other cuts of pork (on a chilly autumn night in Paris, there are few dishes more satisfying than a good choucroute, and the place to go for a serviceable one is La Coupole).
The brasseries of Paris boomed during the Belle Epoque, when thousands of people came to the city for the Universal Exposition of 1900, and thrived again during the 1920s, especially in Montparnasse where they were frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, and others.
With their late serving hours and open-daily hours, they enjoyed another round of popularity during the days when Le Tout Paris was frequenting discotheques like Le Club Sept and Le Palace. And then there was the fall—the terrible tip towards inedible food, snide service, and a cringing tackiness that accelerated during the nineties and caused many Parisians to break their brasserie-going habits.
Now, enfin, many of the most famous grande dames, including Le Vaudeville, La Coupole, and yes, Au Pied de Cochon, are gunning again under new owners who understand their DNA and have revived their quality, which is making them popular with millennials and other Parisians who’ve heard the word-of-mouth about their comeback.
“the most famous grande dames…are gunning again under new owners who understand their DNA and have revived their quality”
This great Gallic idiom is also attracting the attention of some of the city’s best chefs, including Eric Fréchon, who has three Michelin stars at L’Epicure at the Hotel Le Bristol. Fréchon opened Lazare, a new-wave brasserie, at the Gare Saint-Lazare four years ago, and noting its popularity, other chefs are toying with the idea of signing brasseries of their own.
I’ve lived in Paris long enough now to see that their allure is pretty much invincible, and the reason why is that they’re so inclusive. Depending on how you play it, you see, a meal at a Paris brasserie can feel like you’re crashing a really good local party, with the difference being that at this one, you’re actually more than welcome. So don’t be shy. Go ahead, let yourself fall into the arms of an old French tart like I did, or maybe have a flirt with a tire salesman from Mulhouse, chat up the nice family from Buenos Aires sitting next to you, take a break from your usual self with some spontaneity, even a dash or two of madness. You won’t regret it. I know I never have.
Five Classic Paris Brasseries
Au Pied de Cochon
This brilliantly bawdy old place in Les Halles is still as much today as it was when I teetered through the door many years ago. Originally, it served market workers in the old Les Halles, the central food market of Paris. The market long ago moved to the suburbs, but an intriguingly eclectic crowd of night owls still swing by in the middle of the night—it’s open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a bowl of onion soup, some oysters, or maybe the signature Tentation de Saint-Antoine “Patron des Charcutiers,” a trencherman’s (or woman’s) feast of pig offcuts—tail, ears and feet—served with a lashing of sauce Béarnaise. It was named in honor of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of pork butchers. 6 Rue Coquillière, 1st Arrondissement, pieddecochon.com
This gorgeous art-deco brasserie, just across the street from the old stock exchange building in the heart of Paris, recently had a major facelift. The beautiful marble-lined dining room has been renovated and its new menu slings classics like steak tartare and more interesting dishes like sea bream in cockle cream sauce with asparagus risotto.
29 Rue Vivienne, 2nd Arrondissement, vaudevilleparis.com
The Gare Saint-Lazare, the busiest train station in France and the portal for trips to Normandy, was where chef Eric Fréchon, a Norman native, used to alight as a boy when he came to Paris. “I know the diversity of the people who pass through the station,” says Fréchon, “so I wanted to create a place where everyone would feel welcome and which everyone could afford.”This explains the lively ambience of this popular brasserie and a menu that runs from splurges like risotto with green asparagus, morels, and Parmesan (€30), but also a daily special for a very reasonable €19—Monday’s quenelles de brochette (fluffy pike-perch dumpling) in sauce Nantua (crayfish) aren’t to be missed. And if you’re yearning for crepes Suzette, this is the place.
Rue Intérieure, 8th Arrondissement, lazare-paris.fr
Even though it’s popular with travelers, Montmartre retains a delightful village-like atmosphere that gets tuned up at the end of the day when the crowds thin out and it belongs to the locals again. Join them at this excellent family-owned and run brasserie that serves a full flush of Gallic favorites, including great oysters, fish soup, escargots, Brittany sole with lemon butter, and a first-rate steak tartare.
52 Rue des Abbesses, 18th Arrondissement, la-mascotte-montmartre.com
Le Train Bleu
Okay, the food is often average, but this landmarked Belle Epoque dining room in the Gare de Lyon station is one of the most exultantly beautiful restaurants in the world. Order simply—maybe the turbot with a tomato-ginger condiment or the roast lamb, which is carved tableside and served with a potato gratin that includes Fourme d’Ambert cheese, and you’ll be just fine.