The following is an excerpt from my new book, Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day.
Although my 1963 edition of Europe on Five Dollars a Day says it's the Left Bank where you'll find what remains of authentic Paris, Arthur Frommer has one major find on the Right Bank, to which he devotes nearly an entire page of praise: a locals-only gem called Le Grand Colbert. It's "the cheapest restaurant of Paris," he says, and
It is the oddest restaurant in the world, and the only explanation I've conceived for it is that it exists primarily to serve the clerks and secretaries of the Paris "Bourse" (Stock Exchange), which is located one long avenue block away. The most amazing thing about the Colbert is that it has a huge, gilded interior, straight out of the era of Toulouse- Lautrec ... Paper tablecloths only, terribly crowded, get there at 1 p.m. to miss the heaviest lunch-time rush.
As instructed, I arrived around 1 p.m. When I peeked in the window, I could see that the interior was every bit as magnificent as advertised, with high ceilings framed by elaborate crown molding and seemingly acres of wooden booths. There was a menu in the window, listing classic bistro fare plus a few nods to our globalized age, including "lamb stew curry style with basmati rice."
Nearly everything was over 20 euros -- so much for "cheapest restaurant of Paris." I nervously fingered the €50 note in my pocket, which was supposed to last me a couple of days more. There was something far more remarkable in one of the other windows: a movie poster for the Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton romantic comedy "Something's Gotta Give." An article from the Australian accompanied the poster. Its headline read, "Star brasserie can't stop counting its chickens." I skimmed the first paragraph and figured out the gist: a key scene of the movie was filmed at Le Grand Colbert, and tourists had been flocking there ever since -- so much, too, for being a hidden, locals-only spot.
I was hungry, so I took a photo of the article, intending to peruse the rest later. I glanced at my reflection in the window and hastily combed my hair with my fingers, then took a deep breath and walked inside. I was greeted by a ferret of a maître d', who visibly recoiled at the sight of me. I silently translated what he was thinking: Merde. Another American who saw that movie. I was suddenly acutely aware that I was a disheveled backpacker who didn't belong here, even in spite of my clean, if rumpled, shirt and finger-combed hair. The maître d' beckoned, turned, and walked purposefully as he led me to a table away from the rest of the dwindling lunch crowd, as though quarantining me.
The waitress presented me with a menu, and I scanned it for something at least marginally in line with my budget and general culinary cowardice. Aha: roasted chicken. Sounds good. Serve it quick and get me out of here, s'il vous plaît. It arrived with a little dish of pommes frites, even though I didn't order them -- the menu had them as a side dish, five euros. For a moment, I thought, Awesome, free food! Maybe this place wasn't so bad. Or maybe -- my anxiety kicked in, full force -- it was more plausible that they were going to charge me double, triple, quintuple, as part of one of those "mess with the tourists" hustles that modern guidebooks warn you about, but Frommer, at least in 1963, did not. I lightly touched the €50 note again, then pulled my camera out of my bag. I scrolled through my recent photos as I chewed my chicken -- which was actually quite tasty, I should note, the herb rub and tender meat perfectly balanced.
I stopped on the photo of the article in the window and zoomed in to read the text.
My jaw froze midmastication, then fell as I read. The star of the story was the maître d', outspoken in his annoyance with tourists and especially tired of those who "ring up and want to book the table Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton ate at." No, I thought, recalling his quarantining. Surely he hadn't ... Weeks later, at home, I tracked down a copy of the movie and watched it in a panic and found my answer: Yes. That's where he sat me. The Annoying American Table.
I kept reading the blurry text on my camera and learned that the staff was also sick of everyone always ordering the same meal as the stars: roast chicken. With a side of pommes frites.
I wasn't just a disheveled backpacker and a stereotypical American tourist, which was bad enough. On top of that, I was a full-on Diane Keaton groupie, a Jack Nicholson stalker, a glazed-eyed, hard-core romantic-comedy obsessive.
The server walked by, intentionally looking away as she passed.
I strongly considered hiding under the table. Part of me wanted to call out, "No, you don't understand! I'm not one of them! Sacré bleu! What a misunderstanding! I am a journalist! A scholar! A tourist reenactor -- not a real one." Somehow, though, I wasn't sure that pulling out my 1963 guidebook would be compelling evidence of my normalness and lack of bizarre obsessions.
"Arthur," I muttered, "what are you doing to me?"
My eyes darted around the room, taking in every detail, trying to distract myself from the queasiness settling into my gut. No wonder Hollywood had come calling. This place was perfect Paris, no soundstage necessary. The hydralike Beaux Arts light fixtures. The jazz concert posters behind the bar. The palm trees in massive azure urns.
Every time my gaze crossed paths with the bartender's, I noticed that he was staring at me with an unsettling mixture of confusion and contempt. I tried to focus on my food and reassure myself that I was imagining things, unfairly projecting on this guy the famous French snootiness that I still had yet to experience. He's just staring off into space, I told myself. He's bored. He's, you know, pondering Sartre or something.
I glanced back at him for confirmation. Oh, God. No. He really was staring -- glowering -- at me. I pulled out my notebook and spent the rest of the meal doodling and jotting down random observations, my best pensive expression on my face, my eyes fixed on the page, certain that if I looked up, I'd find an entire row of Parisians leering, smirking. Maybe if I kept doing this, I told myself, my ruminative countenance would prove to him that I was, truly, not just another tourist but an incognito philosopher who had taken a stroll over from the Sorbonne for lunch. Maybe my black leather Moleskine -- notebook of Hemingway and Chatwin -- would win him over.
I recalled that Jack Nicholson had also played an addled writer in one of his more famous roles, in "The Shining." My blank page, like his, was my curse; filling it was my obsession. I was running out of room in the notebook, but I vowed my pen wouldn't stop until the bill arrived. I wrote in the margins, my text running sideways, filling in gaps, becoming ever smaller.
"Just gonna keep writing and not look up," says one line. "'Cause this sucks."
This sucks. This sucks. This sucks.
Reprinted from Europe of 5 Wrong Turns a Day by Doug Mack by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Mack.
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