My favorite restaurant in Paris, and the most beautiful one in my opinion as well, is Chez Chartier. Open everyday, the amazing dining room looks straight out of a period movie. The waiters still wear the 19th century uniform of black waistcoat and long white starched apron over it. The high ceiling echoes all conversations for a friendly urban buzz of sometimes opinionated chats, sometimes sweet murmurs of lovers in delight. The atmosphere is decidedly busy. All the time, everyday, from 11.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. -- the restaurant serves about 1,200 meals a day.
Set back from the street in a busy popular neighborhood, you must cross a typical cobblestoned courtyard 70 feet wide before entering the vast eatery through a turnstile entry door, unbeknown from the street. Sometimes a line forms and snails around the interior square, even spilling to the sidewalk, as the restaurant does not take reservation. No matter the occasion -- Christmas, New Year's, Valentine, any holiday for that matter -- is treated the same here: no reservations!
The reputation of Chez Chartier among Parisians and connoisseurs has kept the restaurant full since well over a hundred years. With amazingly simple and delicious ordinary food, the customers come back again and again -- once you're hooked, you must return. The cuisine is just like at home: hard-boiled eggs, roasted chicken, every basic cooking our grandmas and mothers used to serve at lunch or dinner is to be found here. The prices are probably similar to what you would pay if you were to shop yourself. Pig feet, roasted bar with fennel, blood sausage, farm chicken, beef tartare (grounded raw meat), Alsatian choucroute are regular staples of the menu, but nowhere else can you get a foie gras serving for less than $7. The desserts are decadent and mostly based on fruits.
The first time I ate at Chez Chartier when I was a teenager, I was shocked to see hard-boiled egg with mayonnaise on the menu. I thought of this as something you would only eat at home, in the simplicity of your own comforting kitchen -- not at a restaurant where you actually pay for it, albeit a very cheap price. It made me laugh. Despise the simplicity of the menu, you can order a $6 glass of Champagne to go with your shredded carrots if you wish.
The great hall feels like a train station at times, with hordes of business people shouting excited conversations. The very high ceiling covered by a glass ceiling (verrière) looks just like a green house for humans. Great globes of white light soften the skin tone and enliven the eyes of lovers. The original name when it opened in 1896 was Le Bouillon Chartier, as it was first a sort of soup kitchen, hence the word bouillon, which means broth in French. The continued service of great food at great prices keeps the tradition and nostalgia alive.
The swift waiters take your order and write it down on the white paper tablecloth, and when you're done with your meal, they add all the prices on the table, and that is your bill! An adorable remnant of 19th century custom. The uniform here is starched white apron over a black waistcoat, for men and women alike. The service is fast and precise, with waiters waltzing around like black and white sentinels. The tables here are convivial style, so you may very well share your lunch with strangers, and maybe they'll become more, who knows? That alone is the greatest conversation starter!
A national landmark since 1989, the 3,000 square foot hall has tall columns and a mezzanine which adds to the grandiose architecture. Many period movies were shot here, very little has changed in the décor since it opened 118 years ago. The wooden drawers kept in the 319-seat dining room were meant to hold regular customers' fabric napkins, each fitted with a ring, sometimes personalized, to ensure that no other was using your own private linen. Imagine how faithful the clients had to be! Some ate there everyday, some still do. And remember that paper handkerchief and napkin did not exist yet.
The price list is more than decent for a landmarked restaurant in the center of Paris: appetizers run from $1.35 to $9; entrees are $11 to $18; desserts $2.50 to $5.50, including cheeses. Twelve snails cost $18. And remember that in France, what Americans call entrees are the appetizers, meaning that the first course here is called une entrée, and the main course is called le plat. Also, the first floor in America is the second one in France. So when you are on a French first floor, it is called le rez-de-chaussée, which literally translates to "at street level"; and if you are looking for the second floor, well then it is le premier étage.
Bon Appétit! (and the T at the end is silent, by the way.)
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