‘WFH has destroyed French lunch culture,’ I text plaintively from the Eurostar. ‘No one wants to have lunch with me.’
I’ve been exiled from my home town for two long pandemic years, and in that time a quiet revolution has crept through the streets of Paris. Vietnamese bún joints grace every street corner; pâtisseries offer delivery services; Prêt is trying to muscle in where Brioche Dorée once did a roaring trade. Could it be that packed diaries, zoom calls and other ‘pomodoro methods’ have put an end to that most hallowed of traditions, le long lunch? Are Parisians now nibbling granola bars and swigging Huel at their desks?
I refuse to believe it and, thankfully, the capital of steak frites and baba au rhum shows no intention of proving me wrong. Here’s the word on the street: bistros, bouillons and brasseries – the city’s temples to classic cuisine – are having something of a renaissance.
What’s in those three Bs? Quick service, always; crisp linens, sometimes. Chalkboard menus. A special of the day. A curt welcome that mellows to a reluctant smile, if not overt flirtation, after a joke or two. So far, so Parisian, you’ll say. But ever since Bouillon Julien hit the ‘gram in 2018 in all its jade-and-plum Art Nouveau glory, these cheap and cheerful joints (bouillon means broth, a working-class staple) have attracted hungry punters from all walks of life.
The latest in this genre is Brasserie Dubillot, a too-hyped spot I was fully prepared to write off as mere insta-fodder. My fears were founded – gaggles of gormless teenagers regularly stop to snap away at its frou-frou façade, and I confess to taking a few selfies in the Lynchian loos – but a warm welcome and succinct menu quickly put them to rest. Emphasis here is on sourcing: everything is produced in France, chopped, carved and stewed by the in-house brigade, and beautifully plated. My poireaux vinaigrette comes with a generous topping of crunchy hazelnuts; a dish of chunky Aveyron sausage, buttery mash and crystalline jus proves rightly popular. This new breed of casual hangouts, clearly, isn’t just about good looks.
Having dropped off my suitcase at the torturously comfortable Château Voltaire (‘I think they’re venting Valium through the air-con system’, I text again) and soaked for an hour in its subterranean spa, I drag myself away from the temptations of room service for a solo dinner at Café Les Deux Gares, an offshoot of its namesake hotel across the road. Perched by the walkway between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, this bistro du jour once took its remit very seriously indeed. Thankfully artist Luke Edward Hall has torn out its kitsch train seats and SNCF signage to make way for his signature bold design.
The vibe is now casual cool – striped banquettes, a painted tortoiseshell ceiling, chirpy staff grooving along to Bob Dylan classics. My marble-topped table affords me a front-row view of the glass-encased kitchen, where Bocuse-trained chef Jonathan Schweizer dishes up whatever takes his fancy that night. It’s Paris in a nutshell: a trio of friends discuss heartbreak and the cost of real estate over platters of oysters and saucisson; American expats share literary gossip and goose rillettes; I blissfully commune with scallop sashimi, trout eggs and the thrilling feeling that I am very much not in London anymore.
The following evening, slightly disheveled, I roll from a disco nap on my marshmallowy bed to bijou Brasserie L’Emil downstairs. I’d love to tell you all about it, but I’m so engrossed in conversation – I haven’t seen my dinner date in 10 years – that I barely take anything in. I vaguely note velvet drapes, candlelight and a seductively lit bar; a margarita appears, followed by a crunchy fennel salad, spiced tartare and perfect golden frites. The mark of a good brasserie is in its atmosphere, its capacity to encourage you to tipsiness and its nostalgic appeal, I decide. Brasserie L’Emil succeeds on all fronts.
My last lunch of the trip takes me to Bouillon République, a vast canteen-like space near the canal, where quarts of wine come plonked in soda-sized bottles and the paper menu reads like a who’s who of hearty French cuisine. Waiters swirl choucroute, glazed ham and boeuf bourguignon around the room at break-neck speed, a raucous ballet of shouted orders and swiftly cleared tables. My duck confit is nothing to write home about, but the île flottante (cloud-like meringue, custard, crushed pink praline) hits the sweet spot.
I’m relieved to see my pompous table neighbour try to push a shot of calvados on his hapless intern. The lack of chocolate mousse in a French restaurant, he shouts to anyone nosy enough to listen, ‘c’est vraiment de la merde.’ And what could be more Parisian than that?
THREE MORE FOR THE ROAD
Sure, Londoners could schlep to the Berkeley for a taste of Cédric Grolet’s ethereal cakes, but they’re far better enjoyed from your Château Voltaire suite as a midnight snack. 35 Avenue de l’Opéra, 75002
Overlooking the Place St Sulpice, Café de la Mairie was my first brasserie love. Its croque-monsieur is made with cured ham; say ‘oui’ when asked whether you want it on Poîlane bread. Bonus points if you BYO pastries from nearby Pierre Hermé. 8 Place Saint-Sulpice, 75006
A 1920s mosaic floor, proper linen and a fresco dating back to those heady post-war days: if you’re looking for old-school charm, Bastille’s Grande Brasserie has bags of it. 6 Rue de la Bastille, 75004
That’s lunch sorted, but if you’re in need of a nightcap read our guide to the world’s best date-night bars
All photography by Skip Hopkins