Those of you who follow my posts on traveling in Europe already know that I prefer cozy, family-run restaurants. We’ve tried the gastronomique route, with all the foam and inventive cooking techniques imaginable. And it isn’t always easy when two of your party are ovo-lacto vegetarians. (Once in Amboise my wife made it through an entire meal eating only two bread rolls with some butter). Italy is a breeze, but France for all its beauty and cultural splendor can be a real challenge, so let me tell you about the time a few years back where we got ourselves into a gourmet Parisian pickle (a delicious food item, by the way).
You see, it all started when we decided to pass on the traditional choice of a small, welcoming boutique hotel in the French capital and try out one of the grandes maisons, the five-star champions of Paris. And so we ended up enveloped in the luxury of the Hotel de Crillon, facing the magnificent Place de la Concorde and steps from the Tuileries and the Louvre.
Now our stay at the Crillon was lovely (if you don’t mind the four o’clock wake-up call below our side-street window as a massive cascade of glass bottles found its noisy way to recycling in the back of a big truck). But the room itself was expansive (and expensive) and luxurious, the bathroom grand, and the reception most receptive. So when we asked where we might get a good vegetarian meal, the concierge said leave it to her, and we did. Dressing up in our finest, we had the bellhop hail a taxi and off we went. Our destination: Le Pré Catalan restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne.
Now traffic was bad at the evening rush hour, so we asked the driver to phone ahead to announce our delayed arrival, and a brief forty-five minutes late we pulled up in front of the lovely building which houses this grand restaurant. We were welcomed into beautiful surroundings, given a nice round table surrounded by white walls and multiple mirrors and moldings galore. Candelabra stood all about, as did the staff of five who waited attentively to meet our every need and want, with the black-clad maitre d’ directing the culinary show.
Once seated and with napkins placed in our laps, menus were distributed. And these weren’t your piddly, typical-sized listings of food choices, these were gorgeous picture-book–no, poster-sized–volumes in white and gold and black. Since I was the French speaker in our party, it was my job to negotiate the menu to please one and all, and to work with the maitre d’ to satisfy the vegetarian tastes. Meanwhile, bottles of fine French sparkling water and rolls and butter were set before us, and we dug in. I recall we also received an amuse-bouche, but what is was—or whether we could all eat it—remains lost in the mists of time and memory.
Now here’s what you have to understand: I thought we all were looking at the same menu. But no, mine was slightly different, for only mine had prices listed, and the other three guests were blithely ignorant of what I was viewing. And this is a pricey restaurant, indeed. Allow me to convert to dollars to express the magnitude of what I saw: Appetizers started around $125 per person. Main courses rose up from $150 per. Desserts began around $50 apiece. And then there would be wine, water, coffee…and of course, service. Despite not being an arithmetical genius, I was still able to calculate that our adventure in fine dining would probably deplete our wallets by about $2000 before the night was out. Gulp!
I look at my fellow diners, and they stare back at me, content with their glamorous world and having no idea of my desperate need to share the magnitude of our error. Now you understand my dilemma: how to communicate to our group, who can’t see the prices, that we are in over our heads and need out…now! The entire wait staff assigned to our table is hovering attentively, and who wants to be unmasked as a naive American who books a three-star table in Paris without knowing it will cost a four-star arm and leg?
So instead I to take the clever approach. After all, the maitre d’ was advised by the concierge at the Crillon that we had vegetarians in our little group. Let’s see how they are going to make that work! To the polite inquiry from the head man on how we wish to proceed (with what, I am sure, would have been a memorable meal…as well as bill), I ask what veggie options are available. As appetizer, may I suggest a magnificent beet dish. Je regrette…my wife doesn’t eat beets. Mushrooms, then, a splendid culinary delight. Je regrette…my wife won’t touch mushrooms. Ahhhhh. Exchanged looks of concern and dismay amidst the wait staff, as my table guests exchange looks with me, trying to figure out what my problem might be. Alors, let us look at main courses: you do eat fish, do you not? Alas, no, not pescatarians, vegetarians. Then no beef? Non! No rabbit? No sweetbreads of veal, no lobster? Non, non et non! No, nothing at all to feed our starving few. Except for the delicious rolls with butter already consumed, and the mineral water already drunk.
At last I face his consternation with the most polite apologies for having wasted their time, cutlery and napkins. I offer to pay for the food consumed, and give my regrets. The maitre d’ is exceedingly gracious, refuses all payment—though I insist on leaving a tip for the efforts made on our behalf—and he arranges for a cab to come get us at the door.
Once out in the cool night air I breathe a grand sigh of relief before a bombardment of questions: what was that all about? Once explained, we all laugh.
No one in our group would have opted to pay for a single dinner the price of a flight to Paris.
The taxi is small and thus not authorized to take four passengers plus driver (larger vehicles are permitted to handle groups of more than three), but our driver consents all the same and we pile in.
“That is a very expensive restaurant, is it not?” he asks of me as I sit up-front beside him.
“Indeed,” I reply, “very expensive indeed.” And I explain what we had done and that what we really were looking for was a delicious home-style vegetarian meal, perhaps with some meat or fish for those who want it.
We are all laughing at our close call with a break-the-bank meal, and the driver joins in, despite not speaking English. “You know,” he says, “It sounds like you want the meal I’m heading home for after I drop you off, but I don’t think my wife would be pleased with four unexpected guests for dinner. May I suggest a restaurant a little more to your tastes.” And he does.
Once seated at our table we decide to celebrate our close call by ordering a cocktail. Fuhgeddaboudit. Don’t expect to get anything but an arched brow, a snide comment and an all-out rejection if you order cocktails in a Parisian restaurant, unless it happens to have an American bar. Spoils the palate for fine food and wine, you know. We do now.
And that’s how to embarrass yourself in one of Paris’s most renowned restaurants.