Descartes à la Carte

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The Rue de Rivoli west of Châtelet has always seemed very bleak and sad when it gets dark. I have no idea why I was walking on it one evening, but there I was and the worst of it for me is that I was getting hungry. If there were any good places to eat in the quartier, I didn’t know them and, if there had been, I don’t know that I could have afforded them at the time or, if I could, would have wanted to eat in a good resto by myself. So much for if this and if that. I found a place.   You can start fights in some circles and win bets in others by identifying a restaurant as a brasserie or a bistro. Both consider themselves a cut above un café, but that leaves out some of the grand ones where the food and service are very good. Some say that a brasserie must serve beer—sensible, since it comes from the verb that means to brew. A bistro—the word may or may not come from the Russian meaning “on the double” or “make it snappy”—theoretically only serves wine with simple meals, but as far as I can tell that is not a matter of law, unlike the price of a baguette or a cup of coffee served at the counter of a café. The place I found could have been either. The menu was written on a chalkboard in the same hand I have seen everywhere in modest Parisian restaurants: there must be one person or a posse of clones who spend the late afternoons writing out the menu, or at least the day’s specialités, by hand in off-white chalk. Or perhaps the chalk manufacturers have a government subsidy and train dozens of people to use the same cursive. The menu offered half a dozen main courses. I ordered something forgettable and ate my dinner. I was nearly done when I noticed a couple—obviously American, obviously middle-aged, and obviously beaten to death by the pleasures of tourism—wander in. Even before they sat, it was just as obvious that they did not have a word of French between them and were having trouble understanding the waiter who was graciously offering to let them sit wherever they wanted to since he didn’t care if they stayed, left, or sat on the floor. They sat, and the waiter returned and asked for their order. Not good. If he spoke any English, he certainly wasn’t letting on to ‘sieurdame. The normal method of pointing at the chalkboard and asking, or pantomiming, a question was going nowhere. They hadn’t noticed the handwritten menu, and the waiter was getting in touch with his inner xenophobe—or maybe remembering the days he spent in reform-school and why he had been sent there—and was going out of his way to make them even more miserable than they had been when they dragged themselves in off Rivoli for a chance to get off their feet and fill their bellies. Enough. This was interfering with my digestion. I walked over. In my accented English, I asked them where they were from. (In Paris especially, but nearly everywhere in France, it is customary to ask apparent foreigners the same question: Vous êtes de quelle region? Perhaps this is supposed to be welcoming, but it has the effect of making people feel homeless and dumb, roughly speaking the equivalent of talking to foreigners in the loudest voice possible.) They were from Ohio, had been in Paris for two days, and I think I was about to hear something about their grandchildren when I suggested that perhaps they wanted dinner. They admired my deduction. What did they want? A burger would be nice, but I was not going to make the waiter any more pissy—he was standing slightly behind me, grinding his teeth since I was spoiling his fun—by suggesting he was serving in a baraque de hamburgers. Fried chicken? No. Lamb chops? I’ll ask. How about a steak? Can do. No, the waiter said, one did not serve the lamb chops this evening, but one had steak au poivre. I asked the couple if that would do. They did not like spicy stuff. I told the waiter two pepper steaks, hold the pepper, and lots of frites—and on the double, deciding it must be a bistro after all. He scowled. I smiled as sweetly as I could, squared off my shoulders, which were about three inches wider then his, and begged him to have the amity of moving his worthless carcass into the kitchen—and, by the way, bring me another glass of red wine. The wine, which was my excuse for prolonging my stay to see the end of the drama, arrived amazingly fast—and the steaks with French fries weren’t slow either. Maybe someone in the kitchen heard and wanted either to make the waiter feel worse or save him from being ravaged by hungry Americans from Ohio—Monsieur was rather large. Mister and the missus tore into their food and, when they finally came up for air, beamed at me. “This is pretty good,” she said, but, no, I had to tell her, she should not expect ketchup for the fries. I suggested vinegar, but she ate them nature, with no more than eight grams of salt—and no pepper. Having finished the delaying glass of wine, I signaled the waiter for my bill. As he was bringing it, the man waved at me and said, “Let me pay that.” I protested thinly and unsuccessfully—with a full belly, the man was transformed into an alpha dog and besides I didn’t mind saving the money—and reminded him that the tip was included and not to add a red cent to either check. I swear he…
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