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My pal, the real food critic, used to, when he reviewed for the top Paris guide for young’uns, refer to the odd restaurant as “old school.” I would nod as if I knew what he meant and I even used the term myself without truly thinking about its dimensions.
But several recent meals changed all that and I had a need to know.
One was at the venerable Tour d’Argent, where I’d eaten first over 50 years ago and where upon entering one sees the table, fully set as it was in 1867 for Csar Alexander II. If that isn’t old school. Even if the place has been resuscitated and revived by the young Andre Terrail in 2006, who in April of this year brought in Laurent Delarbre as the new chef, it’s still part museum.
The waitstaff are in tails, they pulled over a chair on which to place my crummy soft faux-briefcase, there are menus for women, new napkins and knives and forks with every service (it seemed), there’s the “little guy”, our designation for the teenage apprentice passing our bread, who was a feature in every provincial French auberge and not only did they do the old trick of tasting the relatively cheapo wine I ordered, they insisted on pouring it. Finally, they sent us away with a little something, which in Parisian places usually means chocolates. Old school? Indeed.
Including the food – three avant-amuses, an amuse-gueule, quenelles, the fabled duck, an avant-dessert, a complex dessert, a chocolate ball, tuiles, and most finally some herbed chocolate squares (basil and anis). Very old school.
Then I thought back on a meal a few days before at the also recently revived Chez Georges in the 2nd. Here I only go back 40 years to one of my revelations that men in that era of the troisième age, on entering a place, greet everyone with a heartfelt “Bonjour, Mesdames/Monsieurs.” Very “old boy,” that. As was the charming tradition of the husband reading the menu to his wife, discussing what to have and then ordering the exact same things for them both. The food was old school as well: oeufs mayo, the old classic salade frisée with lardons, succulent sweetbreads with tasty morels and a great cream sauce and a traditional baba au rhum.
Now contrast these experiences with one slightly afterwards: warm greeting, no reservation, a backhanded wave of the arm to sit where you like, watery onion soup and tasteless albeit garlicky frogs’ legs and the silverware dumped on the table after the first course and plates scraped into each other when clearing. Very new school.
And very new boy and new girl: waitfolk who have never before opened a wine bottle and have to be shown how to, by us, the customers; dishes set down before cutlery is on the table and clearing plates à l’américaine, as each person finishes rather than after the last person is done.
So at some point I decided to look up the terms I’d been throwing about and discovered that old school (wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn) referred to “a class of people favoring traditional ideas (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/the_old_school) and “A style, way of thinking, or method for accomplishing a task that was employed in a former era, remembered either for its inferiority to the current method, or for its time-honored superiority over the new way.” The paradox is, though, that Wikipedia says that “old school can refer to anything that is from an earlier era. Depending on context and intent, the term can imply high regard or respect, or be a pejorative. “
As for “old boy,” well, that too is (http://www.audioenglish.net/dictionary/old_boy.htm) all over the lot: from “a familiar term of address for a man” to “a vivacious elderly man” to “a former male pupil of a school.”
The restos discussed here are :
Le Tour d’Argent
15-17, quai de la Tournelle in the 5th (Metro: Cardinal LeMoine, Maubert-Mutualité)
Closed Sundays and Mondays
Lunch menu 65 €, à la carte 200 €.
1 rue du Mail in the 2nd (Metro: Sentier I suppose)
Closed weekends and holidays,
A la carte 60-80 E.
©by John Talbott 2010
Fat Tire Bike Tours are great for seeing Paris in a different light. You’ll see more, have more fun, and not feel tired at the end of it. These are highly recommended and truly a great thing to do during your stay.
If you’re coming to France (or for that matter anywhere) you can reserve your hotel here. To rent a car, Bonjour Paris recommends Auto Europe. Paris Shuttle will whisk you to and from the airport and other locations.
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Michael Nyika