Remember the last time you were sitting in a restaurant and someone entered, nodding to the room and saying routinely but genuinely – “Bonjour Mesdames, Messieurs?” It was probably in the country, at lunch, and it was probably the male member, always the male, of an elderly couple. Wasn’t it nice?
But how about when you’re sitting there with your beloved, in an intense, intimate conversation about whether or not the sauce has too much rosemary and salt in it and the old guy next to you, and it’s always a guy, says, excuse me but how did you find this place, this is our favorite restaurant in Paris? (Unspoken subtext: why are you Americans always ruining a good thing?) The trouble with the latter question is that the restaurant is not always the greatest; in the case of this example it was Chez Georges, the one in the 2nd, 50 years after it had passed its prime, but for this couple from Marne La Vallée, it was “their place.” Another time, at Chez Allard, the French guy was offended that we had discovered “his place,” not withstanding its prominent listing in Gault-Millau in the 1960’s.
Despite my seemingly sociable disposition and love of communicating in writing with/to others, I remain an unchangeably private person in real life and extracting myself from unwanted conversations whether on the airplane or in restaurants is often very difficult. My heroes in this regard remain former Senator Bill Bradley (D, NJ), who on selecting his window seat in coach on the Amtrak shuttle, placed his suit jacket over the aisle seat and put his briefcase on the seat, thus establishing his space, and former Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, (R), who entered the Eastern shuttle with a huge pile of daily newspapers that she placed on the seat next to her, effectively establishing the same barrier. However, on the plane, one can ostentatiously bury oneself in a book, cover your head with the blanket or put on earphones pretending to watch the 5th rate movie, but in a restaurant, it’s tougher.
After the first query “How is it that you found this bistrot?,” the follow-up is predictable – “Where is it that you originate from?,” but then the branches diverge. Sometimes, the person(s), as happened one summer at the Bistrot Coté Mer before it turned south, genuinely wants to know where else you like to eat because they respect your judgment. This positive response was mirrored in the 1970’s, by the concierge at the Hotel Regina, who when asked to make reservations at several places, said admiringly, “Where did you get this list? It’s great.” However, more often there is a negative connotation – he/they want to know how you learned of the place, especially, did you read about it in a guide-book or English-language newspaper (read The New York Times); unspoken subtext “Is it just you who stumbled in, or will there be hoards of other Americans to follow?” Or, the person just wants to practice his English, recalling fondly the chocolate bars the GI’s handed out in Normandy after the French had suffered years of gastronomic deprivation. (These are the times one is proud to be an American in Europe and when it’s OK to recount how your father was a Major in the Army who loved the French too.)
Finally, though, I must recount yet another trend, that of folks who recognize you, not invading your space. A while back, two intrepid members of the Confrerie of eGulleteers ate at La Cerisaie and Les Papilles, but a few feet from me, but chose not to disturb my privacy and my conversation, revealing themselves later to me only in cyberspace.
Bottom line: Maybe the combination of “Bonjour Mesdames, Messieurs?” to the crowd, but respectfulness of one’s personal space, even in tight-tabled situations – works best.
As usual, here are the addresses I still patronize:
70, Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 14th (Metro : Montparnasse-Bienvenue)
T : 01.43.20.98.98
Closed Saturdays and Sundays
A la carte 25-30 €
30, rue Gay-Lussac, 5th (RER : Luxembourg)
T : 01.43.25.20.79
Menu is 28.50 €, a la carte from 30 €
©2006 John A. Talbott