The title of this post was going to be “Chez [name redacted]: A perfect neighborhood place.” Then tragedy struck.
The story begins a few weeks ago, when I went for an evening run in a new direction and passed the most adorable restaurant. The exterior was painted periwinkle blue – almost lilac – with white trim, and there were lace curtains in the windows. Shadow boxes nailed to the walls held decades-old menus so faded they were barely legible. The name of the place was hand painted above the door, in Medieval-style letters. It had a classic French style but with an extra air of bygone era appeal. Bref: It stopped me in my tracks and I jotted down the address so I could make my way back to eat there one day.
That day was Sunday. When I walked in the door around 1:45pm, it became immediately clear who ran the place – he was a perfect fit. Standing towards the back holding court with one of the patrons, he was in his 70s, round, and rosy-cheeked. He stopped his conversation short, then proceeded to amiably pepper me with questions from across the restaurant: where was I from, how did I find this place, etc. He responded with well-practiced jokes that everyone in the restaurant laughed at – because this was a performance and they were all dutifully watching. He then mercifully pointed me to a chair and thus ended my crash course in French public speaking.
Then he called out to his wife, who I could see cooking in the kitchen with a bun in her hair and an apron around her waist. He told me, loud enough for everyone’s benefit: “Elle va s’occuper de vous. Parce que c’est elle qui fait tout et moi qui fait le reste.” (“She’ll take care of you. It’s her who does it all and me who does the rest.”) Cue chuckles from the diners.
He added that his wife would tell me the menu, which turned out to be just one thing: chicken and potatoes. That sounded perfect to me, and it looked perfect on my neighbors’ plates as well, so I confirmed that that’s what I’d eat, not that I had a choice.
Well placed at a corner table, I took a look around while waiting for my food, which was being made fresh to order. The place was like a Hollywood production designer’s fantasy, crossed with a packrat’s lair.
Occupying the ancient wooden shelves in addition to vintage glasses and wine bottles were assorted decorative knick knacks, a bottle of hand sanitizer, a box overflowing with papers, a few mismatched baskets piled one atop the other, some corks, and condiments placed haphazardly between other items. The place had a patina that differed from other old places in that rather than having been kept up with loving care and no renovations, it had been left to lovingly accumulate stuff and dust. I adored it.
And I likewise adored the clientele, including a French man straight out of Central Casting. He had wavy graying hair and a bushy mustache, and he wore wire rimmed spectacles, a navy V-neck sweater with a button down underneath, wide-wale beige corduroys, and brown leather loafers. He was of course sipping wine at lunch.
Next to me, there was a couple in their 20s, their moto helmets occupying the seats next to them.
Finally, a family with young children had the table nearest the door. While the kids colored, the parents ate a leisurely lunch, almost as though they were at a country picnic.
When the family left, the proprietor prompted the little girls to “faire la bise,” and he exchanged smooshy kisses with them on each cheek before doing the same with the mom and dad. And when the couple in their 20s finished eating, he started up a conversation with them, too, even though he had just sat down with his own plate of food at the other side of the room.
They turned out to be actors from Brittany, and when they in turn got up to leave, the cook / wife came out of the kitchen to settle their bill and ask them more about themselves. Her husband continued his conversation with the man while she spoke with the woman about why they were moving to Paris and what kind of acting they did. After ten minutes of this, she chided her husband that his food was getting cold and that the couple surely wanted to leave, and then she amiably showed them out the door.
When my food came, it was possibly the most delicious plate of chicken and potatoes I’ve ever eaten. There was some unidentifiable spice in the jus that elevated the chicken to perfection. And the potatoes were browned to exactly the right crispiness. Above all, it tasted masterfully home-cooked, or fait maison as they say here.
The wife retired to the kitchen, and I savored my meal in the now empty restaurant. It was just me and the owner sitting at his table reading a newspaper. Or so I thought.
And then I saw it. I have a sixth sense for these things. It was leisurely crawling up the arced wooden spine of a perfect French cafe chair. And it was a cockroach.
More importantly, it was my first cockroach sighting in France. Ever. I have been to France four times now and just spent nine consecutive months here. In all that time, I have not seen a single cockroach, and I convinced myself that France was too refined to let them in. Someone once told me that there were cockroaches in his Parisian apartment growing up, but I chose to lodge that statement in the part of my brain that ignores all information it does not like.
You should know that my fear and disgust for cockroaches is elevated far beyond the normal human level. It used to be a full-blown phobia but I battered it into submission and now it’s more like a very, very strong desire to never be anywhere near them, and an inability to relax when one is or has been nearby. The ones I hate most are the big ones that some people delude themselves by calling “waterbugs.” It’s true that the cockroach I saw was a German cockroach, the tiniest kind, and that they don’t cause me to panic like the two-inch long ones do. But, I know a lot about cockroaches. And so I know that ironically, the smaller the cockroach, the more insidious and invasive. If you see one German cockroach aka “restaurant roach,” I can assure you that there are thousands if not tens of thousands more where that one came from. This is because just one female German cockroach and her offspring can produce up to 300,000 babies in one year. If that statistic didn’t just make you shiver all over like it did me, well, lucky you. You might be able to visit this restaurant after all.
As for me, my innocence is lost.
How do I reconcile the fact that the perfect French restaurant broke my French no-cockroach streak, less than three weeks before I could have left the country without ever being the wiser… had I just not walked in that door? It’s like this restaurant was some sort of charming yet sinister creature like the elves from the Hobbit or the Sirens from the Iliad.
Since Sunday, I’m not the same. I thought twice about leaving my garbage in an uncovered bin all night even though I’ve done that for months. I couldn’t enjoy my meal at a charming hole in the wall place in the flea market because I was sure that there were roaches lurking behind the walls. And the darkness of bars now feels like it could be hiding something.
When you’re deathly afraid of something, having a reprieve from that fear truly feels like a paradisiacal blessing. And now that blessing has vanished into thin air and I’m back to my jumpy self.
That’s my personal tragedy, and I’ll come to terms with it. But the fact that I can’t in good conscience tell you to make sure you get yourself to this restaurant if you find yourself in Paris is also just a crying shame. It was the perfect place. Almost.
(P.S. If you can’t tell I added a little blue bar to the top photo to protect the identity of the restaurant. Despite it having shattered my sense of France as a cockroach-free zone, I still have a soft spot in my heart for it.)