In these latitudes, June 21 is the longest day of the year. In France, it also marks the annual Fête de la Musique, when musical groups ranging from amateur guitar strummers to whole symphony orchestras and brass bands play all over town well into the wee hours of the morning. So my wife Sylvaine and I took the train from our suburb into Paris hoping to enjoy the festival, but most of what we heard was abominable.
Apparently it’s far cheaper for a restaurant or café to hire one D.J. with a trunkfull of electronic equipment than it is to hire a group of real musicians. So we were assailed with ear-splitting “techno,” an electronically produced cacophony based on breaking sound up into stroboscopic fragments, setting it to a machine-generated beat, then cranking it up as loud as possible. This is the kind of music kids dance to in discotheques while grooving on ecstasy. Admittedly, I have never done this—my generation just smoked grass and danced to the Rolling Stones—so perhaps I am clueless as to the real charm of techno. I get the impression it’s pretty much dépassé elsewhere, but the French are still into it and think it’s cool (they also think Jerry Lewis is cool). Last year, we heard Pierre Boulez direct the Orchestre National de Paris in a superb concert of Stravinsky under the Pyramid of the Louvre. The contrast between that and the techno D.J.’s was a striking comment on the decline of Western civilization. On the other hand, maybe we could have looked harder for some decent music.
Instead, we decided to have dinner in one of our favorite restaurants, the Epi d’Or, near the Louvre. Our links to the Epi d’Or go back to the mid -70s. Sylvaine used to go there when she worked on costumes and accessories at the Comédie Française theater, which is just a few blocks away. She and her fellow decorators would go there to celebrate after finishing their work on a new play. Sylvaine thought the place was wonderful and took me back there some time later.
And it was wonderful. L’Epi d’Or (“the golden shaft of wheat”) is one of the dozens of restaurants that surrounded the old central market, Les Halles. Since the Middle Ages, Les Halles had been the place where Parisian butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers procured their wares. Trucks would come there from all over Europe, and their drivers would wait while workers emptied their cargo and supervisors filled out the paperwork. To kill time, the drivers would hang out in local bars, visit the prostitutes that frequented the area (cf. the film “Irma La Douce”) or eat hearty meals in the late-night restaurants that surrounded the Halles pavilions, joining wholesalers, vendors, buyers and ordinary Parisians seeking out some colorful nightlife. L’Epi d’Or was one of these restaurants. Les Halles was closed down in the 1970s on orders of President Pompidou, who decided that having the wholesale food market in the middle of Paris caused too much traffic congestion. So the beautiful wrought iron and glass pavilions were demolished, the market activities were moved to the distant suburbs, and the empty space was turned into a garish underground shopping mall that is now a center for drug dealers and pickpockets.
The good news is that many of the traditional restaurants have remained, including l’Epi d’Or. When I first went there, the tile floors were covered with sawdust to soak up the blood dripping from the butchers’ smocks and the ashes from the vendors’ cigars and cigarettes. The waiters sported leather aprons, traditionally worn by workers in the meat market to prevent them from cutting out their own entrails, or worse, while wielding their razor sharp knives. The sawdust and leather aprons are gone now, but otherwise the place looks exactly as it did in the 1970s, and probably the 1870s for that matter.
The walls are covered with a dusty ocher fabric, many times painted over. The ceiling is the same dark mustard color, with a patina of smoke and a spattering of dark brown spots —perhaps the result of an exploding wine bottle a century or so ago. The spots were there the first time I ever entered the place and successive owners have had the good sense not to clean them off. They are part of the history of the restaurant, of Les Halles, of Paris. On the walls hang small paintings of rustic scenes, wheat fields, windmills. There are also some ancient wooden implements associated with wheat farming—a hand-carved pitchfork and a winnowing fan. On the left, on entering the room, there is a long zinc-covered bar. There are half dozen tables with starched white tablecloths and leather-cushioned benches along the walls. Another room in the back has four tables.
We were greeted by our usual waiter, Dominique, clad in the traditional style: black pants, white shirt with a black bow tie and a white apron. That used to be what waiters wore in every café and restaurant in Paris. Today, you see waiters (and waitresses) dressed in everything from trendy black shirts to polo shirts and even T-shirts. Not Dominique; he’s old-style. We have known him for about 20 years, but he never seems to age. In fact, his hair has become noticeably darker, going from brown in the old days to coal black today. Dominique, not at all surprised to see us after a year’s abence, gave us a choice table near the bar though we had no reservation. A few minutes later a couple without a reservation was turned away, so we felt privileged. (Maybe we were just lucky.)
The menu is traditional Paris bistro fare—the sort of hearty stuff that nourished the truckers and all-night Halles workers in the past. We started with a lobster salad (Sylvaine) and sautéed duck livers (me). The lobster salad consisted of one whole lobster tail on a bed of lettuce. This is not the oversized, butter-dripping Maine lobster we’re used to, but a smaller species, homard, that has a more delicate taste and consistency. My duck livers were just lightly sautéed with some balsamic vinegar. They were so soft and tender I could cut them with a fork and they almost melted in my mouth.
Surprisingly, considering all the bread we ate to soak up our sauce (considered de rigueur in France, not at all bad manners), we were still quite hungry when the main dishes arrived. Sylvaine had a navarin d’agneau, a slow-cooked shank of lamb, with green beans; I had a grilled barbue, a flat fish resembling a flounder but thicker and, to my mind, tastier. For dessert, Sylvaine had a clafoutis, a sort of flan with cherries, and I had a tarte tatin, an upside-down apple pie served warm with fresh cream. We topped it all off with a couple of expressos. By this time it was 11:20 pm, but the place was still full and more late night revelers were coming in the door. (We have trouble finding a New Orleans restaurant that will serve us after 9:30.)As much as we enjoyed the food—actually, in France you “savor” food—I think our greatest pleasure came from revisiting a familiar place with long roots in our memories and seeing that everything remained the same. It seems to be a sad rule of life that when you really become attached to a restaurant, you can be sure that sooner or later, some idiot will decide to redecorate it, or “update” the menu, or change the chef, or sell the place, or a hurricane will destroy it, and it will never be the same. I have seen this happen to dozens of restaurants all around the world. And it happened to l’Epi d’Or.
When we visited Paris in the early 80s, after moving to New York a few years earlier, we were shocked. There was a new proprietor, and though he had the good sense not to touch the décor, he totally changed the menu and the food was mediocre at best. We resolved never to go back there. But when we moved back in 1992—I was sent over to run Time Magazine’s Paris Bureau—we decided to give it another try. To our surprise and delight, a new couple had bought the place and restored the Epi d’Or to its former glory. They kept the old look, but revived the Halles-style menu (with a few innovations) and hired a chef who knew what he was doing. We rejoiced over the phoenix-like revival of l’Epi d’Or and have eaten there regularly ever since. A good meal there can make up for a lot of bad music.