The Taste With Vir: Visiting Paris in August
Do go to Paris in August. It’s always fun. But it is no longer a bargain and the food can vary in quality.
Though the rest of the world finds this hard to believe, the French, like forever schoolchildren, all go on vacation every year in the same month: August.
The whole country shuts down, offices are closed, many shops are shuttered and the population takes off en masse on holiday. So all of France is closed. No work gets done. Work emails remain unanswered and all enquiries are responded to with ‘Let’s talk next month’.
Younger French people I have spoken to, who are aware of how strange this seems to outsiders, admit that this custom needs rethinking. A whole country cannot simply shut down for a month. And after all the years that I have been going to France, I have finally seen some changes. There are now a few people who remain at their posts during the August heat. But the principle still endures: If you have work in France you must wait till September.
I have been to France in August before. When my son was in college, I once took him to tour the Champagne region. It was a bad decision. Only a few houses were still open. I don’t think Moet et Chandon ever shuts, for instance neither does its stable-mate Veuve Clicquot. But I had to call in all kinds of favours to get us into Louis Roderer and other top houses to try their wines or see their processes.
This time, when a meeting took me to Paris, I decided I would stay on for a few days, go with my wife and try and turn it into a holiday. From what I remembered, Paris was empty in August so hotels would be cheap, the roads would be clear and we could wander through the galleries and museums (which mercifully, remain open in August).
Yes, the French do leave Paris in August. But many thousands of tourists from the rest of Europe and from America, rush in to take their places. So Paris is far from empty. The hotels are full and not particularly cheap and the queues at the museums are just as long.
Still, we had a very good time.
It started with the visa process. Everyone has heard horror stories about getting a Schengen visa but I have to say that France was much more efficient than its European neighbours. It took under two weeks to get an appointment (compare this to the Germans who have just pledged to try to get the waiting time for their visa appointments down to only --- wait for it! --- eight weeks); the VFS process was smooth and expertly handled and we had new Schengen visas in just four days after our appointments.
I try not to travel Air France on principle but the daily Air India Dreamliner flight to Paris was very comfortable and Charles De Gaulle airport (never my favourite airport) surprised me with the friendliness and efficiency of its Immigration staff. Compared to the hours people spend at Heathrow, JFK or Frankfurt, this process took just minutes.
This was my fourth stay at the Westin Paris Vendome. This is a grand Paris hotel —- it is used to be the Intercontinental —- built in the second half of the 19th century. It is now owned by Dubai Holdings but its previous owners handed it to Starwood to run under the Westin brand.
This was a time when Starwood had made it its mission to take grand European hotels, rip out the services, trample on their souls, spend no money on renovations and take them relentlessly downmarket. They did this to the Excelsior in Rome, once that city’s fanciest hotel, to the Palace hotel in Madrid, to the lovely Europa and Regina in Venice, to the Grand Palace Hotel in Milan and many others.
This meant that you often got great (and large) hotel rooms in lovely old buildings where the management had skimped on services, staff numbers and facilities. Fortunately, Starwood was taken over by Marriott which seems to be rethinking the Westinisation of grand hotels. In Venice, for instance, the old Westin is now a St. Regis. I imagine that the same thing will happen to many other European Westins.
For now, however, despite the relative paucity of service, the Westin is the best deal in Paris. If you are lucky, you get huge rooms (mine was in excess of 50 square meters in size), Eiffel Tower views and the best location in Paris (next to the tony shops on the on the Rue St. Honore and the Tuileries garden and most of Paris’s good hotels —- the Ritz, the Meurice, the Mandarin Oriental, the Park Hyatt etc. —- are only a few minutes’ walk away) for between 30 to 40% of what it costs to stay at say, the Ritz.
It is the best deal in Paris now but won’t be for long. It is, I reckon only a matter of time, before Marriot and the owners do the sensible thing, close it down for a year, refurbish it completely and open it again as a grand hotel.
The Westin was jam-packed when we stayed there (lots of Americans, in particular) and so were the museums. It would take a month to see the Louvre properly and we only had two days (though on one of those days, we had a private guide which made life easier) but if you know what you want to see, it is not difficult to negotiate the exhibits .
Most people only come to see the Mona Lisa and head straight for the room where it is located where a crowd of shoving and pushing tourists flash their phone cameras at the painting . If you are happy to miss that, then there are many beautiful works of art that you can enjoying at leisure.
We much preferred the Musee D'Orsay mainly because it is largely free of the shoving and pushing and you can take in paintings by Monet, Manet, Gaugin, Renoir and many others in peace. It is easier to get into as well --- there are no long queues.
That leaves the meals: I usually go to Paris for the food and the art above all. The best meals I had on this trip were at Versailles where Alain Ducasse collaborates on a small luxury hotel (14 rooms) which is part of the palace complex. No surprises there and I have written about it this weekend at length . (Rude Travel in Brunch).
The rest of the food was hit and miss. Many, if not most, of the great restaurants are shut during August so my wife and I decided that we would eat at the relatively few bistros and brasseries that were open.
There was a time when it was impossible to eat badly in Paris. Many restaurants were owner-managed, the chefs were passionate, and the service was friendly. That time has long gone. Paris still has some of the world’s best restaurants, but it is remarkably easy to eat badly.
At least some of this has to do with the fact that many restaurants --- while seeming artisanal --- are actually owned and managed by large chains. For instance, Brasserie Lipp on the Left Bank is owned by the people who own the fast food chain Bart's, the pub chain Sir Winston and the Angelina tea houses. Since 1996, another iconic brasserie, Bofinger has been owned by Jean Paul Bucher, whose group also owns such famous restaurants as La Coupole as well as 30 other places.
There is nothing wrong with restaurant conglomerates —- and Bucher used to be a chef at Maxim’s early in his career —- but they are run corporate style with the aim of keeping costs down and their ethos runs counter to the spirit of the traditional French brasseries and bistros.
Many Paris restaurants are now owned by businessmen with no real love for food or hospitality. The kitchens are usually filled out with poorly trained and poorly paid immigrant labour and the food is produced mechanically without passion.
To avoid being trapped in some nasty chain operation, I read reviews by critics I respect. The British critic Marina O'Loughlin recommended Brasserie Rosie, as an example of new style French brasseries that served good food at reasonable prices. It was a worthy recommendation. We had a good meal, were the only non-French people in the dining room and enjoyed ourselves.
Brasserie Bellanger is also regarded as part of a new wave of brasseries. It is run by two restaurateurs who used to work for the Big Mama group of restaurants and pizzerias but it had a nice laid back vibe and my wife liked the food more than I did. (It was fine, really.)
Our bad experiences were at the better known places. I’ve been going to the Brasserie Lipp for decades now but this time when we arrived for our reservation, we found there was no one to greet guests and piles of dirty plates lay stacked up near the entrance. We waited several minutes for anyone to acknowledge us and when nobody seemed to care, we left and crossed the street to Les Deux Magots.
This is a famous cafe but not the sort of place you associate with food. In fact, our light lunch was surprisingly good and service was brisk and friendly. Afterwards I received a form-email from Lipp asking how my experience had been. Clearly their systems had not discovered that we had not eaten there.
The biggest disappointment of the trip though was the Rotisserie d’Argent. Its parent establishment La Tour d’Argent is one of Paris’s most famous restaurants. I had not heard much about the younger sibling till I read a review by Alexander Lobrano who raved about the food: “a wonderfully old school French meal.”
I once wrote for a book celebrating the world’s 100 best restaurants. I did the India section and Lobrano chose the French places. Many years later I read his enjoyable and moving memoir about his time as a young, gay American in Paris. If Lobrano says it is good, I thought to myself, it must be.
In fact, it was rubbish. There was a short menu from which we ordered roast chicken and beef tartare, neither of which was any good. There were just two waiters in the dining room, one of whom was French and very busy. The other was a Bangladeshi who barely understood the menu and asked us if we could speak to him in Hindi. We were ready to leave when an Indian server from the outdoor section across the street ran across and said he was happy to meet Indians in Paris. He was bright, charming and had come to France to study but not to look for a career in hospitality.
I tweeted to Lobrano to say that perhaps he should revise his review given that the restaurant was hardly as he had described. He responded by blocking me. So there!
Eventually Gaggan Anand messaged from Bangkok to say we should try Le Bon Georges, which turned out to be a well known bistro with excellent food and friendly and happy service.
The lessons from our trip. Do go to Paris in August. It’s always fun. But it is no longer a bargain and the food can vary in quality.
And, oh yes, if you want a restaurant recommendation, trust a chef, not a critic!