Last weekend my husband, Bob, and I lit the twinkle lights on our terrace and tucked into a three-course dinner for two from Café Constant, one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants in Paris.
It was our first non-home-cooked meal in more than two months, since the day President Emmanuel Macron announced the beginning of lockdown measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
And it was delightful: ratatouille with poached egg and arugula, chicken breast stuffed with foie gras and wild mushrooms over creamy risotto, and Black Forest cake for dessert, washed down with a bottle of chilled rosé as the Eiffel Tower glinted in the background. French dining on the terrace made possible by take-out.
Preserving a culinary reputation
“This is what we do in Paris: eat well, drink well, enjoy each other and this wonderful city,” Christian Constant, the chef-owner of Café Constant and a fixture on the local restaurant scene, told me earlier when I ordered our brown-bag dinners.
“For now, we have to do it from home. But we will fight back. We will thrive. We will all do our part.”
Mind you, until this weekend, Bob and I had been in no great hurry to go out, or even order out. He is an excellent cook, loves to feed a crowd and is not tired of coming up with creative takes on comfort food, from Thai coconut curry chicken to homemade mac ‘n’ cheese – and I, his audience of one for now, am certainly not tired of eating it.
But in common with other Parisians by birth or by choice, many of our great memories in this city revolve around great meals out: birthdays, reunions with friends, graduations, wedding anniversaries, or even just trips to a new bistro or an old favorite simply because we feel like it.
As the lockdown has stretched on, we find ourselves reminiscing about restaurants we visited just months ago, kicking ourselves for taking the experience for granted, and making lists of places we will rush to as soon as we are allowed.
The way we were….just not yet
It may be a while before we can return to all our old habits. While the government authorized the majority of French cities to reopen bars and restaurants as of June 2nd, Paris is limited to outdoor service. It pushed off authorization for full indoor service until at least June 21, citing health data that show the Paris area is still at risk for new cases of COVID-19. This means dining and drinking at your favorite establishment happens on a terrace or with takeaway.
Knowing the livelihood of this sector remains at risk, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is opening up sidewalks and closing down streets to cars to facilitate open-air dining. This temporary free extension is offered to restaurateurs in Paris who complete online registration and compliance with a 10-point charter, which includes sanitary protocol and cleanliness, closing of the terraces at 10 p.m. and limiting noise pollution for residents. Establishments are getting ready to install protective measures – social distancing of tables with a maximum of 10 persons, servers in masks – and are hoping they can make reopening pay under the new conditions.
Alternative dining experiences
“Based on what we’ve seen in Belgium, for example, we’ll probably have to cut our dining room down from 11 tables to six or seven,” said Louise Jacob, co-manager of Pottoka, a well-regarded bistro in the 7th arrondissement on the Left Bank. “We will have to work out how to make it work financially.”
Like Café Constant and many other restaurants, Pottoka decided to try refashioning its menu for takeout during the lockdown as a way of keeping money coming in, customers interested and at least some staff employed. Fussy dishes that did not travel well were out; homey dishes like stews and sautés were in.
The trend has taken off. Le Fooding, a respected restaurant guide, has launched Le Plat de Résistance, a listing of good-quality restaurants at all price points that offer takeaway or delivery of food from their kitchens.
The list, which numbers more than 200, includes some highly in-demand places where diners usually need either to book weeks in advance or to “know someone” in order to secure a table. One of the unintended consequences of the lockdown is that people who had given up on Septime or Frenchie or David Toutain may now get their wish, if not the full experience.
Gourmet-to-go also provides an elegant solution to the dilemma of how to celebrate a great occasion in style when all the stylish restaurants are closed “jusqu’à nouvel ordre” (until further notice).
Sharon Nossiter, a journalist and food writer who lives in Paris with her journalist husband, Adam, ordered from Ducasse Chez Moi for their 24th wedding anniversary on May 16. The home-delivery menu is drawn from 19 dishes created by Alain Ducasse for seven of his restaurants.
Their anniversary meal started with a creamy pea soup and pâté grand-mère, followed by duck, mashed potatoes and a rich, dark sauce – and came with specific instructions on how to finish the dishes (“Lightly toast the Poilâne bread that goes with the pâté, it will be so much better!”)
“I got out our good china and crystal, the silver, a nice tablecloth,” Sharon said. “It was not the same as going to a Michelin-starred restaurant, but it was very nice.”
In the meantime, Parisian home cooks got a big morale boost on May 11 when the government authorized the reopening of the “marchés volants,” or roving food markets, in Paris. These open-air markets bring farmers and food artisans together – now at a social distance – with city-dwellers who look to them for fresh produce, fish, meat, cheese and other staples of the French table.
“I can breathe again, at last,” said Louisa, a longtime Left Bank resident, waiting for eggs at a plastic-sheathed stand at the organic street market on Boulevard Raspail on a recent Sunday. “These are merchants I rely on, that I’ve known for years. It’s a matter of trust.”
Yet even Parisians who are happily cooking and dining at home are looking forward to the day when they can get back to being, well, Parisians.
“We aren’t eating out, we hardly ever order in, and we have been eating so much better,” said Connie Borde, an American author and translator and longtime Paris resident, as she shopped recently at La Grande Epicerie, the food hall of the Bon Marché department store near the Raspail market. Her husband, Dominique, a law-firm partner, agreed, but added, as his wife nodded:
“I think we are all ready for this lockdown to be over.”