In Paris, Ghosts of Bistros Past

First night on our Paris vacation, we eat at Au Passage in the 11th arrondissement. It’s a bistrot à vin, a modern wine bar with small plates, which looks like some old tabac (tobacco store)—consciously retro, in other words (our waiter’s a cute guy in a T-shirt). We demolish a hunk of coarse-grained lamb and fig pâté and a pretty arrangement of raw fish (tuna, with thin slices of rhubarb and radish), and drink a cool Gamay. It’s nice, but clearly this is not the meal we came to Paris hoping to find—me, my husband, and our friend Michelle. It's too fussy, too composed, and, honestly, just too California. “I want Amélie food,” Michelle says, whining, still hungry. Strangely, I know what she means: French dishes both nostalgic and charming, served in some mirrored, wood-paneled bistro right out of Brassaï, the Hungarian-born photographer who documented the seedy glamour of Paris's streets and bistros starting in the 1920s.

On night two we try an old-fashioned bistro, also in the 11th, L'Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes. It looks right: checkered tablecloths, a row of Armagnac bottles on a shelf in the dining room, and an owner—Madame, who's a mix of formal and jovial—dangling eyeglasses from a neck chain. We eat frisée salad with poached egg and lardons, cassoulet and confit goose legs, and drink a Moulin-à-Vent. By the time we leave, Madame is sitting down to dinner: a sagging hunk of overripe cheese off the tray. The place is charming, but a bit too above-the-radar, filled with middle-aged American guys in shorts and tropical-print shirts: the dinner stop on the Paris bus tour.

This is going to be harder than I thought.

BRING YOUR MISTRESS
If you’re an American who’s into food, you probably come to Paris like I did, expecting to have that Julia Child moment, the one from Julie & Julia, where a listing, husky-voiced Meryl Streep takes Julia’s first bite of sole meunière in a bistro and discovers ... transcendence.

At home in California, before our flight, I looked again through the brooding, black-and-white photos (above) in an old book I’d loved as a young cook, Waverley Root’s The Food of France, and thought: "Can I find that in Paris, in 2012?" Root’s book is an amazing evocation: of French onion soup at Paris’s vanished night market, Les Halles, and bistros where weary market butchers in bloody smocks ate pig-ear terrines and stewed oxtail.

The thing about Paris's bistros in their heyday of the late 19th century is how cheap and accessible they were, places where working guys and their wives (or mistresses) could spend an evening eating huge plates of cheap food and drinking ordinary wines. They were the ultimate neighborhood restaurants—nobody had to dress up, or worry about spilling on the tablecloth.

STEAKS ON FIRE
Night three, we eat in the 5th arrondissement at a self-consciously modern bistro, Terroir Parisien. The cooking’s fantastic: We eat museau (head cheese terrine with vinaigrette), oeufs en gelée, and skate with capers and beurre noisette, washed down with a beautifully structured Chardonnay from the Touraine. But the vibe is all wrong: The dining room wraps around a central bar like in an American bistro, with a hard-surface décor worthy of some upscale airport café.

I begin to think I will never have my Julia moment, not this trip. But then, on our second-to-last night, pretty much giving up, we wander into a random place on Rue Oberkampf, near the apartment we’re renting for the week. It’s a ridiculous corner place—À la Folie—all '90s flash: pink neon sign, high-backed upholstered chairs that look like castoffs from a JW Marriott. It’s, like, 10:30 or something, and nobody’s eating here except a kid obliterating a plate of steak frites while texting, but it’s a warm night, so couples fill the half-dozen sidewalk tables.

We’ve given up finding awesome food; we’re just hungry. The guy behind the bar—who’s also waiter and cook—is balding and stocky, like a guy you’d see shopping at an auto parts store in the States. My husband and Michelle order duck confit and vodka over ice; I get hachis parmentier (the French version of shepherd’s pie) and a beer big enough to make a man twice my size feel hammered. The food is what you’d think: filling and unremarkable. Nothing anybody would ever seek out, but not terrible.

The bartender/waiter/cook runs through the kitchen’s swinging half-door; we see him slice a couple of steaks from a slab, toss them onto the grill, then run back out to the sidewalk, where a guy with a potbelly and a tight T-shirt pours Champagne for a woman in a perilously short skirt. The steaks flare on the grill; “Water Runs Dry” blasts through the speakers; potbelly dude flirts.

So maybe this isn’t quite Amélie, or Julia having an epiphany. Still, this must be exactly the sort of place those classic bistros were like. You could get drunk on cheap Champagne here and nobody would care, buy a steak for your mistress, run your hand up her thigh under the table—nobody would give a shit. Swap out T-shirts and cheap minidresses for suits and cloche hats, update the décor to some 21st-century version of midrange posh, and damn if we weren't watching a Brassaï photo flickering to life under pink neon.

Follow John Birdsall on Twitter.