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Paris: Zinc Cafés

Ditte Isager Paris Cafe

Photo: Ditte Isager

Le Béarn, First Arrondissement

I walked past le béarn, a butcher’s shop that became a zinc right after World War II, at least once a week for more than 15 years while living in Paris in the eighties and nineties. I never went in. The worst of it is that I consciously never went in. It took moving to the culinary wasteland that is Manhattan’s far West Village (a contrary opinion, but one I’m sticking to) to give me a taste for the kind of scruffy, gritty zincs in whose kitchens it is perhaps best not to look, and of which Le Béarn may well be the acme. Even allowing for the nostalgia and sense of missed opportunity that I’m obviously feeling, it’s a wonderful, atmospheric place. Flowery Art Nouveau wall tiles dialogue quietly with Guimard’s sensational verdigris entrance to the Châtelet Métro station, seen through windows daubed with leaves and clusters of grapes. Black-and-white photographs of turnip-nosed Brassaï types—Le Béarn regulars—hang above Formica tables squeezed against banquettes in burgundy leatherette. According to the fabricator’s stamp, the beautifully pitted, crescent- shaped zinc is from the workshops of a certain Gateau & Keisser in the Paris suburb of St.-Denis. Le Béarn is one of the last places in the city that supports the blue-collar custom, so dear to boiler-suited sanitation workers, of the (one-euro) hard-boiled egg you pick off a wire stand at the bar. For everyone else there are leeks vinaigrette, which look rather like a revolting tangle but are actually nice and sweet; perfectly respectable house-made crêpes with Nutella or chestnut cream; and above-average coffee for this level of zinc. Fish soufflé seems a bit ambitious to me for a place with knives whose plastic handles grow tiny hairs. "Little" Gamays and Bordeaux like Château Guillot are decanted into those immemorial mottled-brown pottery pitchers with the foamy spouts. When I am home on Bank Street and can’t face another meal at the gastropub downstairs, I dream about ordering the pan-cooked hanger steak with shallots. 2 Place Ste.-Opportune; 33-1/42-36-93-35; lunch for two $45.

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