There are people who recommend Chartier for the food, and those people should not be trusted. Others will tell you to go for the room, a time capsule of fin-de-siecle Paris left unchanged and, possibly, undusted since 1896.
After a morning of vocabulary and grammar lessons at the language school I’m attending, I found myself at Chartier. Communal seating is standard here, and I was placed across from an elderly man whose son runs marathons all around the world and a woman who was deep into a book about les pierres précieuses — precious gems. On the other side of the coat rack was an older English couple who live in France, and a Parisian man of about 50 who wore excellent glasses and had the generosity to call me a francophone.
The choucroute was not disappointing, but that’s only because I thought it would be much, much worse. Instead of terrible it was only on the bad end of mediocre. A pile of frites, under-fried and pale, remained untouched on the amateur gemologist’s plate. The fish before the Englishman was gray with a grayer sauce. The bread was supermarket quality and a crème aux marrons was so sweet it made my teeth hurt. But I ate it, and spoke French with strangers. The old man saw that my wine glass was empty and shared his half bottle of Muscadet.
The food was bad but the meal was not.
Several years before, I found great comfort in a copious plate of choucroute garnie at a venerable left-bank brasserie. I’ve been thinking about going back, to see if that mound of pork and cabbage is as good as I remember, but I’m afraid I would be disappointed. Hunger is the best sauce, after all, and after walking from the Ile St. Louis to the Eiffel Tour and back that day I was famished. And sad: That trip had not gone as I’d hoped, and my heart was beginning to break.
Still, my memory of the meal is that it was delicious. The bacon is what I remember most. I left some dregs of the various sausages and ham on my plate; they were tasty, but nothing like the sweet, rich pork belly. I finished it slowly, tried to make it last. I had a second glass of wine, devoured a creamy caramel parfait for dessert and lingered over coffee. A few people stared.
If I had to choose one of these meals to relive (and thankfully I don’t), I would be at a loss. Today’s lunch of substandard fare and warm strangers or yesterday’s solitary feast? Based only on the food, the choice would be clear, but sometimes a meal is about more than eating. Surely, when all is said and done, I’d rather have memories of people than of food.
Then again, sometimes the best dining companion is oneself.
Chartier, 7 Rue Fbg. Montmartre, Paris 75009, +33 (0)1 42 46 86 85 No reservations. website