As a rule of thumb, restaurants that make too much of their illustrious past patrons tend to be a disappointment. Though it may be vaguely interesting to know that Colette or Ernest Hemingway appreciated a given Paris table, viewing a restaurant through a scrim of nostalgia is an often perilous distraction from what really matters, which is the quality of the food right now.
Last Saturday night, however, a small group of us wanted oysters and steak tartare in an animated, open-late setting, and it occurred to me that we might try La Closerie des Lilas, the famous old bar-brasserie-restaurant in Montparnasse. This inspiration came mostly from my desire to avoid La Coupole, which so often brings to mind one of those sprawling Soviet Union vintage restaurants with dreadful service and food that used to be just about all you could find in Moscow.
So we showed up around 9.30, and since you can't book tables at the brasserie, we had a drink in the bar, where little brass plaques on every table refer to a famous past client, everyone from Max Jacob to Man Ray. Our tab for four (good) Bloody Marys and a little cutting board of really awful SPanish ham--dessicated, rancid, just terrible--was 92 Euros, which left me in a foul frame of mind as we were finally ushered into the brasserie (which is adjacent to the bar and has a different menu from the "gastronomic" restaurant). On a holiday weekend, the crowd in the bar was tres Parisien, however, and there was a wonderful atmosphere created by the fact that this little piece of turf is a sort of public clubhouse for politicans and media and show biz types.
The waiter was amiable, the lighting was lovely (red shades on the art-deco wall sconces affixed to the marble walls), and though not cheap, the prices were a peg below what La Coupole charges. So we ordered a big groaning tray of oysters--Gillardeau and plein de mer Bretagnes--and a bottle of inexpensive Muscadet. Served with delicious freshly baked rye bread and good butter, the oysters were superb, the wine just fine. Next, one of us went for the smoked salmon, which was like oceanic velvet (smooth and suave), and the rest popped for the steak tartare, which was excellent. It came as a generous pattie of first-rate beef, perfectly seasoned, and accompanied by truly delicious freshly made frites and a wonderful little mesclun salad dressed with grape-seed oil and Xeres vinegar. We drank an inexpensive bottle of Chinon with the tartare, and finished up with two perfectly ripened Saint Marcellins. This excellent little feast wasn't exactly cheap, but it was less expensive than most Paris brasseries these days, especially for the quality of what we were served.
Enjoying the stark, black pollarded trees against a honey colored night sky in the allee that leads down to the Jardins de Luxembourg after dinner, I couldn't help but think that old Ernie Hemingway would be awfully happy to know that one of his favorite Paris canteens is well and truly thriving at the beginning of a new century. Open daily, the brasserie at La Closerie will definitely be seeing me again soon.
171 boulevard de Montparnasse, 14th, 01.40.51.34.50, Metro: Vavin or RER Porte Royale