Friday, September 21, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: Savoring the History of Paris

Our guest this week is Yves Fey, whose historical mystery, Floats the Dark Shadow, is set in the dynamic and decadent world of Belle Époque Paris. Yves has an MFA in Creative Writing from Eugene Oregon, and a BA in Pictorial Arts from UCLA. She has read, written, and created art from childhood. A chocolate connoisseur, she's won prizes for her desserts. Her current fascination is creating perfumes. She's traveled to many countries in Europe and lived for two years in Indonesia. She currently lives in the San Francisco area with her husband and three cats.

I adore Art Nouveau. For me it is almost synonymous with the Belle Époque. Only almost, because so many art movements cascaded through Paris for decades, starting in the 1860s with Impressionism and spilling over into the 20th Century. Certainly the movement was sweeping the world as the century turned. Alphonse Muncha’s poster Gismonda gave birth to it in Paris.

The boutique from which the movement actually takes its name was open, selling the modern, cutting-edge designs by Lalique and Tiffany that now submerge us in a vibrant nostalgia. There are museums to visit, both huge collections like that of the Musée d’Orsay, and more intimate ones like the home of Gustav Moreau. If you play the flâneur, you might even encounter a film company bringing your favorite era to life.

 But you pass far more homes than you will be able to enter. However, you can enter, sit, and relish the past throughout the city. Starting with the Revolution, you can eat where the famous of Paris once ate and drink where they drank—especially if you’re willing to live on tasty street crepes, cheese, and fruit between forays into these often (but not always) pricey old cafés, bistros, brasseries, and restaurants.

My novel, Floats the Dark Shadow, is set in 1897 and much of the Art Nouveau building and interior design was in progress but not yet completed. A great number of new businesses revamped themselves for the Exposition of 1900, and still more were inspired by their lead. I’ve researched—such a lovely synonym for indulged—far more places than I’ve been able to use. So far. I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, though I may have fudged a bit on the décor of Oscar Wilde’s favorite café, which was probably not yet renovated, but should have been. Le Grand Café des Capucines is perhaps a bit excessive, even for Oscar, but deliciously dazzling, with its glowing stained glass ceiling, plush red velvet seating, and the stray peacock or two.

Chez Julian was already serving gourmet meals in the then lavish theater district off one of the Grand Boulevards, and will appear in the second book of the series.

Nowadays the area is much shabbier, but the restaurant is still extraordinary—the interior gorgeous and the food excellent. La Fermette Marbeuf would soon be open, and a visitor today can revisit its glory—though its murals and carvings were actually covered over for decades, and only rediscovered during a renovation. The food was quite good.

The fare at Mollard was disappointing, but it was still delightful to visit one of the first Art Nouveau restaurants in Paris, with its painted columns and delightful tile murals.

Atop Montmartre, La Mère Catherine also caters primarily to the busy flood of tourists tromping through the mostly kitschy artists’ square of the Place de Terte. My heroine would have eaten here, when it was still a hangout for the local artists.

You can, of course, move forward in time to the cafés where Picasso, Fitzgerald, and Sartre hung out, or back to the oldest café in Paris, Le Procope, which opened in 1686. Voltaire and Rosseau drank the newly imported brew, served by waiters dressed in Armenian garb. Robespierre, Marat, and Danton had dinner while plotting the revolution, hurrying upstairs to ring a bell to summon their printer with the latest call to arms—a bell you can still see on the courtyard wall. Nowadays Le Procope serves mediocre food in a more classic French setting. 

My waiter was very friendly. If you peer closely, you’ll see he boasted a delightfully theatrical curled mustache.

The food is much better at two other of Paris’ grande dames. Le Grand Véfour is the oldest restaurant still on its original site. It opened in 1784 as Le Café des Chartres, then was refurbished in Pompeian glamour in 1820. At Le Grand Véfour, you can request the table where Victor Hugo ate, or perhaps you would prefer to take Colette’s seat?

La Tour d’Argent claims almost three centuries on Le Grand Véfour, but can only prove its existence as of an 1860 Baedeker. It’s almost worth a trip to Paris just to eat the fabled duck at La Tour d’Argent while looking out over the Seine at Notre Dame. If you do so, you will receive a postcard indicating just how many ducks have preceded yours—over a million. Here is my plate of duck with figs.

The meals at these restaurants are quite pricey. I couldn’t do dinner, but lunch was barely possible and worth a splurge to feel like a member of le tout-Paris.

Mentioned though not actually entered in my book, is one of my favorite indulgences—Ladurée in the Place Madeleine. The building was first a bakery built in 1862, just as the Opéra Garnier was rising. Destroyed by fire during the Commune of 1871, it was soon rebuilt and reconceived as the first tea shop in Paris. Jules Cheret, the famous poster artist, was entrusted with the interior design. None of my many photos capture its charm, so I’ve chosen the one with the least number of people dining or gathered about the pastry display.

Unlike cafés, respectable ladies could go to a tea shop on their own, chat and then venture out to shop in the first department stores such as Le Bon Marché designed by Monsieur Eiffel. At Ladurée, the hot chocolate is almost as thick as pudding, and many consider their macarons the best in Paris. It is not Art Nouveau, but quintessentially Belle Époque. When I first went there a decade ago, they had recently opened two new shops in Paris – now there are fourteen. Well over a dozen Ladurées exist elsewhere now, not only in France, but worldwide. There is even a Ladurée in Saudi Arabia. Whatever novel adventure you undertake, there is a least a chance you can pause and have tea at Ladurée.

Some of the restaurants’ sites offer more pictures:


  1. I can't believe I haven't made it to La Tour d’Argent yet, especially since it featured in one of my favorite movies, American Dreamer.

    Reading the descriptions in this blog post makes me want to move your book up in my pile to read!

  2. Such a hard life! You poor woman, having to go to those wonderful places. I'm envious, and I bet the settings are are fun to write. Good luck on the book, and try not to gain too much weight.

  3. Thanks for taking us on this culinary tour of Paris, Yves! I'm reading your book and enjoying it very much. Very evocative and atmospheric. It's easy to picture the characters in some of these places.

  4. Thanks for sharing this with us, Yves! That duck with figs is making me hungry, though I bet it's hard to concentrate on the food when you're surrounded by so much beauty (and history) in the restaurant.

  5. Yves, I think I'm going to have to start following you around! Someone should be writing a book about you! Thanks for this delightful tour through Paris. Loved it!