Romance in Paris
By Jerry Marterer
If Paris is arguably the world’s most romantic city, how do Parisians make it more so on Valentine’s Day? This Christian feast goes back to the fifth century when the pope established it to honor the Roman Saint Valentine who died on February 14 in the year 269. There is a story of Valentine performing weddings for Christian soldiers who were forbidden to marry.
But first, allow me to offer a few differences between French and American traditions. The French believed that the mating season for birds started in February and so deemed it a time to exchange gifts with their true love. In the Middle Ages a French tradition was une loterie d’amour, literally a drawing for love. On Valentine’s Day, single men and women would call out from their windows to pair off in marriage. At the end of the day, the men who abandoned their pairing would be cursed by the remaining women around a bonfire. The practice was later banned. The era of Romanticism in the 1800s is ultimately what made Valentine’s Day of today a special occasion for adults in love, both married and single.
In France, children do not exchange cards. Supermarkets do not sell candy with cute sayings on it. Even adult friends don’t exchange cards or Valentine greetings. As with Christmas, this fête is less commercial and more subdued in France. Florists are full of roses, red and pink. (In France, roses are never given to anyone but a true love.) High-end chocolate stores will decorate their windows. (The heart-shaped box was actually invented in England, as was the first printed Valentine card.)
France also boasts its very own Valentine’s village. Saint-Valentin is a scenic village south of Paris in the Indre department, named after the saint. It bills itself as the “Village d’Amour” and holds a festival each year on February 14 where couples exchange or renew their vows at the Gazebo d’Amour in their park.
The primary modern French tradition for Valentine’s Day, however, is much like the American one: dinner out. If you are a Parisian (Parisienne) reading this after February 1, wondering how to show your love for your amoureuse/amoureux (sweetheart), I hope you have already made a reservation at your favorite romantic restaurant or at one of the special places below we have discovered over the years. If not, you may end up in the “château bow-wow!” To avoid sticker shock, check the restaurant’s website for the menus and prices. Remember, your true love is worth it!
Paris excels at opportunities for dinner as a special occasion with a special person, a once- or twice-a-year kind of place for an anniversary, birthday or Valentine’s Day to celebrate à deux. For some, this is maybe a once-in-a-lifetime experience on a Paris vacation. More than a favorite restaurant, it is a favorite evening. For us, it is Lasserre, at 17 Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, one of the most beloved gastronomic institutions in Paris. In 1942, René Lasserre purchased the small building leftover from the World’s Fair of 1937. After the war he opened the Club de la Casserole, the place to see and be seen after society events, and won his first Michelin star. In 1951 the building was renovated to today’s incarnation as a small white stucco two-story mansion. It became Lasserre. A second star was awarded the next year. At the door you are greeted by the host, ushered into a private elevator by the maître d’ and escorted to the second-floor dining room. As you exit the elevator and enter the chandeliered belle époque dining room, you feel as if you should be formally announced. The room is bright and full of flower arrangements. In pleasant weather the roof is open to the stars. From eight o’clock on, guests arrive. A coat is required for men. Women are fashionably attired. (We lament the death of the dress code in the U.S., which has resulted in an anything-goes jeans-and-sneakers culture.) The décor and dress are in keeping with the exceptional evening ahead.
At your table, canapés are served with small crispy loaves that beg to be spread with the rich, demi-sel Bordier butter. A pianist in the corner softly plays “As Time Goes By” (because I requested it!). Then, a flûte de Champagne to start and a look at the menu: classic first courses like penne stuffed with black truffles and foie gras, or cold lobster bisque, then main courses of tournedos Rossini, grilled bonito, Bresse chicken and wild duck. One dessert especially intrigued us — peaches poached in wine with wild strawberries under a meringue dôme. Wines are recommended with each course. Upon finishing the meal, ladies are presented with a tiny porcelain saucepan as a souvenir. Even though the evening can cost three times as much as one at a moderately priced restaurant, we will continue our annual pilgrimage.
Although Lasserre is the crème de la crème for us, it is far from the only option. La Closerie des Lilas is unique in all of Paris. It opened in 1847, and its name evokes the arbor of lilacs that grew in front of it. Today it is secreted behind greenery on all sides. There is no bling in its signage, just a modest lighted oval placed above the front entrance. It’s as if they know who they are and who their regulars are. Why attract walk-ins with garish neon? Even the outdoor tables are behind the green arbor, suggesting perhaps an ideal place for an afternoon tête-à-tête. Its Bar Américain is paneled in warm varnished wood and mosaic floors and the same dark red leather banquettes that are in the brasserie, one of its two dining rooms. The other dining room, the restaurant, is glass walled and looks over the greenery surrounding it. Yes, it is expensive, but the food is délicieux and will impress.
The Auberge Dab at 161 Avenue Malakoff is hidden from the nearby busy Porte Maillot traffic circle by a topiary hedge that puts it in another time and place. Brown leather and polished wood banquettes, silk curtains and a carved staircase remind me of a luxury cruise ship dining room of the 1930s. On Sundays it fills with families celebrating their weekly reunion.
There is a general ambiance of contentment in the dining room as the waitstaff deftly attend to each table. The covered terrace is open April through September. What stands out is its all-inclusive menu for 38 euros featuring an aperitif (white wine or kir) and several choices for each course: entrée (always the first course in France), plat principal, dessert or cheese, and café plus half a bottle of wine for each person. We often go there on Sunday when we have guests.
The last one on our list, and outside the moderate category, is Benoît at 20 Rue Saint-Martin, near the Hôtel de Ville. It was opened by Benoît Matray in 1912 and stayed in the family until it was acquired by Alain Ducasse, who states, “There’s no other place in Paris as typically Parisian as Benoît … a friendly place, full of memories and shared pleasure.” Everything about it evokes the past: etched glass partitions between the tables, velvet seats, brass fixtures. Ducasse, an already acclaimed chef, took the bistro food genre to new levels and earned a Michelin star. The menu features country casseroles, foie gras, pork loin and seasonal choices like pheasant, autumn terrines and the unbelievable lamb tenderloin we shared one Sunday in the spring. An extensive wine list covers all regions and price ranges. Portions are generous in the bistro tradition, including the desserts like Savarin, (a brown cake doused with Armagnac), profiteroles and pear Belle-Hélène. Waitstaff in black vests and ties complete the “I feel like I’m in a French movie!” fantasy.
We also discovered a romantic dinner cruise many years ago. It departs from the quai at the foot of the Eiffel Tower at 8:30 p.m. We have experienced it year-round, but it is the quintessential Valentine evening. The prices range from 100 to 200 euros per person depending on the menu chosen. The Bateaux Parisiens serve a multicourse gourmet dinner complete with choice of wines. Musicians play next to a small dance floor. The 2.5-hour cruise begins at 8:30. The bateau passes the lighted monuments of Paris along the Seine during dinner, making a round trip so both the starboard and port sides can have an up-close view. Dark February nights make the lights more impressive. The cruise is timed so that it returns to the Eiffel Tower at the exact moment when its 20,000 strobe lights begin their hourly show.
Lavish spending need not be a part of romance, however. Tiny, family-owned neighborhood bistros can feel more romantic than the high-end places. The owners paying special attention to couples, en tête à tête, can be more meaningful than waiters in tuxedos. Rose sellers usually make the rounds, and the gift of a single rose implies “you are the only one.”
You may want to stop for a drink before or after dinner. Try the aptly named Rosebud in Montparnasse on the Rue Delambre, near where Ernest Hemingway once lived. In French slang one would say it is branché (plugged in), or hip. Seasoned professional bartenders will mix your favorites or suggest new ones. It is welcoming, open until 2 a.m., and you’ll fit in like regulars.
Here in Charleston, some of our favorite special occasion restaurants have come and gone over the years. Cypress, with its circular banquettes, is remembered for its Châteaubriand for two and top-notch wine list; it was a date night favorite before closing in 2017. The Peninsula Grill still has a cachet for quiet dining among those who don’t need a dress code to be properly attired. Last February we celebrated at the Establishment, and we hope they reopen when life returns to normal. Do you have a special restaurant romantique in Charleston? Let us know.
So, you have now made reservations and acquired the roses (red or pink), chocolates and perhaps a gift that sparkles in a small box (my wife added that). Who said romance is dead?
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.