Sunday lunch in Paris
By Jerry Marterer
Sunday lunch at a restaurant in Paris is an institution originating from the era when Sunday was the servants’ day off. It is unlike any other meal. Multi-generation families sit down at around one o’clock for a two or three-hour lunch, usually starting with apéritifs, followed by an entrée (always the first course in France), then the main course and ending with dessert and coffee. Most Sunday menus include wine. This is not the American version of brunch and bloody Mary’s although some cafés where 20-something’s congregate have begun serving what they call “le brunch” on weekends, looking more like an American breakfast.
Many restaurants in Paris close on Sunday. Those that remain open go all out to make Sunday lunch a special event, with seasonal prix fixe menus that frequently include an apéritif three courses, wine, and coffee. The atmosphere is jovial with clinking glasses and lively conversation. Each restaurant seems to have its own local following. When we are in Paris, we rotate our choice for Sunday lunch among several favorites; our choice depends on our mood, the season and proximity to whichever museum or neighborhood we plan to visit. Sometimes we take in an afternoon concert, and we choose a trusted place close by. All these upscale places are great for lunch or dinner any day of the week, but we save them for Sunday.
In the fall and winter, we always make sure to have at least one Sunday lunch at Au Petit Marguery, at 9 boulevard Port-Royal. A bright red awning in front welcomes their followers into a classic traditional mirrored dining room. It is busy year-round, but the fall menus bring out the wild game connoisseurs for a convivial Sunday lunch. Oysters, mushrooms, chestnuts and root vegetables all figure into their menus featuring partridge, hare, venison, and wild boar — all served in a convivial atmosphere.
Because of its hidden location behind and beneath the Aérogare des Invalides, with its own terrace, Chez Françoise seems to be known only to Parisians. A small train station was commissioned in 1900 on the northeast side of the grassy Esplanade des Invalides. It served a short line railroad that went to Versailles. Rail serviced was discontinued in 1935. In 1949, Air France opened a shuttle bus terminal in the old station to serve the first air travelers going to and from Orly airport where they could purchase tickets, check their baggage and enjoy elegant dining. Chez Françoise was born. Being around the corner from the National Assembly made it a choice for politicians too, and many deals have been done in its private dining rooms. It became fashionable for well-connected folks to be seen here Sunday afternoons. On our first visit, one spring Sunday afternoon, we were welcomed like old friends and have never forgotten it. Their Sunday menu is extensive and at reasonable fixed prices.
Christian Constant is one of the brightest stars of the Parisian food scene. His flagship restaurant, the modern Violon d’Ingres on the rue St-Dominique earned a Michelin star soon after it opened. He recently gave up the star to focus on a more accessible and less pretentious menu. His followers responded by filling the dining room every day, so reservations are a must. On Sundays he prepares a special three-course meal that is both elegant and complex. It is on our rotating list for Sunday lunch.
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 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 wait staff deftly attends to each table. The covered terrace is open from April through September.
On the Sundays we are hungry for seafood, we head to Le Dôme at 108 on the boulevard Montparnasse. It was the first of the celebrated cafés in the neighborhood when it opened in 1898. It witnessed the arrival of artists from Montmartre in the 1900s and the literary crowd from the United States in the 1920s. Its Michelin star testifies to the fact that its following is not just due to history or décor. It is a temple of seafood, and on Sundays, locals feast on fresh shellfish, bouillabaisse, and our favorite, sole meunière. A Sunday-only mille-feuille pastry is a must-have for us, but just one slice with two spoons! Varnished wood around the booths, brass plaques dedicated to the Dômiers as the artists and writer habitués were known, add to the experience.
Another seafood experience awaits at La Mediterranée. It opened in 1942 and attracted established artists and writer friends of the owner. Christian Bérard painted bright murals. Cocteau’s lithographs alternate with them. Their menu states that it “remains a circumspect meeting place for some of the most popular figures in art and literature.” We didn’t know any of this when we first tried it for Sunday lunch. We discovered that it’s a perfect place for delicately prepared fresh fish. It is brighter and lighter than Le Dôme, and its tables look out from the dining room on the Théâtre de l’Odéon near the Luxembourg Gardens. Starter selections include several fish carpaccios, white asparagus in the summer and langouste salads, followed by main courses of wild turbot, sea bream “lacquered” with honey, and their own take on bouillabaisse. It is the alter-ego to the wood-paneled Le Dôme.
The last one on our list, and way outside the moderate category is Benoît, at 20 rue St-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 such as 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.
All these upscale places are great for lunch or dinner any day of the week, although most have special menus for Sunday. On Monday, we return to our usual weekday lunch of salads.
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 email@example.com.