Perhaps Paris is best enjoyed without company.
4, 6, 8 … 10 avenue des Champs-Elysées. A century old greenhouse hidden away on one of Paris’s loudest, most hurried streets. White wood paneling, sunlight streaming in, in summertime the terrace looks onto the Grand Palais.
From the kitchen’s innocently open windows, aromas of herbs and slowly cooking wine waft out, stopping a wandering passant. A gentleman d’un certain âge, a definite flâneur, in a navy blue coat, well cut, collar up. About him lingers a hint of Eau Sauvage, and the quiet refinement of one who has well read, traveled, seen, and done. On his left hand, a gold wedding band and a fine brown leather watch. He consults the latter, and one more time inhales. Then, seduced, he walks in.
Through the neatly trimmed garden, up the white marble steps. By the door, a wine list, and desserts on a golden cart. The visual temptation amplifies the olfactory; intricate and delicate, crafted like art.
The maître d’hôtel, however, apologetically says:
Désolé, Monsieur. Nous sommes complets.1
Not a table available, not even for one.
But as he watches the gentleman leave, the host has a thought.
Attendez Monsieur! Upon reflection, I believe we do have one.
At the Pavillon Lenôtre, there is a table, with white linen, white roses, fine china and silverware. And a single, perfectly positioned, proud Louis XV chair. Silver salt shakers de chez Christofle, crystal glasses from Baccarat. And the most beautiful view in all of Paris, from across the baie vitrée.
The table cannot be requested, and is always reserved. It is the perfect setting for a party of one.
Its guests are assigned at the maître’s discretion; historically eclectic and few. Old, young, ladies, gentlemen, wealthy, and poor. Frenchmen, foreigners, literate, or not. With nothing in common, save for a quiet way of walking in and inquiring about lunch, tea, dessert – for one.
The gentleman is deemed worthy. He is escorted to his seat. Coat taken, napkin unfolded. The wine is poured in silence, the first plate quietly placed. The guest is left alone, with silence, Paris, and a feast.
Ravioles de langoustines et bouillon de crustacés,2 accompanied by sips of crisp, young Bandol blanc.
A warm piece of baguette shamelessly sops the light shellfish broth. One lingering sip of white wine.
Remise en bouche: a fresh lemon sorbet.
A few, unhurried minutes later, le plat principal:
Filet de bœuf façon Rossini aux cèpes et gratin dauphinois,3 with a fine wine sauce poured at the table, and a glass of merlot de Pomerol.
The flavors are intense and wholesome. The last bite is deliberately slow.
A fleeting sadness, but consolation soon comes:
The sun setting over Paris, a slice of vieux Comté, more Pomerol.
From the golden cart, a moelleux is served à la chartreuse. The spoon cuts through the soft and crunchy entremets. The warm chocolate oozes out and blends into the liqueur.
Each bite is savored leisurely, in silence and with care. Lenôtre is one of those rare places where dessert and solitude are still considered art.
Short and black, the coffee arrives promptly. The bill never does; another honor bestowed only to the finest table in the house.
To dine alone in Paris is to dine alone with Paris. With the stories it inspired, and those that inspired it. Eiffel’s eccentric tower, Haussmann’s avenues, Hugo’s chimneys, Pagnol’s boulangeries. Sisley’s barges along the Seine, Monet’s mist over Notre Dame. The rivaling cafés des Deux Magots and Flore, the Bec-de-Gaz bar. Picasso’s studio, Renoir’s hôtel particulier. The covered galleries, the rooftop gardens, the secret alleyways.
Street musicians and artists, hidden lovers around corners, chain smokers in the sun. In this city, there is no such thing as a party of one.
The gentleman finishes his coffee. A perfect ending to a perfect meal. The food was exquisite, the view was sublime. He folds his napkin and places it on the tablecloth, beside a few bills. He pulls up the collar of his navy blue coat, ready to leave. But waits for the last ray to set, out of respect.