Wednesday, March 9, 2011

rue des restos

I took a wrong turn at dusk and found myself on an empty street.

As I picked my way over the cobblestones, the restless sounds of crowds moving along the quais of the Seine faded behind me and a soft, gentle stillness sighed down onto the avenue. Quiet. The limestone facades of the buildings crept in towards each other until the iron spirals of third-story terraces seemed to entwine, leaving a crooked sliver of velvet sky splattered with stars. Leafy vines spilled down from these terraces and from one window wandered the long, melancholy notes of a violin. I slowed my pace and let myself slide into the pocket of unexpected peace like one might slip into a steaming bath.

There is a fascinating variability between neighboring roads in Paris. People often chose a route and stick to it—laying trails and following them like streams of ants. I knew for a fact that a few roads over, throngs of tourists were clamoring in and out of kitschy boutiques in search of keychains and crêpes and scarves adorned with patterns of the Eiffel Tower. But here, on this shy and enticing street, it was a whole different city.

Ahead of me, someone in a white jacket popped out of a door, scurried up the street, and ducked into the shadows of an alley. I continued making my way along, starting to realize that despite its tranquility, the street had a certain, humming energy. It was expectant, alert, biding its time. It was waiting for something. The sky darkened steadily, and I paused for a moment outside a softly lit window. There was a small group of people gathered around a table. They were dressed in stark white that melded into the spotless tablecloth, and leaned toward each other genially over glittering wine glasses and carefully-arranged flatware. I noted something tiny, beautiful, and enticing on each of their places. Every so often, someone would take a dainty bite, close their eyes, then engage in an animated conversation with a neighbor.

My eyes fell on a sheet of paper tacked to the door with a hand-written menu of no more than five items. And then it struck me—they were trying out the meal for the night. They were the waiters. The cooks too? Testing what the tiny, intimate restaurant would offer that evening, trying the wine, evaluating the pairings. Getting ready for the night. Thrilled, I kept walking and there was another window with the same scene. And then another, and another. Soon the waiters and cooks were whisking away the dishes and disappearing from the windows. Maître d's stepped out into the street, eying the stars as smoke curled from the glowing ends of their cigarettes.

I broke back out into a bustling boulevard and fell into the flow of people heading towards my arrondissement. Parisians and tourists alike passed gnawing on crêpes and paninis, and this breathed a different kind of life into the street. Not necessarily a better or worse sort of life, but as I approached my apartment I smiled, glad to recall the tiny, quiet street of restaurants. A street where the cook could be an artist who takes pride in his or her own work. Where each night was something to prepare for. A street where dining is an experience, something to be shared.

This city has more amazing food than anyone in the world can imagine. Let's eat, but eat slowly. Eat slowly and savor.