Special Dispatch: The Breakfasts of Paris (Part 1: Don't...)
La Salle a Manger
136 Rue Mouffetard
(+33)1 55 43 91 99
Eggs & Co
11 Rue Bernard Palissy
(+33)1 45 44 02 52
Breakfast in America
17 Rue des Écoles
(+33)1 43 54 50 28
by Seggolène Royal
Three-hour lunches. Romantic dinners. These are the meals for which the French are justly celebrated. Breakfast, however, is another story. The English, our kind neighbors to the north, cast aspersions on the quality of our breakfasts, simply because we don’t do a cooked breakfast. As a native New Yorker, I understand what it is to be proud of your local breakfast traditions. But breakfast in France, done right, can often prove to be the best meal of the day.
I first breakfasted in France— really breakfasted— when I was twenty years old and had been sent to Besançon, not far from the Swiss border, to observe a French family in their native habitat. I was assigned to a lovely couple, the Dorniers, whose children had grown up and moved out of the house. Their elder daughter, Aline, had left behind a roomful of white Gallimard Folio paperbacks, inspiring a collector’s fever in me that has yet to abate. I woke up that first morning to discover, laid out on the table, several baguettes, a brick of salted butter, and every jar of jam that had ever entered the house, from extra large pots of Bonne Maman to the smallest sample-sized jar, in flavors ranging from the pedestrian (strawberry) to the exotic (what is a coing?). There was also honey, which I had never before contemplated pairing with bread and butter, and Nutella, which I had. They served me coffee in a bowl and I fell in love. After that semester abroad, I moved back to France as soon as I could.
Lo these many years later, I have realized that the best breakfast in France is still to be had at the Dorniers’ house, and the second-best at my own. But for those mornings when there’s no more milk and I’m out of Nutella— here are the guidelines I use for breakfast dining in Paris.
Part One: Don’t
1. Don’t trust places that look cute: they will either disappoint or overcharge, or, more often, both. La Salle à Manger is an outwardly adorable cozy little café on the rue Mouffetard, approximately five minutes’ walk from my apartment. I pass it all the time but until recently had never gone in, not even in its previous incarnation as a Pain Quotidien, not even in the days before my gluten allergy was activated. The reason for this is: communal pots of jam. I cannot, cannot abide using a jar of jam someone else has used. Not even when that someone else is someone I live with. I am the only person I trust to be meticulous enough not to leave leftover crumbs and glops of butter inside the jar.
But that’s not my primary problem with this place: my real issue is with the service, the quality, and the quantity of the offerings. It turns out the post-corporate occupation of this space is as impersonal as those communal vats of jam. The waitress seemed annoyed to find us seated in her section and proved unwilling to address such questions as “can I get this without toast and with orange juice instead?” Menu exegesis was evidently not in her job description.
Our food arrived in fits; first the included cup of café crème, then what seemed like ages later came a soft-boiled egg, which was cold and congealed by the time the toast was provided; then a sad plastic dish of fruit salad no doubt straight from a can, involving two bits of green melon, half a strawberry, a piece of apple, and two half-shriveled grapes on their way to raisinhood. The orange juice arrived last, slightly too late for the party. There was something grey in my fromage blanc. For this I ate gluten?
This unfortunate experience is alas representative of the recent decline in quality amongst the shopkeepers of the rue Mouffetard. The influx of tourists has increased past saturation point and the original shopkeepers have been priced out of their rents, to be replaced by opportunists with no compunction about raising their prices and lowering the quality of their products. The things I could tell you about my experiences of late buying quiche, avocados, poulets fermiers, and baguettes would make a Francophile weep. Basically, it’s time to move.
2. Don’t mortgage your house for a plate of eggs. Eggs & Co (formerly known as Coco & Co), housed in a shallow duplex space in a side street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, is loaded with personality: exposed beams (16th or 17th century I’d guess), with warped ancient floorboards that tilt the upstairs tables on such an incline that you’ll feel like you’ve gone down the rabbit hole and come out into some rustically lopsided Parisian garret (see rule #1). Egg-inspired posters line the walls (“Des cocottes coquettes qui caquettent” [“Cackling coquettish eggs en cocotte”] surrounded by drawings of diabolical-looking eggs). There was a line outside of people waiting for an uneven table or rickety barstool, but they didn’t hurry us out. (After all, we had a reservation.)
The cheapest brunch menu was 22 euros, which is a fair price for brunch in Paris, and even a bargain when you realize how much food is included: a hot drink, your choice of eggs (prepared four different ways: with chèvre and spinach; with mushrooms, bacon, and coriander; with bacon, parmesan, and chives, or with parma ham, gruyère and chives), one large, thick pancake, and a fruit salad. I opted for the 25 euro menu, which gave me the option of having eggs Florentine (I’m a sucker for a poached egg). Everything was delicious.
But I didn’t want “everything,” I wanted eggs Florentine, à la carte, minus all the other stuff. Alas, only brunch is served on the weekends, thus guaranteeing at least 22 euros per cover. So while this brunch might possibly be worth splashing out on, I don’t like not having the choice of whether to splash out or not. Do go here during the week, I say.
3. Don’t assume because the joint is American, or promising an American breakfast, that said breakfast will be any good. The best thing I can say about Breakfast in America is that they have bottomless cups of American coffee (popularly known as jus de chausettes, but je m’en fous). On my last visit the bacon was fatty and flaccid; the toast disappointingly small (elf-sized, really) not to mention cold and slightly overdone. I’ve never been impressed by the pancakes. The acoustics are terrible, and the nostalgia value of the diner decor isn’t strong enough to make me voluntarily spend time here, though the people who work there are very nice, and all speak English.
4. Whatever you do, don’t order a bagel anywhere in Paris.
In Part Two, we’ll look at some proper breakfasts.