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Poor Old Paris 2016
Springtime in Paris. But there isn't much spring in the steps of Parisians. Even in the so called golden triangle there is doom and gloom. Top hotels are only thirty per cent full, restaurants are all but empty and black limousines are sitting by the pavements going nowhere.
My wife Lynne and I are staying at Hotel La Tremoille, a lovely 19th century Haussman building, moments from Avenue Montaigne and the Champs Elysees. The Art Deco lobby has a beautiful sweeping staircase and during the sixties it became something of a hub for the Paris jazz scene, attracting none other than Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Our well appointed and extremely comfortable room with its two French windows overlooking Rue Tremoille has juliet balconies which even in winter lets you step outside for some air.
We are looking forward to our dinner in Le Louis restaurant and bar. We go in and are warmly greeted by an Irish waiter who speaks fluent French. He apologises for welcoming us into an empty room. It’s 8pm and there isn’t a sole in the place. “We are a little on the quiet side,” he tells us with a touch of Irish understatement and a wry smile.
For almost the whole evening we have the dining room to ourselves and in between courses we talk a little more. He’s a bit fed up. “There seems to be very little going on,” he confides. He’s thinking of leaving the city he loves (his mother is French and his father Irish) but he’s hanging on hoping things will improve. Dinner is very pleasant; pan fried halibut and a sea bream fillet followed by cheese and coffee and chocolate tiramisu; but it’s strangely lacking in atmosphere only because there is no one else doing what the French do best - enjoying their food.
Earlier we had popped in to an estate agent opposite the hotel, its window full of apartments that are not selling but they are putting a brave face on it. The cheapest studio flat is €275,000 but only twenty two square metres in size. The largest is 1074 square metres with nine bedrooms. Around €27million for that one but it’s the same story; no one wants it.
“People are still frightened by the latest shootings and terrorism," the manager tells me. “The British are not interested in living here so our clients are mostly French and Arabs. But the Arabs are cautious buyers. They want a bargain so they always make a low offer then another and another before buying.
Our evening stroll takes us to a Louis Vuitton store lit up like a space ship. The guards on the door of designer shops can make you think twice about going in. But this shop is warm and friendly. The luggage and handbag sections are the magnet. Travelling trunks you could almost live in, and certainly use as pieces of furniture, all in signature designs and fabric. An assistant tells us the history of one of them, a vintage trunk, slightly battered but in remarkable condition, that has travelled the world over the last seventy five years giving sterling service to it’s wealthy owner. But is anyone buying? We spot one transaction, but little else while we are there.
The next night we take the estate agent’s advice. Not to buy a flat but to follow his recommendation for dinner. He tells us about Le Stressa an Italian trattoria in Rue Chambiges just around the corner from our hotel. Apparently it’s rather well known among the local glitterati. No cameras allowed and there’s a dress code. That’ll do for us. It’s Tuesday night and no need to book since everywhere is deathly quiet so we wander down early. “So sorry,” the restaurant manager tells us. “We are full.”
Despite his and our best efforts he can’t or won’t let us in. We don’t quite get it. Perhaps he didn’t like us wandering in off the street (you are supposed to book by phone). Can they really be so busy when everywhere else is crying out for business? So we push on to Chez Andre a classic bistro with a good reputation. Oysters are on offer at the entrance but we decline and spin through the revolving door. The waiters are standing around gossiping, surrounded by mostly empty tables. I order a steak with Bernaise sauce and my wife has duck breast. Both are massively underdone. What’s more the duck doesn't cut and it’s tough. The steak isn’t much better. The waitress asks why we left most of it so we tell her but it’s water off a duck’s back.
The next day we are due to return to London by Eurostar but not before we have visited our favourite cook shop. Dehillerins, in Rue Coquilliere in the First Arrondissement, has drawn professional chefs and amateur cooks for nearly 200 years. Dusty, floor to ceiling shelves are packed with coppers big and small, steel pans piled high, knives that cooks can only dream about along with every other kind of utensil to make up the perfect batterie de cuisine.
One hour later we emerge with pastry cutters and knives for our kitchen and plenty of time for lunch. We spot a corner bistro, smart and inviting and are given a little table by the window and at last a delicious steak with pomme soufflé and green beans. Their house pinot noir washes it down and we are happy again in Paris. We thank the owner for a delicious meal and he too tells us that he has never known it so bad. “It’s as though everyone has gone to sleep,” he complains.
Time to wake up. Paris is waiting.
Need To Know:
La Tremoille, 14 Rue de la Tremoille 75008 Paris. Rooms from around £245. Tel: 0031 56521400
Chez Andre, 12 Rue Marbeuf, 75008 Paris.
E. Dehillerin, 18-20 Rue Coquilliere, 75001 Paris.
The author travelled by train with Virgin East Coast to London (Bookings: www.virgintrainseastcoast.com) and Voyages-SNCF. Fares from London to Paris start at £69 standard class return per person. Bookings: www.voyages-sncf.com or call 0844 8485848.
Keith and Lynne Allan are one time BBC Radio journalists who now make audio podcasts for websites and write for a number of British newspapers and magazines on travel and food.
They also run their own concept store called The Old Dairy in Ford. It specialises in antiques, vintage and interiors and at the heart of it is a fabulous coffee shop and small bistro where they are to be found most of the time. They love to cook on an AGA cooker and have recently become AGA Ambassadors, which means they help to sell AGA cookers by organising demonstrations and cookery classes. Their open kitchen and parlour is a magnet for customers.