Friday, July 3, 2009

Bistro Vivienne

Bistro Vivienne, 2006

It was cold in Paris. Winds whipped up mini cyclones of sand in the Tuilleries garden. Rain came and went. Umbrellas blew up and away. My wife and I huddled close together as we walked across the Pont de la Concorde to explore some of the city’s old retail arcades on the rive droite.

The 2nd arrondissement is full of old retail passages. Not as majestic as the gallerias of Milan and Naples, they have a more human scale, like the Burlington and Bond Street arcades in London. It's said there were so many of them in the 19th Century that one could walk across Paris without stepping outside.

By the early 21st Century, though, most were gone and many of those that remained were abandoned, chopped up or otherwise bastardized beyond recognition. A few remained lively and well maintained. One of the latter is the Galerie Vivienne, which has entrances on Rue de Petits Champs, Rue de la Bank and Rue Vivienne. The passage Colbert is in the same block. Galerie Vero Dodet is close by. Both are far quieter than Vivienne.

As so often happens when you travel, our dining habits were all shaken up. We’d have something early in the morning and then have a full lunch and no dinner. Or a late breakfast and no lunch. Or a light lunch, wine and cheese in the late afternoon and a late dinner. Or a late lunch and a late dinner. You get the picture.

Just after 2:00 p.m., my wife informed me that she was ready for lunch. Such pronouncements require immediate action if peace is to be kept in the valley. Right at hand was the Bistro Vivienne (4, rue des Petits Champs). It might not qualify as an officially authentic Parisian bistro—it's not in that charming little book so named—but it quickly won our respect.

We came in out of the cold and were promptly seated. The lunch rush was over. The staff was relaxed. To fortify ourselves for more walking, we ordered salads, steak frites and a bottle of the house red.

I have friends who can remember the taste of any meal they’ve had, or distinguish between wines made from grapes from the same vineyards. But I’m not one of them. I can remember the taste of just a few meals: the sweetness of watermelon for breakfast on the back porch in the summertime when I was a child, baked Arctic char at the old Chez Delmo in Montreal, an exquisite garlic roasted chicken at Los Caracoles in Barcelona, and my wife’s sautéed vegetables from our garden.

That was it until Bistro Vivienne. That blustery day in Paris a new meal was added to the list. Three years later I can still taste that steak, grilled just to the right shade of pink and covered with a grainy pepper and mustard sauce. French beef must be grass-fed because it has a richer taste and rougher texture than beef at home. The potatoes were at once crispy, light and buttery. I can even remember the taste of the Bordeaux.

A few days later, our daughter and her husband passed through Paris on their way to somewhere else. We celebrated her birthday with a fancy dinner at Le Grand Colbert. It was a wonderfully festive evening. But I don’t remember a darned thing about the meal.


  1. Thanks for the armchair tour. What a beautiful photo here! And I loved your ceiling photo of the Milan Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. As for remembering certain wonderful meals, I totally get that. That meal sounded memorable.

  2. Fantastic description Chris. I could taste that meal. And thanks to your photograph, now I want to go back to Paris.