It has been years since I dined in a three-star restaurant in Paris. I have not missed them at all.
Why should I, when there is fine food--without the pretension and expense--at hundreds of bistros and brasseries ? Why should I, when I prefer corner tables to center stage, and the flicker of candles to spotlights or high-watt chandeliers?
Maybe it's corny, or cornichons, but I like Paris to be Paris. I don't relish a glib international scene that could as easily be found in the grand hotels of New York City or Dallas or Los Angeles.
I like for the murmurs from other tables to be the husky murmurs of France, not the tinny tones of world finance or the cry of deals aborning.
I am amused by neighborhood cafes with their paper table covers on which a waiter totes the bill. I am charmed by copper pots and red-and-white-checkered cloths and window boxes spilling with geraniums.
I like to stand in the shade of chestnut trees and read a handwritten menu posted by a bistro door, even though the scrawl may be almost illegible. As long as I can read the price, that is, and a few familiar words such as fraise or daube or cassoulet . I don't want to stumble into a sweetbreads palace by accident.
There is something magical about the savory tastes and earnest care of a small Parisian restaurant that has just received its first star of recognition. There is also something magical about the many splendid kitchens that are still on the verge of discovery.
I was happily reminded of rendezvous past when I read the new edition of a favorite paperback: "Cheap Eats in Paris," by Sandra Gustafson, an American who lived in France for three years and who returns annually to check out places with good fare and good atmosphere at good prices.
This year 104 inexpensive eateries made her cut. (You can order the book for $6.95 from Cobble & Mickle Books, Box 3521, San Diego 92103.)
Gustafson is a spare and honest critic who tells how many stairs you have to climb above an old courtyard to reach a hearty bargain at a cafe near the Champs Elysees. She delves into manners and customs and menus, so that you won't be found guilty of over-tipping or under-eating.
She explains the differences between cafes and bistros, brasseries and restaurants, and when you do what in which. Her appetite ranges from four-table finds to winsome, yet affordable, classics.
I have given her book to ever-starving college students on their way to Europe. I have recommended it to friends who were traveling with tours, friends who wanted to slip away on their free nights in Paris and smell the roses and the sausage and the garlic.
Which reminds me of aligot . For that silken dish of pureed potatoes laced with garlic and fresh, melted Cantal cheese, I would swim the Atlantic--or at least the Seine. I'd slip into a downstairs table at L'Ambassade d'Auvergne on the Rue Grenier-St.-Lazare, where spicy sausages and lentils and fragrant breads underscore the peasant dishes of the Auvergne region in south-central France.
I would try to go on Thursday when the special is cassoulet des lentilles , although Monday is pot-au-feu and Wednesday is potee , a vegetable and meat soup served sizzling in an earthenware casserole.
Gustafson, too, is smitten by this romantic country inn, with its pitchers of flowers and mousse-drawn carts, a place that is open all year, unlike many Paris establishments that close for the month of August.
Regional restaurants are part of the joy of dining in Paris, and many are classified as "Cheap Eats." On the Left Bank and Right you can sample the cuisines of much of France: the Savoie, the Jura, the Basque country, Provence.
For a tasty onion tate or other Alsatian treats I like to stroll at dusk across the footbridge behind Notre Dame to the Brasserie de l'Ile St. Louis, a neighborhood haven where a sharp-eyed barman keeps track of the order of your arrival and beckons you to a tiny table when one opens.
In true French fashion the tables are close together and you nod to those beside you as you squeeze into place, hoping, at the same time, not to brush against their pot of mustard or carafe of red wine. If language permits, you may end up in vibrant conversation. If not, they'll still bid you bonsoir as they depart.
This brasserie is not three-star or even one, but the food is good, the prices are right, the people are real and, as the street lamps begin to glimmer around the island called St.-Louis, there is no doubt that you are in Paris.