Joshua and I went out to a restaurant in Paris a year or so ago that was highly acclaimed (and "inexpensive") in both our Lonely Planet and Lets Go books. First off, it didn't open until about midnight (well, maybe 9pm--but that's talkin' serious to us west coasters); we were diligent with the walk bys though and eventually it paid off: it was open and not only that, but packed. We were thrilled: nailed a live honest-to-god authentique french dinner for the eve. We casually and confidentially entered as if we ate there every day of the week until the Woman In Charge (I'll call her "Louise") began firing questions at us in french about *something*. Clearly irritated at nothing but a sheepish grin for an answer, she lead us to the back to what appeared to be the Foreigner's Table. Seated at the Foreigner's Table was a pair of swedes who confirmed that the food was really great; they also confirmed that authentique french restrooms are really freaky. In close proximity to the Foreigners Table was a massive side of beef on a cutting block with a machete sticking out of it, and a slumbering older man in front a fireplace, the grill, which was fueled by busted-up palettes.
Once seated we proceeded to decipher the most absolutely bizarre excuse for cursive writing I have ever encountered--and I was a liberal arts major in college. We figured at last, after Louise came to see what the hell was taking so damned long for us to order at least three times, that it was arranged in sections as to what type of food it was: meat, non-meat (i.e., salade, haricots), something else, and something else. I thought I'd be safe and order off the something elses (I used to be way freaked of meat that wasn't totally devoid of any meat qualities). I figured I might *accidentally* end up with two deserts and that wouldn't be half bad. Joshua, displaying a far greater sense of self preservation than I, wisely ordered immediately the "Plat du Jour" and a salade. I should have known by the way Louise curtailed her insults and, dare I say, even curled up her lips to a slight grin, that I should have followed suit to avoid a "scene." Well, I'll just say that my wise decisions are far and few and I opted to continue applying my Italian/German/Russian language skills to the menu in my ever-increasing desperation to decipher the two 'something elses.' She HARUMPHED and threw up her hands in a sound and gesture that beckoned the attention of at least every other patron in the entire restaurant. I called up what remained of 7th grade latin and kept on the something elses; it turns out that the first something else menu section contained tripe and turkey which unfortunately left me no clear schema into which the something elses could be grouped (Meat, and Meat?? That can't be...). The hammer fell and Louise returned. I had to order or perish; I pointed at what I decided was the turkey and firmly asked her to bring me the "north wind." She looked at me like I was out of my head (we decided that she thought I was pointing to "tripe" not "turkey") and basically said "I'm not bringing you tripe you psycho foreigner; you will have an OMELETTE for dinner and that's final." I smiled sweetly and nodded and said "avec salade, s'il vous plait". What an ordeal!
BUT!!! additional and more furious elements were involved in this dining experience that I could not yet possibly have fathomed: one took the form of a bent old woman, the other, a humble dishwasher--I'll get back to her. The old woman; somebody's mother or maybe even great grandmother. I don't know how she fit in; she acted like the place was her house and crept about glaring at the diners like she thought maybe they had been into her stuff. I hadn't had much time to consider her since my initial interactions were with the menu, the swedes (they didn't count), and Louise; the Slumbering Man was only a passing curiosity. However, once we ordered, the Old Woman took great interest in us (maybe WE had been into her stuff). I also noticed that the Slumbering Man came alive at the mere utterance of "Plat du Jour", seized the machete with his good arm and started sawing at the side of beef. He impaled the slab with the tip of the machete and tossed it onto the steel grill along with some more palette pieces. His former inert state was startlingly quickly re-attained. Meanwhile, the old woman was showing ever increasing signs of life; she began to stew and fester, mumbling under her breath. At least twice she made daring swoops on our table, once muttering "Tripes! Tripes" -- to which an alarmed Joshua replied "No! Plat du jour! Plat du jour!" This confused her for a while until she could refocus her energy: she approached me with accusatory frankness, pointed with a bent finger, and in a voice that still gives me the shivers, uttered her sentence: "Omelette!" I of course had no rebuttal; I had in fact, albeit indirectly, ordered the omelette and could not refute this, certainly not in french. She lurched away, a satisfied grin on her face. I was slightly alarmed at this point; Joshua on the other hand, was enjoying the vin du jour and smiled blissly at the goings on of the place.
The other curious element, one that every comedy must contain, is a Jester of sorts; a holy fool perhaps. The Dishwasher was a girl around our age and the Foreigner's Table had a clear view of her post. She didn't say one word the entire evening; not to us, not to Louise or the old woman. We began to take note of her during the calm of the storm between ordering, defending our orders from the old woman, and receiving our dinner. Her job, aside from cleaning plates and massive cauldrons, seemed to be reproducing *exactly* the manic screeching of Louise, the slack jaw of the Slumbering Man, the exact facial expression and deliverance of the old woman. I mean, she was amazing. She really put on the show once she noticed us noticing her; and we were entranced frankly. She swallowed constant abuse from her employers--Louise really seemed to take it all out on her; the old woman mostly gave her nasty looks--and just continually erupted in these silent tirades and pantomimes. We were giggling uncontrollably to the point that tears were running down our faces (Louise looked rather alarmed at our state--the girl was still whenever Louise looked her way), and then we were served.
Joshua got his Plat du Jour; I got my omelette; the Salade never materialized (I am always obsessed with trying to order vegetables in foreign countries) so Joshua ordered the Haricots. We had no idea in the world what they were but it was in the section with the Salade so we hoped it would at least not be something, say, tripelike.
Meanwhile, all the tables being filled and the Swedes on their drunken way, a French couple was seated with us. They spoke NO English so our dialog consisted of smiling and shrugging. The man ordered not one, but two steaks (machete slabs of beef), a salade and fried potatoes. He received his salade and his wife ate it (I was heartily betrayed; that was clearly MY salade), both the steaks he ate himself, and they gave us the potatoes. We didn't know quiet how to react at this gesture, so we smiled, shrugged and ate some of them. Joshua really enjoyed his Plat du Jour: it consisted of beef with a red wine reduction I think. My omelette, aside from a couple of hearty eggshells carefully placed, I'm sure, by the old woman, was I guess the best omelette I've ever had.
'Haricots,' it seems, are well-cooked, seriously buttered green beans. They were pretty good though. I would have preferred a salad.
"Robert et Louise" 64, Rue Vieille-du-Temple 75003 Paris (Marais). Try the "Plat du Jour."