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Drinking our way through Paris--a 60th birthday in the 20 arrondissements (long and possibly even tedious, but hopefully fun)

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Drinking our way through Paris--a 60th birthday in the 20 arrondissements (long and possibly even tedious, but hopefully fun)

Julie | Dec 5, 2002 02:16 PM

This is the story of a 60th birthday party attended by 6 friends in Paris with the intent of drinking a toast to the birthday “boy” in each of the 20 arrondissements of that great (and possibly his favorite) city.

The birthday boy is my husband who started the whole thing by saying he wanted to spend his 60th birthday in Paris and would like some of his best friends to come along. I was the one who decided we’d need something more than the enjoyable but “been there, done that” walk about the city, see sites and have a great dinner type of occasion marking. Hence was born the idea of a drink in each of the 20 arrondissements. We started out with grand plans to do all 20 in chronological order with stops at some of the best known bars of the city. Reality set in as we recognized how long it would take just to go from arrondissement to arrondissement by metro, let alone ordering drinks (and drinking them) at some of the trendiest or most historical places we were thinking of. In fact some of the places wouldn’t even open until late in the day or early evening and we only had 24 hours to accomplish our task, less if you recognize that most of us are at an age when drinking for a straight 24 hours is no longer an option.

Backing off our original grandiose plan and looking at the map of Paris we recognized that it would be possible to combine several arrondissements in a single stop—and a single metro ride to get there—by scheduling our stops where 2, 3, or even 4 arrondissements intersect so that we could drink in all of them by simply crossing a street or two. Based on this concept I plotted a route designed to route us to all 20 arr. In approximately 8 stops or so. I also thought we’d probably embark upon a wise course of interspersing our alcoholic libations with an espresso, Perrier, or similar every now and then. I lost on the moderation thing but as you’ll see from the following we did manage to stay upright by limiting the quantity rather than the type of our input. We also offered one or more toasts at each stop some in verse others in jest, some in both.

Here’s how our tromp about town went:

We started out in the 5th since we were all staying in hotels there. Had breakfast with shots of Baileys (someone in our party brought little airport shot bottles) in our coffee and hot chocolate at Le Depart St. Michel on the Blvd. St. Michel. We walked from there to the 6th just across the street and had fresh squeezed orange juice with champagne at La Gentilhommiere on Place St. Andre des Arts. So far, so good. To pace ourselves we even split two glasses of champagne among 6 glasses of orange juice. Sounds positively healthy, doesn’t it?

We did schedule some actual activities besides just drinking and our 3rd stop included both a park and a market. We took the metro to the 16th and had more coffee, chocolate and Baileys with a couple branching out into beer, at the Le Mirabeau on Place Barcelone then headed back across the river to the lovely, modern Parc Andre Citroen, a place I’ve long wanted to get to. We also shopped our way along the St. Charles Market to our 4th stop at the Le Linnois in the 15th recommended to us by Christina and Francesca, whom we toasted there. It’s a cute place and we intend to return on a future trip for a meal but this time we settled for beers and sancerre and gratefully scarfed down some dry roasted peanuts.

Stop 5 in the 7th was a special one at Le Sancerre wine bar on Ave. Rapp. In 5 or 6 previous trips to Paris I’d had it on my list and refused to be denied this time. Although it was October 29 and a bit crisp, it was warm in the sun so we all sat outside with our backs to the bar and our faces to the sun and the lovely façade of the best art deco building in Paris at 29 Ave. Rapp as we drank Sancerre rouge and Sancerre blanc and ate more peanuts. It doesn’t get much better than that.

By stop 6 we were already starting to feel some time pressure with lunch looming and only 5 of 20 arrondissements under our belts so we were glad that this would be a place where we could kill two bars with one stop, so to speak. Popping up out of the metro we headed for a corner on the Blvd. St. Jacques and had various wines and beers at the Le Reveil Samaritain, again seated outside of what looked to be a delightful little bistro. Not spying another bar across the street in the 13th as I’d expected, I left the group and made a scouting expedition down the street that looked most likely to offer us libations. Alas, the best I could do was a Nicolas store that sells wine by the bottle to take home rather than by the glass to drink in. In desperation I considered and then rejected the thought of buying a bottle and corkscrew and a few plastic glasses and gathering the group for another toast, but somehow that seemed like “breaking the rules” not to mention risking the possibility of getting us all hauled in for some infraction of a likely Paris ordinance. Besides it was nearing the time of our lunch reservations at Bofinger in the 4th and I made an executive decision to move the group along with the intent of making a separate trip back to the 13th for a nightcap at the very end of the trek—a decision in hindsight that cost us a possible place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

One of the reasons I was so anxious to keep our reservations at Bofinger was that our son was scheduled to make a surprise appearance to attend his father’s birthday party on his way back from a trip to Prague and London. I sat on pins and needles awaiting his arrival and when he didn’t shop up, debated at the end of the meal whether or not to move on or try to hold the group there hoping for a late appearance. As it turned out our son never did make it since he was one of the unfortunates caught in the problems that befell the Chunnel/Eurostar due to sea salt from a terrible storm getting onto the cables on that day. Reminds me of another time we and two others of our party were caught in a terrible storm in Paris—the Tempest of the Century—during the Christmas of 1999, but that’s another story. All of this was a terrible disappointment to me since I’d worked so hard to keep the secret, not only from my husband but also from the rest of our merry little band. It just would have been so fun to see someone you know but don’t expect awaiting you half way across the world or to have them stroll up to your table and say, hi, happy birthday. Unfortunately my ditzing around about what to do about trying to meet up with our 7th guest also cost us some precious time.

The group put the time to pretty good use with stops in 3 other arrondissements close to Bofinger in the Bastille area, in fact, the absence of myself and another woman from the party as we tried to make contact with our hotel and my son caused the rest of the group to have a second round of drinks at one of the stops while they waited for us. We quickly clicked off stops in the 12th at Le Bistro St. Antoine where we sat outdoors, at Le Bastille, again outdoors, and in the 3rd at Le Fontenoy on the Blvd Beaumarchais where we were indoors and left quickly since their only facilities were Turkish and quite unsatisfactory to several of our party. There’s something really strange about needing to get a token to enter a Turkish toilet.

By now we were only half way although it was heading onto 4 p.m. or so. Nonetheless we were feeling quite confident of achieving our goal given that both of our next two planned stops were expected to provide 3 and 4 arrondissements respectively and we were assured of getting in one as a kind of “freebie” with our dinner. I said toward the beginning of this post that we expected to get to some areas of Paris we’d not seen before. Our next stop certainly fulfilled that expectation. The Belleville metro stop deposits you at the intersection of the10th, 11th , 19th and 20th arrondissements and in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the city. Having already had a drink in the 11th, we only needed to hit the other three. Our first sit down was at the La Vielleuse in the 20th. Though it was getting darker and colder we chose to sit at their outdoor tables since the inside appeared smokey and a bit rough. This only ate into our time since they’d apparently cut off service to their sidewalk tables. We gave up and combed the street for a more customer-friendly place only to find that few of the places on the street served alcohol. We swallowed our pride and returned to La Vielleuse this time taking up a table inside and quickly downing our beers. By now we were ordering fewer than 6 drinks for all of us and doubling up to conserve our capacities.

Back on the street we moved up the Blvd De Villette to the 19th and the cafe Cherie, a tiny place with white plastic chairs outside and a waiter with roller skates built into his shoes. Our next stop was probably the most ridiculous of the day, a Quik, the French or European equivalent of McDonalds. But it was open, had good bathrooms and I knew they served beer, the only real requirement. Several of our party gobbled up orders of fries along with the two beers with six straws we ordered for the six of us—where there’s a will, there’s a way. As we exited we were amazed to see a local entrepreneur selling roast corn that he was preparing over a charcoal fire in a large tin can set in a shopping cart with the back flap of the cart pushed up to become the grill for roasting the corn. There was something very third-world about the scene and it would have been interesting to stick around to see more of this very exotic area but we needed to push on to the next stop.

Our 9th stop was at the Place de Clichy metro stop. It afforded us drinks (pretty much beer and wine only by now) in the 8th, 9th, 17th and 18th arrondissements, at Le Palace Café, La Havane, Le 27 Gourmand and Le Moncey, respectively. Again we were in an area we’d not been to before and I found myself wishing we’d started in these places earlier in the day when we’d have had the advantage of daylight (by now it was dark) both to see the area and to take away some of the fear-factor since we were now in areas considered by most to be the more rough/dangerous of the city. The most notable stop among those made here was at Le 27 Gourmand. Once again we were having trouble finding a café/bar, this time in the 8th, made more difficult by the fact that most of the bar/restaurants were now setting up for dinner and reserving their tables for persons who wanted to eat rather than just have a toast. It also seemed like all the places for drinks were on the other side of the street (and therefore in a different arrondissment that we’d already toasted in.) As we walked further and further from the Place de Clichy and its hubbub, the birthday boy lost patience with me as the leader of the pack claiming that we were going too far from likely drinking territory and wandering pointlessly, some of the concern brought on by a strong sense of reality and the rest by a strong need to make a bathroom stop. At that point another of our group with more temerity than I decided it wouldn’t hurt to stop in an obvious restaurant and ask the proprietor if he’d make an exception to the only food and drinks policy not just drinks, provided we ordered well. We stopped. We ordered a bottle or two of champagne and the owner who was customerless at that point was not only willing but eager to serve us. The place was cozy, darling and the menu fine and I found myself wishing we didn’t have reservations to keep so that we could just stay, have a wonderful meal, soak up the alcohol and be on our way fuller and less tipsy. I promised myself I’d be back another time and that I’d recommend the restaurant to others—Le 27 Gourmand at 27 Bd des Batignolles, 2 mn from the Place de Clichy. There, I’ve done it.

By now it was close to 8 p.m. and our 1st arrondissement reservations at Chez Vong, my husband’s favorite Chinese restaurant in Paris and in our known world. We stopped enroute at the Etienne Marcel metro stop to have another quick round of champagne in the 2nd arrondissement seated outdoors at a bar I forgot to record the name of but which had an American waiter who had gone to school at George Washington University coterminus with my son who was salted-in across the channel. By this time we were truly starting to feel the effects of the day’s activities and sang “Bon Anniversaire” loudly and without a hint of self-consciousness as Parisians and tourists walked and drove by.

Our final stop was in the 1st where we had champagne, Meursault, and Nuit St. Georges along with wonton soup, dim sum, sweet and sour pork, fried rice with shrimp, shrimp in a potato basket, etc, etc. Yes, this last was our final stop. By the end of the meal no one had the heart (or the legs) to tromp back to the 13th for a drink at the missing arrondissement. We reasoned that we had at least set foot in all 20 arrondissements even if we only drank in 19 of them, that we’d picked the best one to miss—unlucky 13, also that leaving it out would give us a reason to try again for all 20 on a future birthday, and finally decided that leaving it out could also give us a chance to challenge another group to see if they can do a similar trek and actually drink in all 20. Who’s game?

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