Back in the early 70's a couple of wide-eyed, excited youngsters took their first steps abroad to visit the great metropolis of Paris. After a long and arduous journey, involving coaches, trains and boats, and a particularly awful night sleeping on the luggage rollers at London Victoria, they arrived and were awed by this wondrous city. Now, 35 years later, wise-eyed rather than wide-eyed, but still as excited, it was time for me and my old mate Ken, to see if Paris still had the magic.
This time we were going in a style more befitting of middle-aged men, my trusty VW, and we weren't going to survive on Croque Monsieurs but see if any of the Paris style was evident in their veggie restaurants. Ken had expressed a desire to see Chartres Cathedral so we were taking the long way round to Paris via the Portsmouth-Caen ferry then across country.
Caen styles itself as "La Ville Depart", which I translated, correctly as it happened, as "The town to leave". For a variety of reasons never was a motto so apt. Reasons including the hordes of French footy fans singing, shouting and dancing in the streets, or the miserable bar staff, or the really awful restaurant, whose name, fortunately for them, I cannot remember, who decided a little ham would provide the final touch "gastronomique" to my veggie pizza. Anyway one night was enough, and it was time to get on the move.
Chartes CathedralChartres is a lovely town with a truly stunning cathedral, which apparently you can see from the top of the Eiffel Tower 50 miles away. Also more than enough to see here to keep the Da Vinci Code buffs happy. Chartres does not have much for veggies though, but at least the pizza was unadulterated. If you do chance by here I'd recommend the "Grand Monarque" hotel. Excellent service, safe parking and right in the centre.
And so to Paris, where we were hoping to get our first decent French veggie food. Sounds odd that doesn't it? "French Veggie"! The French aren't renowned for being veggie-friendly but one of the best veggie meals I've had was at a London non-vegetarian French restaurant, the Rousillon. If we could find a few places half as good as that we would be well pleased. And so, after checking into the Best Western hotel (cheap and cheerful, but no more) in the Opera district, it was time to abandon the car and explore.
Our first port of call was Saveurs Veget'halles in the heart of Les Halles. I noticed, as we entered, an advert for Supreme Master Tv, and whilst I'm not a devotee of this religion, (in fact I know nothing about it), it's usually (evidenced by places like Mr Man in Edgware) a sign of decent veggie food to come, and this was no exception.
Saveurs Veget'hallesI had the mock chicken with mash and veg and black rice, which I've never seen before. Ken had ordered something completely different, but got a meal suspiciously similar. I guess if I've any complaint with this place it's that the food is a bit uninspiring and a little bland. But it was wholesome and cheap, and after Caen, was wonderful! We paid just under 40 euros for dinner for two. They don't serve (or allow) alcohol here.
Back in the 70s we'd stayed at a cheapo youth hostel in the rue Jean Jacques Rousseau. I'd had to share a room with some Italian guy who constantly sprayed himself with after shave and the entertainment was provided by beating the US Vietnam war heroes at table tennis. I never understood why this place was full of them, brandishing purple hearts and the like. Maybe a reward from Uncle Sam? They may have been able to fly Hueys but they were crap at ping pong! After our dinner we took a walk past and it was gratifying to see the place still standing, but unfortunately our favourite bar of the time, Les Sports, was sadly gone, along with the gorgeous blonde who used to kiss me three times every time I went in. Of course back then I thought she fancied me, but of course it was just to make me blush madly and give the locals a hoot!
Lunch the next day was at La Victoire Supreme du Coeur. This used to be connected with the Saveurs Veget'halles.
La Victoire Supreme du CoeurIn fact the Saveurs occupies their old premises, but I gather they have now gone their separate ways, and this shows in the food. Whilst the place is still a bit cafe/canteen like, the menu seemed much more exciting. I went for the mushroom roast in blackberry and ginger sauce, and it was delicious, full of flavour and not at all bland. Also, much to Ken's approval, they serve alcohol here. Slightly pricier, but they do a plat du jour at 13 euros if you're on a budget. Our lunch came to 60 euros but that included our beers, and it was a hot day, and we had walked all morning...!
After a stroll down the Champs Elysees and an outrageously expensive beer at the George V hotel (wonderful, but forget it unless you're a zillionaire), it was time to visit an old favourite place of mine for dinner, the Al Diwan. There's nothing particularly outstanding about this place, in fact there's lots of Lebanese restaurants in Paris, probably some much better, but this was a life saver for me and my other half a few years back.
Al DiwanI wasn't veggie at the time, but she was a veggie of some 20'odd years standing. All I knew of Paris was half remembered from our trip in the 70s, the Moulin Rouge, the Les Sports bar, the gorgeous blonde, but not a single veggie place. So having trawled across Paris for 2 hours in a fruitless search I pitched up at the George V in the hope they might rustle up something meatless. Of course, all they could provide was a haughty laugh, but the doorman took pity on us and suggested the Al Diwan might do some veggie stuff. It did, in wonderful style, with over 17 veggie items on the menu. "She" was delighted, we ate well, finished with a romantic stroll and all was well with the world. This is still as good now as it was then. We had the "assiette vegetarienne" at 15 euros each and with the beers it came to just over 60 euros for two.
Le Potager du Marais is a place you'll either love or hate. It is tiny and cramped and everyone sits at a long table on one side of the cafe, which must be murder if you're hemmed in halfway down the back and dying to pay a visit!
Le Potager du MaraisI can't comment on the food though, save to say it must be good because the place was packed out and had people queueing up outside. So a quick snack at a new place near our hotel Le Vegetarien which was tasty and good value at 30 euros for two.
Possibly the most interesting street in Paris is the Rue St Denis. I remember as a goggle-eyed teenager the "ladies of the night" standing on every corner and the sex shops interspersed with almost Bond street quality shops. A very odd mixture and one, clearly, worth revisiting. And blow me, (an unfortunate phrase in this context!), it hasn't changed a bit, despite the massive overhaul of Les Halles and the nearby godawful Pompidou centre. The ladies still strut their stuff, and judging by the looks of most of them, they're same ones I saw back in '73! Don't visit Paris without at least one stroll down here, but unless you're the Times' art critic, don't bother with the Pompidou, which for my money, is a pretentious pile of rubbish that has the look of Euston station but without the atmosphere.
Our last night and we'd lined up a visit to Notre Dame cathedral, which is one of the great buildings of the world. You couldn't even imagine trying to build something like that now. The Large Hadron Collider, pah! 'Tis nothing compared to the effort put into this grand old lady.
Le Grenier de Notre DameJust round the corner is the Le Grenier de Notre Dame. This, in my humble opinion, is the best vegetarian restaurant in Paris. It's a "proper" restaurant, with tablecloths, wine, a perfect host and divine food. Not too pricey either. Our meal was only 45 euros, including 2 glasses of vin rouge. The escalope of Seitan was perfect, as was Ken's cassoulet. If you only visit one place, make this it!
All in all, we were quite happy with the places we visited. It's a shame there's nowhere, (nowhere we know of anyway) a bit more gastronomique, in keeping with the much trumpeted standards of French cuisine, but hopefully this little histoire encourages you to go and sample it for yourself.
If you do go the Dover-Calais route then I'd recommend the tunnel (if it's open, at time of writing it's on fire). PO Ferries have possibly the rudest woman staff member I've ever met, who obviously thinks PO stands for p*ss off, because that's obviously what she wanted to reply to our meekly asked query on boat times. We eventually went with SeaFrance, and as for them, the boat was filthy, the food disgusting, and the only redeeming feature was that it didn't sink.
Note: Veggie Places always reviews anonymously, posing as an ordinary customer. If we do divulge who we are, it is always after we have paid in full for food or accommodation.