Like most Paris brasseries, La Rotonde was founded long before people started going to restaurants for revelations. No, in those days, people went to restaurants to eat, and they pretty much knew what the menu would look like even before they stepped through the door.
When it opened on the boulevard Montparnasse in 1911, the Left Bank neighborhood was just beginning to attract artists like Picasso and Chagall and it was a busy commercial thoroughfare leading to a one of the city’s main train stations. So people went to La Rotonde to eat, to people watch, to while away an hour or two over a coffee or a glass of wine with the distraction of a book or a sketchpad. But most of all, they went to eat, because that’s why you went to brasseries, the brilliant Parisian invention that made dining out a nonchalant metropolitan pleasure by putting it within reach of almost every pocket and every pocketbook. You went because you were hungry and could get something to eat in a brasserie pretty much all day long and often well into the night.
When I first moved to Paris from London a longtime ago, I couldn’t have explained to you what made a brasserie different from a bistro, but I instinctively liked them, especially since I often worked very irregular hours and me and most of my friends were single. So brasseries were our default choice for a meal, the place to go to snuff out a case of Sunday night blues with friends, or unknot my nerves after work with some oysters and a bottle of Muscadet. They were our one-size-fits-all restaurant, and they reliably offered a good time and a decent enough feed for an acceptable price. (Oh, and the difference between a bistro and a brasserie? Very simply, bistros specialize in simmered dishes and sauces, brasseries are about fast cooking, like grilling or frying, with a shellfish stand out front and perhaps a choucroute garni on the menu that refers to their original roots as brewhouse restaurants in Alsace).
And then it all went wrong during the 1990s when most of the great brasseries of Paris were swallowed up by chains, which increasingly resorted to commissary-supplied kitchens and gastronomic shortcuts to make these places as lucrative as possible. The thing is, of course, is that this didn’t go unnoticed, and like thousands of other Parisians, I sadly gave up on brasseries as their quality tumbled and their prices soared.
A brasserie revival has been in the making for a longtime, with chef Eric Frechon getting things off to a solid start several years ago when he opened Lazare and the Minipalais. Last year, chef Mauro Colagreco of Miramar opened the excellent Grand Coeur brasserie in the Marais. Now Alain Ducasse has a new-style brasserie slated for Les Halles, which will open this spring, and chef Thierry Marx has another one in the works, Le Train Blanc, for the Gare du Nord later this year.
In the meantime, however, the only possible brasserie I could pull out of my hat when I had to find a place for a “cheerful and lively meal” at the request of a friend who was inviting me and Bruno out to dinner as a Christmas present on a Sunday night the weekend before New Year’s was, rather guardedly, La Rotonde. I say guardedly because if it’s a popular table with an intriguing tapestry of Parisians and out-of-towners woven from politicians, show-biz types, captains of industry, a complete alphabet of the French bourgeoisie, plus the happy shot of Lurex supplied by well-bred wide-eyed tourists who are more welcome in town than ever, the service can be luck of the draw, sometimes charming, sometimes bored and brusque, sometimes a mixture of all three.
Protective of my friend’s purse and pride–she’d never ever have let us snatch up the bill at the end of the meal as would be our wont, I knew the three-course 44 Euro prix-fixe menu offered a reliably good feed for the money and also that there are several pleasant reasonably priced bottles on the wine list, too: Mâcon AOC Domaine du Gros Mont, La Roche Vineuse 2014, 28 Euros and an organic Languedoc AOC Hecht & Bannier 2014, for example. So we went.
Wild boar terrine by Gilles Verot