May 16, 2011

procopeLe Procope

Having written about Paris restaurants for many years, I’ve learned that there’s nothing more unwelcome than the relentless expert. To wit, if many friends seek me out for restaurant advice, others are less passionate at the table than I am and are more interested in just having a good time. So when I sense this to be the case, I leave my expert’s hat on the hook at home, and head off to dinner for the pleasure of good conversation more than anything else. Sometimes it’s actually a real treat to let someone else chose where we’re going to eat anyway, and sometimes it’s oddly useful for me to end up in a place that it would never have occurred to me to set foot in either, a case in point being Le Procope, the storied restaurant a few steps from the Odeon on the Left Bank.

I wound up in this place, which claims to be one of the oldest restaurants in Paris dating to 1686 when a Sicilian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened a cafe here, because an old room-mate from New York was in town with his two teenaged kids and was staying nearby. He told me that he’d made a reservation for dinner, because he was sure that I tire of doing same and he wanted his sons to get a taste of French history over what would hopefully be a good meal. I mumbled something about not having been there in many, many years, sort of vaguely hoping he’d get the hint, but let it drop when he didn’t.

One way or another, it was great to see him again and to meet his boys, really good kids from Providence, Rhode Island who were winsomely wide-eyed during their first trip to Paris. Brad’s done quite well since we used to make casseroles from the cocktail sausages I’d purloined from book-launch parties I’d been invited to as a lowly editorial assistant at a big publishing company in New York–we were both broke all of the time in those days, and generously treated us to a nice bottle of Champagne to start the evening. Suffice it to say, that the the company and these bubbles were the highlight of the evening, and that I found myself cringing all through the meal at the thought this these three nice men would go away thinking that this was Parisian food.

My oysters were milky and carelessly shucked, my trout was mushy and had an odd metalic taste, everything was grimly overpriced, and the service conveyed an almost oddly fascinating message of bored disdain. I didn’t ask the Rhode Islanders about their food, but they volunteered that it was “okay,’ which is a polite American way of saying not very good.

Oddly enough, part of our conversation during dinner turned to what Brad, a marketing man, calls ‘Zombie’ brands, or brands that live off of their names after having long since relinquished the quality or distinction that made them well-known. We agreed that L.L. Bean, the Maine sporting goods and sportswear company, is a sorry example of same. Both of us grew up respecting the no-nonsense, profoundly American quality of the goods they sold, most of which were once made in factories in Maine. Now a quick flip through an L.L. Bean catalogue reveals that almost everything they sell, including their famous moccasins and other shoes, is made overseas. It’s a shame, too, because so many of their designs were iconic Americana, and it always felt good to order from this catalogue in the past, knowing that their well-crafted and fairly priced goods were providing a livelihood for someone. Sadly, my most recent experiences with L.L. Bean have put me off the company completely.

Walking home after dinner, I veered between a deep pleasure at having seen an old friend and the feeling of having been well and truly had, for we had eaten in a ‘Zombie’ restaurant, or a place where there’s almost no pride or passion in the kitchen but which is instead content just to knowingly coast along serving tourists who’ll never come back. Unfortunately, Paris has a fair number of Zombie restaurants, notably La Coupole, Mollard, Le Petit Zinc, and Brasserie Flo, among others. Unfortunately the Zombies survive due to out of date guidebooks, good locations, and cozy relationships with nearby hotels. Whenever I can, I call out a Zombie, because I find it heart-breaking that people should waste a meal and hard-earned money in these places, so please do everyone a favor and call out egregious Zombies of your own experience.

  • Instead of smiling and going along with it, I beg off going to those places. While it's okay to have mediocre food (if the company makes up for it), I've had a few experiences at places like Bofinger and Au Petit Riche that made me realize that I'm better off meeting friends and visitors for a glass of wine at a café rather than for a meal at one of those "zombie" places..

  • Alexander Lobrano

    I agree with you about Bofinger and Au Petit Riche, David. And the glass-of-wine is a good route to chose when possible. In this case, though, I the two boys were too young to drink and their Dad was so eager in hoping to show me a good time. And for what it's worth, I sent him this piece before I posted it, and he said fire away. Best, Alec

  • David U.

    My "anti-vote" goes to the Vagenande not far from le Procope on the blvd St Germain. Lovely interior but that's all – but happily I haven't had the misfortune to visit in years so perhaps it has finally given up the ghost! Couldn't agree more about almost all Flo venues – went to Bofinger a year or 2 ago and it couldn't have been worse…. Many thanks for your excellent blog which is full of good advice and should be prescribed reading for all who visit Paris!

  • While I 100 % agree with you about these 'zombie' restaurants in Paris, I have to step up and defend L.L. Bean. I'm from Maine after all, and have seen first hand the kind of positive impact a large company can have on a struggling community. For costs reasons, yes, L.L. Bean has had to take the majority of it's manufacturing overseas. This is a hardly a unique problem in the US, but they do maintain two factories in Maine, as well as their corporate headquarters and flagship store.

    Growing up, the parents of several of my friends worked there, and continued to even after receiving better offers, claiming that they would never find a better company to work for. They are committed to social responsibilities, both in their Maine and overseas facitilites, and they are active in environmental education and charities. They also boast the best customer service I've ever dealt with in any large, medium, or small company. Ever. Period.

    I'm sorry to hear that you feel L.L. Bean is a 'zombie' company. I think outsourcing is a very sad reality in the US these days, but I know, from being around while it was happening, that the company did everything they could to keep the maximum amount of jobs in Maine. I think the key to understanding the authenticity of this company is to visit the flagship store on the off-season–speak with some of the employees who have worked there for the better part of their lives. The majority of the products may now be marked 'made in brazil', but I guarantee you the sentiment is the same as when the company was founded in 1912.

  • Laurence

    Alec: For me, your outing of the Zombies is as important as the discoveries of the good places. Spending all that money on airfares and hotels and then forking over serious cash and precious "Paris Time" for a worse than uninspired meal would be a crusher. Thanks for the great post, including your comment about the shadow that is now LL Bean.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    David: Yes, alas, Vagenende is another rather egregious Zombie that lives off of its great location and beautiful decor. Such a shame, too, since Saint Germain des Pres really needs good affordable restaurants that serve great French food.

    Caroline: I'm glad to hear that L.L. Bean is a good corporate parent, but one lesson that American companies just don't seem to understand is that people will pay MORE for quality. Manufacturing in the U.S. might be expensive, but it's still much cheaper than Germany, where they make a range of superb products that run from baby bottles to the world's best machine tools. Ever since L.L. Bean's shoes stopped being Maine made, the quality has collapsed. As a fellow New Englander, I love Maine, and would love to see a great American company like L.L. Bean defend its proud traditions of artistry.

    Laurence: Glad you like the Zombies piece. Now the next step is to get them removed from all of the travel guides!

  • Horomaniac

    Have to agree about Le Procope and Vagenende and would like to submit Chartier and Polidor as dangerous Zombies! I must say I kind of like Bofinger and Le Train Bleu personally, although I admit they may be borderline zombiesque. The issue with these historic restaurants is that they were all pretty much taken over by large restaurant chains many years ago. These chains are more interested by potential profits than actual quality… and their staff don't realize the good old days are gone for good!

  • Ann

    I had coffee at Le Procope a few months ago and after one smell of the food being served to other tables, I knew I would never, ever eat there. That being said, it was a delightful room — tons of atmosphere and little tidbits of history tucked in the corners — I would definitely go back for coffee, or a glass of wine (and to their credit, the waiters didn't raise a peep of protest when we didn't order any food). It's a true shame that such venerable café, self-proclaimed as the oldest in the world, has descended to this lack of quality. That said, the fish they were serving smelled like it had also been around since the 17th century.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Horomaniac: Most of the Zoombies do indeed belong to restaurant chains and are very much the work of accountants. I think Le Train Bleu is one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world, though, and in a train station to boot, plus the food there can actually even be good if order selectively.

    Ann: Yes, the room at Le Procope is very pretty, but you can see it pretty well from the street, and I'd rather have that glass of wine at the Cafe de la Mairie or on the terrace of the newly renovated Cafe Bonaparte.

  • I disagree with Chartier being put in this list. Ok, the food is not especially good (and sometimes downright bad), but then everyone knows that before they go through the door don't they? And as one of the original bouillons in the city, I'm sure it has never offered good food in its history!

    Wine and digestifs are cheap too!

  • I would nominate Le Zephyr in Belleville. I ate there once with some friends last winter when it turned out the restaurant we wanted to go to was closed. The food was edible, but way overpriced for what it was. I understand the place is something of a neighborhood institution.

    Also, do restaurants in remote, yet heavily touristed areas (I'm thinking in particular of Mont St. Michel) fall under this category? They should.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Adam: I'd probably cut Chartier some slack, too, cuz it is cheap.

    Camille: Yes! Le Zephyr, and also Le Wepler in the Place de Clichy come to think of it.

  • Preach! I found this post via Paris by Mouth, and I'd add Brasserie Balzar to the list. (Perhaps you could shed some light on if we should just disavow the entire Flo Brasserie restaurant group?) I'd also add La Tour d'argent's sister restaurant, La Rôtisserie du Beaujolais (don't even go for their "signature" poulet roti), and also Polidor, which just isn't what it used to be.

    There are too many fantastic eats in Paris for people to waste their money on these Zombies. IMO, blogs, social recommendations, and foodies' opinions (like yours) are far more reliable (and more recent) than those "zombie guidebooks" that exalt the same Paris "institutions" in every edition.

  • Horomaniac

    Alexander and Adam: OK I respect that re. Chartier but IMO just because it's cheap doesn't mean it should be such a tourist trap! The place was average 15 years ago, but at least they were using SOME fresh produce. That's not the case anymore. Even the waiters on a recent French-TV program acknowledged (anonimously) that the food quality had become a joke…

    Brasserie Balzar is another zombie… Come to think of it, the traditional Brasseries have pretty much all been taken over by restaurant chains to become zombie restaurants in the past 15-20 years.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Living in Paris: Agree that most guidebooks are suspect, and this is why I was motivated to write Hungry for Paris.

    Horomaniac: Alas, you're right that most Paris brasseries are Zombies. Re Chartier, I think the difference is that most people go there knowing in advance that the food isn't going to be brilliant. Another Zombie chain is La Criee–hard to believe it's still in business, and certain Paris neighborhoods are stuffed with Zombies, notably Les Halles, Montmartre and the Latin Quarter.

  • John Talbott

    I'd add l'Ami Louis. And the Dome.

  • sadly, Allard.

  • Laidback

    I agree about Le Wepler and most places around Les Halles such as Taverne Maitre Kanter and Au Pied de Cochon

  • Chez Jenny is pretty awful.

    And though I agree with you about Montmartre, that is part of the fun in finding an actually good place in my neighborhood. (I have you to thank for La Bonne Franquette!)

  • I completely agree about Chez Jenny, L'Ami Louis and Au Pied de Cochon.

    Glad you like La Bonne Franquette, Sharon!

  • Toni

    I have been living here for just over a year and I do a LOT of research on where to eat (your blog is on my list to review regularly – thank you so much for all the great advice!). Recently we were meeting up with friends for a drink on Easter Sunday. One drink turned into two bottles of wine and so we decided to go for dinner. We were just around the corner from Le Petit Zinc – so even though I had huge doubts in my mind – we ended up there. What a disaster – the most awful food…and we had to pay for it! I was ashamed for Paris and what people must think of it when they eat at such a place (it was packed…although I'm sure that had a lot to do with most restaurants being shut). Thanks to you and others commenting on this post for 'outing' other restaurant!

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Toni, So sorry about your ratty meal at Le Petit Zinc. The same thing happened to me a few months ago when I ended up at Le Grand Colbert under similar circumstances. And just back from a visit to my lovely dentist, she told me I should add Maxim's to the Zombie corral, too. Best, Alec

  • Susqn

    New to my Zombie list is Le Commerce, formerly my Sunday fallback spot. Complaints about the fat- and gristle-laden, overcooked entrecote for two (an upsell from the onglet) and the pale, flabby frites (after requesting bien dorées) yielded the coffees taken off the bill and a "next time don't hesitate to say something". At the next table a young couple, American grad students, were working their way through a 54€ steak for 2, which from talking to them I have to believe was another upsell. I don't expect miracles from a place like this but after two years of rube treatment and increasing mediocrity I've had it. Hmm, are they also part of the Flo group?

    (BTW, wouldn't you expect milky oysters this time of year?)

  • Meg

    I just love this new term that you've coined!

    I'll nominate Aux Lyonnais, where the food is still reasonably good but where the rushed and indifferent service assumes that none of the guide-book toting foreigners will ever be coming back.

    I'd also like second your critique of out-of-date guidebooks and offer a detail or two to explain why these zombies persist. I recently revised the restaurant chapter for a well-known guide and initially received 200+ pages of existing listings from their previous guide. I was paid a very modest flat fee and no expenses to test any restaurants. If I removed any listings (zombie or otherwise), I had to supply a new entry (and pay for that meal myself). Despite doing more work, I earned the same flat fee as if I had left the zombie on the list and simply verified the phone number. If you pair this economic disincentive with the fact that guide book authors don't often live in the city they're writing about, it's easy to understand why zombie restaurants and other bad information persist in guidebooks. That's why Hungry for Paris and regular blog updates from you and other local writers are so valuable!