In pursuit of the real deal in Paris
Travelling with family in pursuit of great food has its rewards and its challenges.
Anyone who loves good food always wants to share the moment.
What is the point of an amazing meal in some incredible destination all alone?
You want your family to experience authenticity in both food and lodgings, to stay somewhere small and real.
If it's Paris, you want that "convivial experience" rather than air points or superb room amenities.
Give me a French host with a little dog who gets emotional talking about a little bistro around the corner, rather than a sleek marble bath with a TV screen.
So it was with that desire for the real deal that I first stumbled on Hotel Marclau in Paris in the 80s – on a street that had once been a fish market appropriately named Rue du Faubourg Poissonniere. (Poisson is the word for fish in French).
II have returned there for over 28 years.
It was and still is incredibly inexpensive and the location, a short walk from Gare du Nord and Gare de L'est, makes it very attractive.
Another bonus, the bread at breakfast is warm, but the coffee is not great.
Now the disadvantages. The hotel has no porters or lift (it's barely a one star) so if you are on the top floor you have a steep hard climb up a circular staircase with your bags.
Half-way up you are begging for oxygen. Forget air conditioning in rooms where candlewick bedspreads and furniture are reminiscent of Van Gogh's house in Arles.
Everything is slightly on a lean – and that's not after lunch and too much wine.
You can go for a bathroom in the room or opt for the shower and toilet outside in the corridor.
My attachment to this hotel is deep and ridiculously sentimental despite these quirky features.
Coming here in the 80s, the patron refused to speak English and would hit you over the head with the baguette at breakfast if you didn't try to "parle un peu le francais".
The streets were cobblestoned and at night you fell asleep to the noise of bar patrons below, the wafts of gauloises smoke and the distinctive clicking of heels into the night.
You made your bookings by fax machine – phone calls were difficult and always in French.
After several visits I wanted my parents to enjoy this quintessential experience but knew my mother, who has a fear of fires in old buildings, would want to be on the first floor of the hotel.
So I duly wrote in my best schoolgirl French that my mother did not like to climb (I thought the word was monter in French ) staircases so could she have a room close to the breakfast room.
To my horror, when we arrived the patron ran out from his bureau rubbing his hands saying, " where is your mama who does not like to be mounted on the stairs? "
As my mother recovered from this interlude in the safety of her room, she decided to read the safety instructions on the back of the door (in case of fire). There in English it said, "In case of emergency – remain calm, run to the window and expose yourself".
A quiet cup of tea was clearly needed.
Hotel Marclau has changed since that visit. Unfortunately the little poodle died and the patron sat at his desk with a solitary candle burning in front of his photo for years. But in the end his sadness encouraged him to return to his family in the Alsace.
Today the hotel is run by very nice people, but they will direct you to a great couscous eatery or kebab shop rather than the bistro round the corner.
So in the spirit of the Hotel Marclau I knew, here is a foodie checklist for visitors to France.
TOP FRENCH EATING OUT TIPS
• Learn a little French. Greetings, please and thank you are a must
• Breakfast is usually coffee, bread and jam – save your appetite for lunch. Le picnic is a great option – get bread from a bakery and cheese and ham from the market
• In restaurants, always look for the set menu or fix prixe – it includes service and tax so it's a great bargain. A favourite is Restaurant Perraudin, which charges less than NZ$30 for a three-course lunch
• Something as simple as a salad or an omelette in a simple busy bar can be a terrific option
• Avoid places with little maps and menus in many languages – if you are walking in a touristy area, go down a side street
• Ask your hotel patron for something very simple – "comme vos grands-mere de la cuisson" or "cooking like your grandmother's" and they will know exactly the right place
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