We arrived in Paris at 12 this morning by train. We’re here for our first wedding anniversary. After checking into our tiny flat in the Latin Quarter (we booked the place for its balcony, not interiors) we had a quick change of clothes and started taking on the city. With feet sore after some 20 000 steps worth of exploring we took the metro home for a shower and a nap before dinner.
We decided on Chez Marcel for our first night in Paris. A few years ago my in-laws found the 100-year-old eatery and have never stopped talking about it. All dressed up we take the 25-minute walk to the restaurant.
The restaurant is gorgeous, ticking every idyllic dream of what a French bistro should be. Small tables covered by white table cloths are squeezed into the tiny space. There is so little space that to get to the seat against the wall, the table needs to be pulled out entirely. In reality, all the guests are sitting in one large table, but it’s glorious. The wood-paneled walls are covered by small artworks and family photos. It turns out the current chef is the fifth Marcel in charge of the kitchen.
I stare at the escargot and its utensils in front of me. While in Paris I want to eat everything quintessentially Friench, but I didn’t think of the actual mechanics of eating. After trying to fish the snail out of the searingly hot shell with a clamp, the lady at the table next to us grabs my plate and shows me the trick. The clamp is to hold the hot shell. When I finally get it right the whole table applauds.
Dinner was fantastic! I had the veal with a rich mushroom sauce served with a potato galette. As we finish off the wine a waiter brings a Mille-feuille with a sparkler to one of the bigger tables. We all sing happy birthday (bon anniversaire) to the lady (called Camile) and cheer.
A man from another table jumps up with a guitar to sing an alternative birthday song. He looks like a bear wearing an old t-shirt, but he sings with passion. Camile’s table is ecstatic and the rest of the us laugh and cheer along.
The man with the guitar now continues to serenade Camile with his guitar with French pop songs. Most diners sing along or simply enjoy the atmosphere.
Another man from the same table now takes over the guitar. He’s wearing a white collared shirt with his silvery hair combed backwards. He sings with a smoothness in his voice of an old crooner.
The chef, a tall, bald and energetic man, pulls a strobe light from the tiny kitchen window. He runs around the ancient restaurant to find all the light switches to turn off. We all wave our napkins in the air as we continue singing.
The chef runs around again to turn on the lights as he rushes back to pour each diner a glass of champagne.
The chef reaches behind a bar and presents a small wireless microphone. At first glance it looks like a dildo but appears to be the shape of a Barbie doll. He makes a short speech and then gives the microphone to Camile who also makes a short speech.
The bear and the crooner now sing with gusto.
The chef is trying to quieten the singers. A waiter explains that they have upstairs neighbours with whom they do not have good relations. If the restaurant makes too much noise, then the neighbours pour water on outside diners.
Now singing in hushed tones, the music continues. Every time the chorus builds up, we mouth shhhhhhhh through giggles. The crooner, now the main singer wasn’t built to sing softly.
In a sudden change of pace, the chef leaps from the kitchen – dressed as Elvis head to toe, even with shiny shoes. The crooner quickly adjusts his song as the chef performs with the Barbie microphone. No one can be quiet anymore as we cheer.
We’re back to hushed tones but the electricity and atmosphere in the tiny restaurant is palpable. We are all having a jam and don’t even want to think about leaving.
The chef (back in his uniform) rushes back in the restaurant to tell everyone to be quiet – but he has made a plan for the party to continue. It is a forbidden place, he explains animatedly, so no phones and no drinks, he says holding his finger up.
We all get up as he directs us to a small door in the bar. It leads to a ladder into the basement. We all file in one after the other. The space is half the size of the restaurant. The room is darkly lit with luminescent lights. The floor is gravel, the walls are plastered with nude photos from the 80s. There is even a life-sized crocheted nude hanging above the desk in the corner. In addition to the nudes, there are rows of dusty wine bottles with an expensive look about them.
We all find a place as the chef starts spinning the disco ball only a few feet above our heads and starts up the old vinyl player.
The chef is now the DJ as he swops one dusty vinyl to the next. The strobe light is brought down as we dance to tunes from the sixties and seventies.
It’s too hot in the basement. Bodies dancing and breathing in such close proximity in a dark hole does not make for comfort. We line back up the ladder as the chef opens the bar door upstairs. We are back at singing with the guitar again, but we are careful to keep it subdued.
Singing through whispers the crooner tries to appease us tourists as he starts a rendition of U2’s With or without you. The song may be a ballad, but it’ll surprise you how quickly it can get loud. The song is littered with shhhhhhh’s and giggles.
We decide it’s time to head home. As we pay the bill, the chef pours the remaining guests cognac. He kisses each of us like family as we say goodbye.
Outside, a waiter is sweeping the pavement as though it’s just a regular night at Chez Marcel ...