The 6th Arrondissement on Paris’s Left Bank is sometimes referred to as the “snobby 6th.” I’ve never found that to be the case. We’ve stayed in the neighborhood on several occasions and never have we been shunned….
….although – and I’m just thinking of this – there was that one time when I asked a shopkeeper in the neighborhood how to get to Invalides, and, in her snobby sixth way, she pretended not to understand me.
“IN-va-leed,” I kept saying, to blank stares, “IN-va-leed!” (If they can’t understand you, just repeat yourself, only louder.)
Finally, another shopper stepped in and said, “ON-va-leed.”
Then, everything changed. “Oh, ON-va-leed. Oui, oui, bien sur!”
So maybe I DO have an axe to grind about the 6th, but in its defense, this is a great area to stay, with interesting shops, lots of approachable restaurants, plenty of iconic landmarks, and some great streets – my favorite of which slices through the heart of the neighborhood: Rue du Cherche Midi.
Nearby is a charming hotel that we’ve stayed in several times, the Hotel St. Gregoire. It’s small, but the rooms are comfortable and well-appointed, and although not cheap at about 200-300 euros a night, the prices aren’t unreasonable in a costly city like Paris. You even get breakfast with your room.
Also nearby is the St. Sulpice cathedral (of Da Vinci Code fame) and a block from there is the Bon Marché department store with its spectacular food halls – better even than Galleries Lafayette.
So this is where we discovered a tiny gem of an Italian bistro – Le Cherche Midi, opened in 1978. It’s just a hole in the wall – you’ll be squeezed together elbow-to-elbow with your fellow diners, closer than you’ve ever been seated before.
Don’t fight it; sit back and enjoy it.
The service is warm and inviting. The pasta is homemade…truffles in an abundance that you’ve never seen with fettuccine alfredo…fantastic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese – the real stuff. You’ll be offered a twelve-inch platter of mortadella for sharing. Get it. And don’t pass up the house signature dessert: raspberry soufflé. Celebrity sightings are common here, portions are generous, and it won’t break the bank.
When we took our grandkids to Paris in June, we ate here twice a week…each time managing to snag one of the twelve coveted seats on the sidewalk.
EXIT PARIS – ARRIVE NEW YORK…
…and off you go to CHERCHE MIDI, at the corner of Houston and the Bowery, so named because owner Keith McNally used to live on Rue du Cherche Midi in Paris.
This Cherche Midi (the name, by the way, means “searching for mid-day” and it was also the name of a famous prison in Paris) is French in theme, rather than Italian. McNally, a James Beard Award winner, is perhaps the best restaurateur in New York. He started out, I believe, with The Odeon, and later opened Balthazar, Minetta Tavern, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, and many other restaurants, the newest of which is Augustine, newly opened in the Beekman Hotel.
McNally has a special talent for ambiance. Go to Schiller’s and you simply won’t believe that the entire interior is a contrivance. Same for Balthazar. At Cherche Midi, you have a French bistro right out of central casting, as quaint as any in Paris. The décor is off-white, with distressed mirrors, chipped subway tiles, and a chic, good-looking crowd packed three deep at the bar. There’s even a communal bathroom (Do you think, by chance, he visited Chino Latino?)
The food is quite good, with old-fashioned classics and French pleasures, including a respectable steak frites to be enjoyed between glasses of Beaujolais. Pan-roasted foie gras is excellent, as are the whole grilled fish, Ile Flottante and Crepes Suzette. There are even some surprises, the biggest of which is Minetta Tavern’s classic Black Label Burger – made from a special blend by butcher Pat La Frieda. It’s an unabashedly American burger at an only-in-New York price: $28. (It’s worth it, by the way).
So here’s my take…If you find yourself in New York or Paris, you can’t go wrong with either Cherche Midi. They share a name and a similar dedication to quality, but each has a character all its own. One isn’t better than the other; they’re simply different, like wool and silk.