PARIS – I wish for you to have a place like Chez Denise in your life. A small cafe, unassuming and unpretentious but comfortable, where you’re known and greeted as a regular. A menu that is always familiar and food that is always, always first rate.
Even better if it is in Paris.
I don’t remember what year I first started to come to Chez Denise; it must have been more than 25 years ago. But I remember the first time vividly, a cold day in November.
Chez Denise, which is also known as La Tour Montlhéry, does not cater to tourists. Its menu, written on a chalkboard, is in French (be sure to have your smartphone’s translator app handy because there is no English version). And it wasn’t until recently – six years ago, to be exact – that we found a waiter who spoke English. But I’ll come back to that.
On that first visit, Rick and I entered and were immediately intimidated. It’s a fairly cramped dining room and we were seated at a small table where two other men were already seated. No smartphones then, and we’d left our French-English Dictionary paperback at the hotel.
We managed to order some food and I requested in my stilted French (which you’d think would have improved by now, but no) two glasses of wine, one red and one white. The waiter returned with two bottles.
“No, no, no,” I said, “un verre.” The waiter indicated, in English that was better than my French but only marginally, that we could pour what we wanted and would be charged at the end of the meal. Hmmm, we thought, another scam on tourists. Why should Paris be any different than Rome or Prague or any of the other cities we’d been taken advantage of?
But we were thirsty, and also hungry, and we didn’t know if the basket of bread that was on the table was for us or for the two other guys sitting next to us. But one of them saw us looking at it and probably heard us debating whether we should take a slice or not and indicated to us to help ourselves.
That began a conversation that lasted the rest of the meal – it turns out one of the men had been a basketball player and had toured the U.S. and spoke some English. We talked about Florida (he particularly liked Sarasota) and we talked about Paris. We poured our wines freely.
It turned out that we hadn’t ordered wisely; we couldn’t figure out how to ask for the marrow bones that one of the menu had on his plate. When we asked him about it, he explained that they came with the steak that was on the menu. Rick said he wished he had gotten those, so the man called the waiter over and had an order of the marrow bones brought to the table.
We chatted and laughed and ate and drank for a couple of hours. People at a neighboring table joined in, too. And after we had finished and paid our bill (I don’t think they charged us nearly enough for the wine we drank) and left the restaurant, the exact date occurred to me: it was Thanksgiving Day back home. This had been our turkelyless feast.
Chez Denise became the one restaurant we always came back to, filling the other nights with new places to try. And it stayed the same, though smartphones finally arrived and we figured how better to order. And then six years ago we met Cyril, who has become our favorite waiter.
It’s easy to remember that it was six years ago because our trip to Paris came just a few weeks after the Pulse massacre. Cyril had a friendlier demeanor than the other waiters and he chatted with us, asking, of course, where we were from. When we told him Orlando, he left and came back with his phone.
There was a drawing on it, a cartoon, of a rotund little man wearing an American flag necktie and with a rainbow colored scarf in his pocket. A word bubble said, “Je suis Orlando.”
It turned out that Cyril was a budding editorial cartoonist whose drawings appeared in Paris publications. His signature is Noder, which is his surname spelled backwards. He had been working only one month when he did the Orlando drawing. (I wrote about it here.)
Over the past six years I’ve kept in touch with him and his drawings through social media, and on subsequent trips we always check to make sure he’s working the night we want to go.
He was there last week and Chez Denise was as lively as ever (including a table occupied two of my Orlando neighbors who had arrived earlier and were already experiencing the tradition of chatting with the people at the next door tables).
And the food was as good as ever, too. We started with appetizers of pork rillettes rimmed with delicious fat, and escargots. (This after Cyril had brought a plate of prosciutto as well as the basket of bread and creamy butter.)
I ordered what has become my go-to dish, haricot de mouton, a cassoulet-like dish of white beans and lamb. I can never finish it myself and I almost suggested we get only one entree, but instead we also ordered the confit de canard. And we couldn’t believe we’d never had it before. The skin was impossibly crispy and the meat moist. The duck was served on top of sliced potatoes that soaked up the drippings. In the photo at the top of the page, the confit de canard is depicted by the empty serving dish.
For dessert, a surprisingly light creme caramel.
It wasn’t until the meal was over that I learned that Chez Denise had undergone a change in ownership. Cyril told me the new owner was making some changes, which startled me. But most were cosmetic or operational – there are no plans to change the food.
One of the changes is that the restaurant is now open on weekends. Because of its proximity to Les Halles, which was the city’s main market at one time, the restaurant’s hours were set mainly for the market workers. The market was closed on the weekends so Chez Denise was, too. The market moved out years ago and the site now holds a shopping mall.
The new owner also put toilets in the restrooms. Previously, at least in the men’s room, there was only a hole in the floor and two pads to stand on. It was up to the gentleman to choose which way to face. That’s a change I can tolerate. But I hope the new owner never messes with the food, the atmosphere or the quality of service.
I hope to go back soon to see.
Chez Denise does not have a website (I told you it doesn’t seek to attract tourists). It’s at 5 Rue des Prouvaires, 75001 Paris. The phone number for reservations is +33 1 42 36 21 82.