Here’s a nice thing to do on a rainy Paris day, such those that have been steadily accruing under the banner of low grey clouds that increasingly choke the cool blue late autumn skies. Take yourself off somewhere that possesses a sense of literary history worthy of the greatest libraries, a lauded decorative aesthetic reminiscent of a much-loved museum, and a warmth and vigour that transport’s one to the private parlours of modernity’s cultural heroes. In short, take yourself to Brasserie Lipp and partake in your own slice of Parisian history.
When ruminating about Brasserie Lipp, I can’t say that it is the kind of place that you might necessarily frequent for the food. Whilst the quality of the fare is very solid (with some of the finest mash potatoes that I have eaten on the Left Bank), it must be said that Lipp is both something to aspire to and something to be comforted by. Nourishment is guaranteed, even if it does come at a price.
Many people complain about the Lipp experience. The food isn’t cheap and it wouldn’t meet the high standards of the ‘gastro-revolution’ that has swept much of Paris. The seating is erratic and the menu is hard to read, whilst the wine list is a little predictable and not what you’d call value for money. As Patricia Wells wrote:
“There are institutions, like Brasserie Lipp, that people love to hate. And then there are those … that one loves to love. But sometimes, love gets in the way. “ (International Herald Tribune - August 22, 1997).
She has a point. But having said that, I think that those who choose to go to Brasserie Lipp don’t go for inventive cuisine or an interesting carte de vin: it’s more a question of what the French would call “feeling”.
Opened in 1880 by Leonard Lipp, the brasserie quickly became a Parisian cultural institution that was as renowned for its eclectic collection of diners, plucked from the political and literary crème de la crème, as it was for its service and décor. A sense of history continues to pervade the space, as the echoes of France’s recent history still linger in the traditions and attitudes of the new guard.
Procuring a table can be as difficult as it was back in the day of the late proprietor Monsieur Cazes, as the tradition remains that bookings are not taken, and when you inquire about a table in person and are told to wait more than 20 minutes, that is a discreet sign to leave.
On the day that my girlfriend and I decided to lunch there, we were treated to a little of the infamous service that characterises the place. Luckily, we managed to find a table without any problems, saving ourselves from being mildly publicly disgraced. However, there were two things that came to our attention that appeared as worthy to note: 1) the Sexual Revolution never hit Lipp, and 2) this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Appropriately dressed in lipstick and heels (as opposed to the usual ruffian outfit of motorcycle boots and decrepit jeans), we were escorted with much fanfare through the dining hall to the staircase that led upstairs. During this impromptu procession, the sea of grey-clad businessmen were not shy about gazing at the newest additions to the floorshow: every woman who cut through the throngs of suits turned an array of plump and shallow cheeks alike. ‘Making an entrance’ is what I believe it is called. Thankfully we were dressed for the occasion, as there is no ‘slipping in’ unnoticed here.
To our amusement, we were seated in the far more discreet and more feminine (yet less charmingly boisterous) upstairs dining room. All gilt and mirrors, the feeling was far more genteel than the rowdy hall downstairs. This was a shame, as when dining out I prefer to be ‘in on the action’, as it were. But having said that, considering Sarkozy’s law forbidding images of the French to be reproduced without their consent, and considering that I am a little snap-happy when it comes to pretty spaces, this was probably a blessing in disguise as I would not have been able to take a single shot.
No matter, we were there for an afternoon of comfort food, good service and elegant atmosphere (albeit one laced with a nice Beaujolais), and that is precisely what we got.
Ordering from the somewhat schizophrenic menu, we chose an array of classics, all of which to be shared. Though it must be noted that in all honesty, I don’t think either one of us was really there for the food.
We chose a simple St Amour Beaujolais, light and fresh, to wet our palettes. First on the menu was a slice of foie gras de canard with cubed, mildly flavoured gelée on toast. The toast was presented wrapped in a cloth serviette to keep it warm (both practical and aesthetic), whilst the liver was served at room temperature (as it should be), and deposited just the right amount of slick in the back of the palette to carry its richness and quality. Though at 18 euro, the relatively small slice at a not insignificant price also left a lump in the back of my throat.
Next on the agenda, the finely shaved slices of smoked salmon made for a lovely salty/creamy mouthful, and were accompanied by a few decorative pieces of juicy smoked tuna for good measure, and a green salad. The salad left a lot to be desired and as such, remained largely untouched, however the salmon was excellent, if predictable (though I’d prefer this any day to an unpleasant surprise).
Then the main event arrived: a fine choucroute alsacienne known as the Choucroute Lipp (ham, bacon, a fat saucisson, boiled potatoes and piles of mildy astringent spiced cabbage) arrived in heaping, steaming mounds. One of Lipp’s signature dishes, it was simple, satisfying, not too salty and thoughtfully presented; something that can be difficult considering the sum of the parts. The minimalist nature of the plate’s contents may have been plain to the point of being austere, though the copious quantities mostly make up for that.
However, being a grey day that required a little more than just protein and a few shredded (once) green bits, I gave into my desire for a plate of fat and carbohydrates in the form of mashed potatoes (my number one comfort food), that proved to be the highlight of the meal. Immediately our charming waiter acquiesced to my unusual request (“yes, I’d like a bowl of mashed potatoes, by themselves. I need nothing else with this, other than perhaps a spoon”, “Oui Madame, naturellement”). What arrived was a plate of undulating creamy goodness, molded into gentle wave-like crescents that were the perfect melange of comfort, starch and butter, and were soothing enough to calm anyone’s inner turbulence. Just gorgeous.
The service was faultless, as the charismatic waiters were either discreet or talkative, depending on your preference (we chose to encourage the banter and did not regret for a minute in doing so), whist the superb original 1926 art deco interior, with Léon Fargue’s joyful yellow tiles and floral Belle Epoque ceramics added the finishing touches.
So it’s true; Hemingway’s Paris is alive and well. I suggest that you go and sample it yourself, just don’t expect it to be a steal.
Brasserie Lipp: a cultural monument in the form of a brasserie.
151, Bd. Saint Germain / 75006 Paris / Tel: (+33) 01.45.48.53.91 / Hours: 9am to 1am daily / http://www.groupe-bertrand.com/gb/lipp.php / Métro: Saint-Germain-des-Prés