Waverley Root recalls the perfect Parisian bistro

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The American writer Waverley Root (1903-1982) is best known for his authoritative work The Food of France. His posthumously published memoir The Paris Edition, covering his spell as an expat journalist during the inter-war years, takes a more unbuttoned and humorous approach. His account of Gillotte’s, a local dining haunt on the Right Bank, describes a bistro of dreamlike perfection for those of us weary of sky-high prices and cheffed-up fanciness    

Gillotte’s space was limited… [It] began with a front room occupied on the left side by the zinc, or bar, with a standing or leaning, capacity of about a dozen average-sized drinkers. After a brief interval to allow for squeezing from behind the bar, the rest of the left wall was occupied by a series of shelves. A display of hors d’oeuvres and pastry sat on the shelves and the cat sat on the pastry… 
Our financial arrangements with Gillotte’s, as well as its nearness and good cooking, accounted largely for the fact that the night staff [of the Chicago Tribune] usually dined there. It was cheap and it gave credit … I cannot recall ever having paid a bill for a single meal there. I ate on the cuff like everyone else. Only one editor, Egbert Swenson, checked the bills. This, I think, was not because he was suspicious but because he was orderly. Or perhaps he found it hard to believe the amount of his bills, for he ate twice as much as anybody else. I had seen him plough all the way through a complete meal – hors d’oeuvre, fish, meat, salad, cheese and dessert – pause a few seconds for reflection – and eat the same menu from beginning to end all over again…

Most bistro dogs in France at that period were called Toto and the cats were known as Minette, the generic name in France for cats of all kinds… Minette had a basket behind the bar but preferred to lie on the pastry, except when she was giving birth, as she seemed to do every few weeks. The kittens gradually disappeared, a phenomenon sometimes connected by us, in purposely loud voices, with the appearance of rabbit stew on the menu. The object of this slander was to provoke the wrath of the ordinarily good natured Mama Gillotte and provoke the display of a vocabulary unmatchable even by the taxi-driving customers.

From The Paris Edition by Waverley Root (1987)

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