I am sitting with Claude, facing him across a small square table covered with a sheet of shiny, dimpled paper atop a sour-pink patterned cotton tablecloth. We are elbow-to-elbow with our neighbors—a couple of tweed-suited businessmen on one side, a couple of junior editors from L'Express on the other—in a noisy, smoky restaurant back room with murky off-white walls and red leatherette banquettes. Daylight floods through a bank of windows, softening the metallic glow of the fluorescent tubes along the ceiling; the air clatters with rapid-fire French and the clink of flatware on china. We have finished our pâté de campagne and marinated herring, our steack frites and lapin à la mou-tarde, and have decided, as usual, on some cheese to soak up the rest of our moulin-à-vent. Claude sits back with an imperious scowl. "Jean-nine!" he booms, in what sounds like a kind of operatic parlando, quite oblivious to the waitress's whereabouts. "Un can-tal! Un roque-fort! Jean-nine!" I am in Paris, I think to myself. I am nowhere else.
This scene repeats itself, with minor variation, dozens of times over the years, and it ends up constructing, in vivid multiple exposure, what has become for me the defining Paris restaurant moment—a concatenation of atmosphere, lingering flavor, and sentiment that connects me more firmly and immediately with the whole rich Parisian dining (and eating) tradition than any great repast I've ever had at any of the city's gastronomic institutions. The resonance of this moment has much to do with Claude, for reasons which I will explain. But it also has much to do with the place itself, which is a simple bistro du quartier off the Champs-Élysées, called Aux Amis du Beaujolais—a workaday establishment devoted to nothing more than the consumption, in reasonable haste and marginal comfort, of ample quantities of dependably good food and wine in the pure French bistro style. Aux Amis du Beaujolais, in other words, is the real thing. So was Claude.
I met Claude in 1966, on my first night in Paris. He and his wife, Pepita, came to get me at my little Left Bank hotel to take me to dinner. When he saw me standing on the sidewalk waiting for him, he told me later, he recognized me at once. "I could have been looking at your father as he was the last time I saw him," he said.
Claude was 60 when I made his acquaintance, and I was 21. Nearly 40 years earlier, when he wasn't much more than 21 himself, he had been sent from Paris as a young reporter to work for a year on the Chicago Daily News—where my father, who was a few years older than he, was an editor. The two became fast friends and drinking companions, but when Claude returned to Paris, they lost touch; rumor had it that Claude had been killed during World War II. But when my father published a book about his Chicago days in 1963—in which he devoted some affectionate pages to his friend—he heard from another Daily News veteran that Claude was alive and well in Paris, and running the French bureau of the Associated Press. The two men were reunited by mail, but since my father's travels during that period were mostly to the Far East, via the Pacific, and I was headed off to discover Europe, I ended up meeting Claude before my father re-met him—and climbing into his little white Peugeot with him and Pepita on the rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre that evening 30 years ago this June.
None of us could subsequently remember where we dined that night. I recall only that it was a busy bistro with brass fittings and etched glass and a black-and-white tiled floor, and that Pepita had an allergic reaction to a strawberry tart and was never able to eat the fruit again. But somewhere between the pâté and the confit de canard (if that is what we ate, and it may well have been), Claude and I discovered that we got along pretty well—and this proved to be the first of what must have been the couple of hundred meals I was to share with him over the next 28 years.
If I resembled my father as Claude had known him in Chicago, I could have recognized Claude, likewise, from my father's description of him in those long-gone days: "The battered beak of a dissolute Napoleonic eagle hung crookedly in his pale, old-young face. His sparse blond hair stood up like the uneven bristles in a worn-out bathbrush." Pepita, on the other hand, was elegant and stylish, with a finely sculpted face and a short crop of silky white hair. Big, American, with long dark hair, I didn't look like much of a relation to them—but I quickly grew close to Claude and Pepita and, as they had never had children of their own, I soon found myself becoming (to my flattered pleasure) their part-time stand-in son.
I dined dutifully and often at Claude and Pepita's apartment near Père Lachaise, Paris's celebrity cemetery, with Pepita preparing her excellent boeuf à la mode or blanquette de veau or some other specialty of French cuisine bourgeoise. The three of us had glorious restaurant meals together, too, not just in Paris but in Provence, Burgundy, Alsace, and the Charente. But Pepita spoke no English, and her precise, aristocratic French resisted me even as I began to learn the language; she drank little and ate lightly; and she recognized early that, however improbably, I had turned out to be one of the few people her cranky old French husband could actually talk to. Thus she was content, time and again, to send us off to dine without her.
Claude and I shared meals classic and contemporary, good and bad, mostly French but with an occasional Chinese, Indian, Lebanese, or even American excursion thrown in. What we liked most of all, though, turned out to be simple, hearty, honest French stuff, as served in restaurants of a kind that probably couldn't exist anywhere else in the world but in France, and that achieve their apothe-osis in Paris—the massive, perfect côte de boeuf in the bustling downstairs dining room at Ma Bourgogne on the boulevard Haussmann (better than Taillevent's, as we once proved to our mutual satisfaction at lunch on two successive days); the choucroute at Le Muniche; the oysters at La Coupole; the filets of mackerel poached in courtbouillon and roasted woodcock on toast at the now-defunct L'Artois—this last restaurant the kind of place that used to hang a just-shot wild boar upside down outside the front door (a few blocks from the Champs-Élysées!) to prove to its patrons the authenticity of its wild game.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that much of what I know about eating in Paris—and about both eating and Paris in general—I learned from Claude. He knew food, not with the knowledge of the dilettante or the culinary professional, but with the intimate, affectionate confidence of the genuine connoisseur. He took pleasure in the way the dishes he chose looked and smelled and tasted, and—the mark of a true food lover—he took pleasure in anticipating them and then remembering them long after they had been digested. He was perfectly capable of enjoying the complicated contemporary fancies of the younger generation of French chefs, but he always approached such food with some measure of skepticism: It was guilty until proven innocent. He was an infallible judge of quality and condition—the freshness of a fish, the frankness of a minor médoc—at first taste. On the other hand, though he enjoyed fulminating to me privately, he never made a scene when something was not right.
Claude liked the restaurants he did, I think, at least partially because he could depend on them. He valued consistency and tradition. For him, the real Paris, while not mired in the past, knew the past, and appreciated its glories; novelty was diverting, but why would one want to be diverted from something one enjoyed just as it was? "Do you still like Paris?" I asked Claude once, after he had been going on about the disgracefulness of Parisian taxis or some such. He thought for a moment, grimaced, ticktocked his head back and forth a few times, and said, "Oui, après tout, c'est pas mauvais." Yes, after all, it's not bad. This, from Claude, was a veritable encomium. "Does it still seem beautiful to you?" I continued. "Yes," he replied. Then, after a pause, he added, "And one eats rather well, too."