The Great Parisian Saloon Series

A Serious House

File copy first, ask Big Questions later.

By From the November 2013 issue

IF YOU ARE coming from Notre-Dame de Paris, you can cross the bridge and follow the quai for a block, browse some of the book stalls if it is still light, which it will be all summer due to the double daylight savings time that was instituted long ago when electricity was scarce, turn right into the Rue de Bièvre—a narrow street through which you might not want to risk even one of the little cars they drive in France—glance at the old ateliers (workshops) that I always suspect are there for reasons of historical preservation as much as for business, nod respectfully as you pass the hotel particulier (large town house) where François Mitterrand lived many years prior to moving across town to the Elysèe Palace, cross the Place Maubert, once a bowery but now an upscale shopping center for the northeast corner of the Latin Quarter, with boutiques and an outdoor market (mainly produce and cheese), climb up past the police station, keep climbing (it is a bit steep), and you will get to the Pub Saint-Hilaire, the Quarter’s best bar.

The young lady there, Marina, makes the best caipirinhas on the Left Bank, but you might also ask for a mojito, a popular Paris drink. Myself, I ask only for whiskey sour, and Marina never lets me down. “With Jack?” she always asks, knowing what I will say, but wanting to be sure. Marina is a very pretty young lady of about 26, with the same stern brow and eyes of her father, softened by a twinkle. She is very popular with the regulars, by whom I mean almost everybody, because almost everybody who comes here comes back, and almost everybody who comes back becomes a regular. “A pub is a place where you feel at home,” she says. And feel at home we do. You can have whatever you want here. No one will be offended if you sit down at one of the pleasant and comfortable tables and simply ask for coffee or a glass of water or a Perrier with grenadine or cassis syrup or plain (Perrier nature) with a lemon twist.

Marina’s colleague Jean-Louis Pinto, who grew up in the neighborhood and, like her, has a lot of Portuguese in him, is very good too, but I rely on him for beer, appreciate the Belgian Grimbergen thanks to him, as well as the Portuguese Super Bock. When I am with one of my compatriots, I ask him to give us a couple of Buds, and he always smiles and brings them, one American, the other Czech, and we compare, not that there is really any comparison.

IF IT IS as beautiful as it almost always is, with the sun-drenched blue sky above this hill next to the old Polytechnique (France’s leading institution of higher education, though almost no one knows that the classrooms and labs are elsewhere, not even in the capital anymore), Marina or Jean-Louis or Sergio or even Michel Ghidella, the owner himself, may invite you to sit on the little terrace that is, like a murphy bed, retractable. You open the windows when it is nice and put a few tables and chairs out in front, and you have a terrace. 

Order some food: It will do you good. The chicken churrasco is recommended, but so are the marinated chops, grilled, served with salad and rice and thin fries. These are Portuguese dishes, as are the dessert pastries, because there are Portuguese and Celtic sides to the family that runs the house. Breton-Portuguese: sailors, world travelers, explorers. They often came to Paris, so this is not a great mystery. 

If you are in a mood for simpler fare, just ask for a wooden plate. Jean-Louis will bring you a saucisson sec with a knife and cut as much as you want, and give you some pickles on the side, or radishes if you prefer, and a jug of beer. You can compare, as I mentioned, our Bud to the Czech one, argue if you like (there was a lawsuit over the name some years ago, but I mean argue over the taste as well as the merits of the suit), because once you settle in here, you argue. This is the Latin Quarter and you cannot make a statement without hearing its opposite booming back at you. You cannot hear a statement without arguing the contradiction, if you want to keep your street cred around here. This is the neighborhood sport, and as they have a big screen or two at the Saint-Hilaire, you can argue about soccer, rugby, tennis, and whatever other sports they are showing. But sooner or later the arguments come back to the Big Questions, because this is the Latin Quarter.

THE PUB SAINT-HILAIRE is named for Hilaire de Poitiers, the great 4th-century bishop and Doctor of the Church. There was a church on this spot until the middle of the 19th century; a crime of blood caused it to be closed. It was, in the High Middle Ages, a haunt of Rabelais, one of the inventors of the French language as we speak it, and there is evidence that the first play in the French vernacular was staged here. Hilaire himself was what we today would call a public intellectual, notable especially for taking on the heresy of Arianism. Although not of the Catholic faith, I appreciate the importance of this controversy, which had to do with the nature of God and the meaning of the Trinity. In the schools, they used to argue about such things, but now they argue—I have shamelessly eavesdropped on the heated conversations that take place here—about matters more temporal. These days the Big Questions tend to be the nature of the French Republic, its place in the entity called Europe, the success of the mayor’s urban transportation policies (anti-automobile, pro-cycle), and his possible successors, Mme. Hidalgo or Mme. Kosciusko. It looks like one way or another Paris will have a woman at the top of the heap in a few months, but that is fine. After all Sainte Geneviève was at the top of this hill many centuries ago. That is why Hemingway wrote of the parallel street, “The dancing club was a bal musette in the Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève. Five nights a week the working people of the Pantheon quarter danced there.” And let us not forget that Joan of Arc saved France. So as to who shall save France’s capital city, that is an important question, if not a Big One. 

To get to the Pub Saint-Hilaire, you can take the Rue des Carmes or the Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Either way, you will cross the Rue des Ecoles and see the dome of the Panthéon, if it is not under repair, up above. The Panthéon is aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante, but I always thought the nation’s real gratitude is demonstrated by the continuing presence of its top schools on the surrounding streets. It makes no sense to keep these schools here, except that they are part of the landscape. The whole Latin Quarter is a kind of campus. The ancient buildings that house the high schools and the colleges and the graduate institutes, built centuries ago, surely might serve all kinds of purposes—as does, for example, the building called the Sorbonne, which can be reached by turning right on the Rue des Ecoles instead of continuing up the hill—but they remain fitting homes for the elite schools of the world’s fourth (or is it fifth?) greatest economic power, whose gallant soldiers patrol the savannahs and deserts of the Sahel to protect Africa from the Islamist hordes. Next to the bar you have the Collège Sainte-Barbe, down the street you have the College de France, a bloc up at the Place du Pantheon you have the Sorbonne’s Sainte-Geneviève library and the law school. Fore and aft to the great edifice that is the Pantheon stand two of the nation’s elite public high schools, admission by exam only.

MANY PARIS BARS are open late, even, municipal ordinances permitting, into the small hours of the morning, but this one stays open late because its clientele likes talking even more that drinking. Which is why, Michel tells me, he knows quite a few people who stay six or eight hours and go home in a state of non-inebriation.

“Nonetheless they have had a good drink,” I suggest.

“Oh yes,” Michel says, refusing to rise to the irony. “The beer we serve and the cocktails Marina mixes are fine.”

“They are fine drinks,” I agree. “I have sampled a few.”

“I do not think you have sampled them enough, however,” he says, sticking to facts. He is a serious, slim, and fit man of about 60 who looks like a professor or a laboratory man, something in the hard—I mean natural—sciences. But he is neither of these. He is a hard-bargaining businessman, who is constantly on guard when it comes to keeping prices down without giving an inch on the quality of his food and liquor or the upkeep of his place. I mention this not because I believe cleanliness is next to holiness in drinking and eating. It is next to next, however. There are dumps and greasy spoons and there are plenty of good ones that I have returned to. But it is better if you have a clean place, even in the Latin Quarter, long home of rowdy monks who in later centuries became students and now are upper-upper bo-bos, as the French call them. But one of the most interesting things about the Saint-Hilaire is the fact that it is not a haunt of the quarter’s wealthy residents, which is to say, most of them. 

Michel is a man with a great capacity for humor, but on the job he is mostly serious and does not, per habit, crack jokes. He stays calm, relaxed, noticing everything without seeming to. I cannot picture him holding a drink, although he assures me that he enjoys beer and whiskey. He says he doesn’t believe in drinking on the job.

Probably there are barmen who disagree with Michel’s stern view, but I am of the opinion that the sobriety he and his employees maintain contributes mightily to the quality of this place. People are aware of it without thinking about it or even really noticing it. “If we are seen to be working hard,” Marina told me on another occasion, “we would be doing something wrong.” 

MARINA IS, AS I said, the best barman I know in Paris. I have known a few over the years and there are those whom she says have great reputations, such as Colin Field, her teacher at the Ritz, but my view is that if you want a barman to be your favorite barman it should be someone like Marina or her father or Jean-Louis. They will do anything for you, within reason, and in return they only ask that you behave yourself according to the normal rules of being in a bar, which means do not ask for anything unreasonable and treat everyone else with courtesy and make yourself at home.

One day it was really night, about midnight, and I was on a deadline and my Internet connection failed. No panic: This was the Latin Quarter, there must be an Internet café or someplace of the sort. But panic did begin to set in when after wandering around nearly an hour I was forced to revise my assumptions. Panic being the mother of common sense, it hit me that Michel’s place was open and probably wired.

Jean-Louis, built like a rugby player but with the soul of a Franciscan, was on the floor keeping things even. It can get a little noisy as the night progresses and the Big Questions get even Bigger. When you have between 50 and a hundred people drinking in two rooms plus upstairs and spilling over on the street, it gets, especially when they are discussing the Trinity and the Arian heresy, a little heated. They are comfortable, though. They like it here. They know when to pipe down a notch. 

Jean-Louis was ready for me. He said simply, “No problem. You have a small computer? Put it there,” and pointed to a six-inch space on the tall stand-up table facing the bar, a kind of second bar for precisely these busy nights. He got me the connection in 30 seconds, told me to get to work, and—what was I drinking? I drank coffee. (When my piece was finished I took something stronger.) Jean-Louis never batted an eyelash and checked in several times to make sure I was staying on task and not getting into heated discussions.

Am I partial to the Saint-Hilaire because of the time it saved me when I was on deadline? Of course. But this was not the main reason I went back, and, indeed, go back every time I am in town. There are, in fact, plenty of bars and cafés all over Paris that, if they can, will help a man on a deadline. It used to be an ordinary custom in Latin Quarter cafés to have ink and paper ready. They made sure you were undisturbed, and you wrote your column, however inconsequential, and then they got a boy with an envelope to take the piece and post it, or deliver it across town to one of the agencies, UPI or what-have-you, that had offices, as several still do, on the Right Bank, mostly near the Opera. There someone would decipher your script and teletype it to New York or Chicago. It worked, but this is the 21st century, and you need a man like Jean-Louis Pinto to make sure the hotbox is working and that there is a spot, however small, for you to lay down your notebook and get to work. 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.