If you want to drop into a time capsule, and experience a classic Parisian bistro which has not changed since it opened in the 1920s, look no further than Chez Georges. A favorite standby of Julia Child, you can almost hear her whisper next to you with delight, as many of the same dishes that she loved remain on the menu, cooked in the same satisfying way that have pleased diners and faithful regulars for decades.
Next to the beautiful Place des Victoires, near the famous Galerie Vivienne, Chez Georges is on the corner of Rue du Mail, barely visible with its door hidden behind white linen cloth. Long and narrow, you almost get the feel you are sitting in a first class train trolley dining room – like the Orient Express — with rows of tables all packed next to one another, covered with (of course) white linens and adorned with silver and sets of wine glasses. Sconced light fixtures on the walls, a big painting in the entryway and an old standing bar with wine, champagne and drinks being prepared, greet you on your way in. On the windowsill, rows of open vintage bottles remind diners of great vintages shared by patrons in the past. Lafitte Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, La Tache, Cheval Blan, Château Haut Brion, Château Margaux, Romanée Conti and other great bottles are displayed, from remarkable vintages dating back to 1929, 1937, 1948, 1953, 1962 – a collection of past memories from decade to decade. Who knows, maybe a bottle or two (or three) are from Julia Child herself?
The waitresses, many of whom have been working at the restaurant for decades, wear standard black and white chamber maid type outfits. They are friendly, cheerful, efficient, and make you feel at home. There is no space between tables, so when you sit down you need to slide your table outwards so you or your mate can slip into the booth next to the wall. This means it is virtually impossible not to at least say “bonsoir” (good evening) to your next door neighbor, or even strike up a conversation, which itself can make the evening memorable.
Our first time there, a couple, clearly regulars, brought a unique dining companion with them – their Jack Russell Terrier – who sat on one end of the booth. The waiter promptly brought him, (the dog), a tin dish of water and placed it on the white linen table to drink from. We struck up a conversation, and soon learned enough this couple’s life story – he is from London, she from New York – whining about their life in Paris, as we told them how much we simply adore it. When the chef came by to say hello, Mr. Pooch barked and tried to bite the chef’s hand. They simply explained, “he does that every time; he does not like the chef.”
After living in France for over three years, I never cared to try escargots but what better place to dive into something new than try an old classic at Chez Georges? Expensive for an entrée (20 Euros), I received a large platter of plump, sizzling hot, escargots, cooked the traditional way in parsley, garlic and butter. The shells were large, and the texture of the escargot itself was perfect – succulent, not too chewy, not thin, but tender meat. Many people cringe at the thought of eating “snails”, and I was one of those people, but became hooked when I tried escargots at Chez Georges. While I have tried it on several occasions since at other restaurants, none have matched this classic dish as prepared at Chez Georges. In reality, if you like mussels or clams or even oysters, you should not hesitate to try escargots, as it is so close to clams there is no real difference (escargots is just meatier and darker, but it is the parsley garlic butter that makes the flavor).
A favorite entrée of Julia Child’s – salade frisée with lardons and a poached egg – remains on the menu today and is a refreshing and light way to start a meal. Other entrees come family style, which makes sense for a bistro serving comfort food that grandma or mom would would make on a Sunday afternoon (if you are French, that is). Champignons Grecques (marinated mushrooms) comes in a very large bowl and you may help yourself until you are done. Same with the hareng marinated in olive oil, which comes in a large casserole dish sufficient for a table of eight. The rillettes (canard, i.e., duck, cooked in duck fat) is almost like a pâté, and is served in a large ceramic dish that, if you dared to try and finish, would keep you full for a week and cause you to burst out of your pants or skirt. (If that were not enough, a jug of cornichons are served on the side.)
The choice of plats offers an excellent variety of seafood and meat. The pavé du mail is a filet mignon, seared, and served with a cognac, crème fraîche and Dijon sauce, with golden crisp frites on the site. I ordered the same plat the next time I came as well – it is that good. The turbot with bearnaise looks fantastic (that is what the table next to us ordered), and the roasted lamb is also well done. Our friends ordered seared scallops, and I have never seen such a generous serving as at Chez Georges – a mound of scallops that could satisfy three hungry diners. As a side dish, I ordered haricots verts (green beans), and they too were a great accompaniment to our dishes.
Classic desserts are also on the menu, including tarte tartin (an apple tarte with a large help-yourself bowl of crème fraîche), crème brulée, baba au rhum, tarte au poire (pear tart) with a raspberry coulis, and an assiette fromage (cheese plate) for those, like myself, that prefer the ending of a meal with cheese.
The menu is handwritten, with the first page showing all the entrées, plats, desserts, specials, and main house wines, and the second page only showing the cellar wines – almost all in the 100 or more Euro range (a great selection of premium wines, but “tres cher”, i.e., expensive). We had reasonably priced Sancerre (32 Euros) and Saint Joseph (38 Euros), and I can never resist a coupe de champagne to start (Taittinger, at 14 Euros per glass).
I can see Julia Child smiling down at Chez Georges, as her own French cooking is imbued with the classic dishes that remain fixtures on the menu to this day.
Only open Monday through Friday, reservations are essential and should be booked at several days, if not one week or more in advance. Maintaining its old mystique, the restaurant has no website.
Telephone: 01 42 60 07 11
1 Rue Du Mail, Paris 75002
(near Metro Bourse, Galerie Vivienne and Place des Victoires)