Classic French food in a historical setting.
Pros: History, interesting decor, reasonably spaced tables, plenty of local diners
Cons: Somewhat distant service
Aux Charpentiers is in a nice part of town, with the Eglise Saint Germain-des-Prés just round the corner and the Marché Saint Germain right on the front doorstep (now more a swimming pool and shopping mall sort of place, rather than a temple to fruit, veg. and produits du terroir). Restaurants are also thick on the ground here, and are always busy.
Like Saint Germain des Prés, the oldest church in Paris, Aux Charpentiers comes with history. It’s been around for a century and a half, apparently, and when I first went there 20 years ago, came complete with hirsute and bearded master carpenters (which is what a charpentier is) and their “mother” – the saintly woman who ran their hostel upstairs, of which the restaurant was an offshoot.
The museum of roof structures next door used to house their guild. The restaurant’s decor mainly consists of prints and photos alluding to these elite compagnons, or journeymen, whose dedication to their craft reminds one of a priestly or monastic order, with its own rituals and vow of chastity – they had to promise not to marry until they were 28 (if memory serves) and had finished their “tour de France,” travelling from one master to the next to learn from the best of them.
The dining room also has some of the small models of roof structures, called chefs d’oeuvre, or masterpieces (literally) that they made to exhibit their skills, handed down over untold generations. In the upper reaches of a couple of museums I’ve visited, you can see these breathtaking structures up close – the great little museum at Les Sables d’Olonne in Vendée is one, and the part where the Donation Granville of 20th-century art is housed in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Dijon is another. There’s a lot more about the compagnonnage tradition on the Web site, although it’s in French.
Since you’re wondering, I’m not talking about the food because it is not as special as the place, but that’s no reason for not going there. True to the venue, the food is very workmanlike, with hearty traditional dishes that have nothing to be ashamed of, but lack the structure or inventive genius of the generations of master carpenters who have had their earthly requirements catered to on this spot.
That said, my celeri remoulade (shredded celeriac root with a piquant mayonnaise) starter was without doubt the best I’ve ever eaten in any context, domestic or otherwise. It could hardly have been fresher and crunchier, and the mustard content had me thinking they had put a shot of wasabi or horseradish in it. My companion’s salad of baby spinach leaves with crayfish and truffle vinaigrette was satisfyingly tasty.
The wait staff were a chip off the old block, too: service culture hasn’t yet caught up with them, and they have an inflated sense of their own importance: we tried our damnedest to charm them (and my dining companion could make a mint if she sold her charm skills), but they weren’t having a bit of it. They were not unpleasant, just serving us from the heights of Olympia.
My main dish was the bavette d’alloyau (skirt steak) with sautéed potatoes, which was nothing special, but not bad. Same for my companion’s rack of lamb. And I thoroughly enjoyed the prunes in Madiran wine and ice cream we shared for dessert – but then I have an unaccountable childhood love of stewed prunes – an object of loathing to any right-minded child, but there’s no accounting for taste. Wines are reasonably priced and we enjoyed our €26 bottle of sun-roasted 2003 Cahors.
So yes, go to Les Charpentiers. It isn’t exactly cheap, but won’t ruin you. The decor is interesting and there is a genuine warmth to be derived from being in contact, if only for an hour or two, with all that magical craft.
Aux Charpentiers: 10, rue Mabillon, 75006 Paris. Tel.: 01 43 26 30 05. Métro: Mabillon or Odeon. Nearest Vélib stations: 17, rue Lobineau; 141, bd Saint-Germain. Fixed-price dinner menu: €28. A la carte: around €40. www.auxcharpentiers.fr
Reader Ron Fox writes: “You really are too kind to the food served at this restaurant.”
Reader Linley Taylor writes: “In Paris for five months. Started our restaurant experience with Aux Charpentiers, because it was the one we loved and visited twice last time, in 1997. Oh my. What a disappointment. Service mechanical, ambience updated and soul-less, and the food so ordinary. My céleri rémoulade was just a huge round cream-colored ball of ordinary taste on a plain white plate – almost thrown down in front of me. I could go on. Suffice it to say that sadly I agree that your reviewer is too kind. I could never recommend it.”
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