Chez Léon

January 20, 2009By Richard HesseArchive

Chipped-Formica Heaven

The pot au feu was on its last legs.

Paris has more restaurants named Chez Léon than you can shake a stick at, but one of them stands out from the crowd. Not for any reasons of culinary excellence, mind you, but because it’s an anomaly, a place that time forgot, a wrinkle in the space time-continuum, a cosmic backwater, invisible because it’s under your nose. It’s chipped-Formica heaven, unchanged in half a century, and possibly the only “Les Routiers” (certified truck stop) in Paris, although I would have difficulty getting my eight-wheeler into Rue de L’Isly.

This particular Chez Léon is a genuine ungentrified curiosity, but it’s a friendly curiosity – we fell in love with the feisty waitress immediately. It even has a certain sense of postmodern irony, with a time-traveling mise en abîme, a clever anachronism, on the wall: that ubiquitous 1950s Willy Ronis poster of the little boy running with a baguette under his arm – so Paris, dahling!

The contrast with our previous stop could hardly have been starker. We had been languidly sipping complimentary champagne under the Tiepolo ceiling in the Jacquemart-André Museum after doing body-body with the massed ranks of the aspirational Paris middle classes, jockeying for a glimpse of the sumptuous Van Dyck paintings on the walls.

The patrons propping up the bar included a mouthy Irish rugby fan who only went quiet when she went outside for multiple smokes. The few diners that evening (Chez Léon does a roaring trade with the local workforce at lunchtime) were people who could really pack it away. I rather regretted not having tried it for lunch, because the evening fare was a bit the worse for wear. My egg mayonnaise had definitely seen better days, and the pot au feu was on its last legs. But the endive and beet salad was of the kind the little woman back home might make for a lonely trucker – completely free of artifice, as was my friend’s generous serving of roast chicken.

In short, Chez Léon is not for the hedonist gastronome, by a long chalk. Go there if you are interested in a snifter of an authentic 1950s Paris café atmosphere and if you are ready to take your ethnographic research to the point of trying out the locals’ diet. You could do worse. Stop by for a petit blanc sur le zinc (glass of white wine at the bar), and, if you get the urge at lunchtime, bask in the attentions of the waitress as you eat with the entire neighborhood.

Richard Hesse

Chez Léon: 5, rue de l’Isly, 75008 Paris. Tel : 01 43 87 42 77. Métro: Saint Lazare. Nearest Vélib stations: 1 rue de l’Isly, 10-12 rue de l’Isly. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. A la carte: around €25*

* three courses, not including wine

© 2009 Paris Update

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