The fanciful “Pompeian” decor sets the tone.
Le Grand Colbert is vintage Paris, a tour operator’s dream, except that the tour operators seem to leave it alone. After several unsuccessful attempts to book a table at a relatively traditional evening hour (they’re always happy to see you after 10:30 p.m.), I recently went there for lunch with a couple of friends.
The location is superb, right in the heart of one of the busiest business districts in Paris, equidistant from the old Bourse and the Banque de France in an area full of stock exchange and banking types. The Palais Royal garden and the Comédie Française are a five-minute walk away, the Opéra and the Louvre scarcely more. It’s the perfect place to dine after the theater, of which there are many within walking distance.
Nearby, too, is the symmetrical Place des Victoires, dedicated to the military victories of the Sun King, laid out by Jules Hardouin-Mansart (of Versailles fame) and inaugurated in 1686. Just around the back is the church of Notre Dame des Victoires, whose walls are almost entirely covered with ex-voto plaques telling stories of hardship, hope and happiness. Those bits not covered with plaques feature dramatic patterned constructions of World War I medals. It’s a working parish, too: the Portuguese concierge at my office teaches the catechism there.
The restaurant and the adjacent posh shopping arcade, the Galerie Colbert, were luxuriously refurbished in 1985 by the owner of the property, the French National Library. First impressions of the dining room are breathtaking, with its 20-foot floor clearance, fanciful “Pompeian” decoration, and profusion of buffed-up brass, leafy potted plants, big bouquets and burning lamps. Not to mention the mosaic on the floor, which might not quite measure up to Saint Mark’s in Venice, but is a beauty all the same.
The food? Standard bistro fare, more than competently prepared and served expeditiously and with friendly gusto. You don’t come here to collect gastronomic scalps, but to sample standards like a seafood platter, for example. We started with a hearty mushroom soup, a bit heavy on salt, but creamy and nicely textured; a warm salmon pâté; and a crispy endive salad. Next came dishes of preserved duck, pan-fried calf’s liver with whole small onions, and a grilled calf’s kidney. All very workaday, but just the comfort-food ticket for a January lunch. We skipped dessert, as some of us had to get back to the office.
We put away a bottle of an organic Saint Chinian, Antonyme by Canet-Vallette, which was all light fruit and more suitable for hot-weather drinking. The wine waiter might have nudged us away from that, toward something more wintry. We topped up with a carafe of red Sancerre, which had a bit more meat to it.
What you get at the Grand Colbert is an utterly precious sense of being in the midst of life, where you belong. That’s why it was a good idea to lunch there, surrounded by local professionals doing a spot of business or, more likely, gossiping about their colleagues. It’s the same kind of experience you get at the Terminus Nord or La Coupole (where you would be ill-advised to go for the food alone): a large mass of diners out for a good time in opulent surroundings, being looked after by a perfectly drilled brigade of impeccably professional staff.
In fact, it may be the staff’s sense of being part of an elite squad that makes them seem rather brusque at times with non-members (i.e., you and me), leading to the kind of comment about lackadaisical service and insolent staff at the Grand Colbert that I’ve seen on the Web. We had no such problems on our visit, either with the perky waitress or the sassy young male, who could scarcely have been out of short trousers.
Vintage Paris, but bang up to date.
Le Grand Colbert: 2-4, rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris. Métro: Bourse or Pyramides. Nearest Vélib’ station: 11 rue de la Banque or 3 rue des Filles Saint Thomas Tel.: 01 42 86 87 88. Open daily for lunch and dinner (until 1am). A la carte: around €40.
© 2008 Paris Update
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Reader Quinn Cantrell writes (May 16, 2009): “My daughter and I had dinner last night at Le Grand Colbert, a restaurant I learned of from the Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton movie. We arrived around 7 p.m. on a Friday evening without reservations. The restaurant was empty, but the Maître d’ said they were booked solid. He reluctantly said we could sit at a small table near the front door. Our English-speaking waiter rushed us through ordering. He asked if we wanted water – sparkling, Perrier, etc. – and my daughter said she would have a glass of “regular water.” I ordered a glass of wine. He brought out a bottle that said Evian, but I noticed he didn’t uncap it at the table. I should have questioned it but didn’t. Of course, we were charged €7 for the bottle of water, which was more than my glass of wine! I’m certain the waiter knew exactly what he was doing! By 8 p.m. patrons were beginning to show up for their reservations, and our waiter made sure we were done with dinner. Our bill came to €78. A very disappointing experience.”
Reader Diane Hull writes (Feb. 6, 2008): “We were ill treated at Le Grand Colbert – stuffed into the room nearest the front door with the other North Americans. The food was okay, but the memorable part of the evening was the disdain with which we were treated.“
Reader Linda Hollander writes (Jan. 30, 2008): “I also had lunch at Grand Colbert recently. I spent this past summer working on a book at the Bibliothèque Nationale Richelieu, which is right across the street. Believe me, after a morning of dusty research, an entire summer of gray skies and cold rain and a bout of loneliness because I was there alone – without my darling husband in the City of Romance – I was more than ready for a little pampering at one of the most wonderful restaurants in Paris.
“They could not have been nicer to a lady dining alone. My chicken was the golden, juicy pleasure I needed, the wine was a delicious house carafe, and while it wasn’t exactly cheap, it was well worth every dime! I think I spent about 45 euros.
“Meanwhile, there is a little bistro up the street that regularly wins awards for its French fries and deservedly so…it’s up by Gaultier, just before you go into the Galerie Vivienne…I highly recommend it. I can never remember the name of it, but you won’t miss it.
“I love getting your newsletter at home in Maine, and I love Paris. I am already planning my next trip, although I don’t think I will ever have the luxury of two months again and I will not forget to pack my darling husband!“
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