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Colin Randall wrote here on France, things Anglo-French and more......but has moved

December 11, 2006

Last tangos in Paris

This site has now moved to Salut!

Picture: Paul Cooper
With the ticking of the clock growing louder, it seemed a good idea to make a last visit, at least as temporary Parisians, to one of our favourite jazz clubs.

The paradox of Paris jazz is that while people who know about these things say standards of musicianship and presentation have never been higher, musicians and club owners moan that times are hard*.

Consider the glorious history of jazz in this city and you realise that the first part of that proposition is praise indeed.

But the music is caught in a vicious circle. It can be difficult to get into certain clubs on certain nights but this is partly because the number of venues has been steadily shrinking.

Tourists with plenty of spending power still clamour for tables, but natives on average French incomes find the cost prohibitive.

Drinks and, when served, food set you back a small fortune, the band is still playing by the time public transport is shutting down, parking is a nightmare and cabs are elusive as well as dear.

First choice Saturday was l'Arbuci, a famous joint along the rue de Buci. The telephone conversation went something like this:

"Hello, do you have music tonight?"

- but of course, sir.

"What kind of jazz is it this evening?"

- a trio.

"Would they be modern jazz? Traditional?........"

- traditional, sir.

"Very good. Can I book a table please?"

- Sorry, sir, but we're full.
An utterly French exchange.

Le Bilboquet was a perfectly acceptable as second best. Tucked away in a street off the Boulevard St Germain, opposite one of those "secret sauce" steak restaurants where people actually queue outside in the cold, boasts a rich heritage; Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis all played there.

It has been a frequent source of pleasure during my Parisian adventure. On Saturday, the club was again heaving, with what looked like a French office party taking over more than half the tables and foreign visitors most of the rest.

When I say prices are steep, I am not exaggerating. You leave with the feeling that you have not so much pushed the boat out as mustered the entire flaming fleet.

The food was excellent but simple. In ordinary circumstances, you might quarrel with 35 euros as the price of a pair of modest starters: girolle mushrooms cooked in garlic and tomato mozzarella. The grilled tuna, a dependable main course, was as succulent as ever, as it rather should be at 30 euros a head.

By the time you've added drinks, even from the bottom end of the range on offer, you can see which way the bill for two is going.

But you've also heard some great music - Le Bilboquet is a mecca for fans of rollicking boogie woogie, though Saturday's fare was the Brazilian chanteuse Catia Werneck, more sophisticated if less fun.

The club has the band to pay as well as the cost of running the restaurant and bar, and the entertainment is built into the menu prices.

Yes, it hurts to pay quite so much for an evening out, even when service is superb and the ambiance perfect, but this is an expensive part of an expensive town. All in all, in other words, you are not ripped off.

Walk a short way along the boulevard, order a small Leffe beer and menthe a l'eau at Le Mabillon, and you'll get little change out of 15 euros.

And the only distraction there yesterday, if you don't count the bawling of fractious twins and equally fractious parents, was that old Parisian standby: a game of Spot the Waiter, with long gaps between each sighting.

* An easy search of the Telegraph website will turn up the original version of this article. For a reason unknown to me, direct links from Salut! to the Telegraph do not always work.

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This site has now moved to Salut!


At December 11, 2006 5:08 PM, Blogger Louise said...

I love that repartee - you ask ten questions and then are told that the restaurant is full - either because the person on the other end of the phone hadn't thought to tell you it was full, or those that say it with glee (read 'Serve you right for phoning so late')!

But it sounds as though you had a good time and even if it was dear, if you didn't feel ripped off at the end of the evening, well - that's what it's all about, eh?

At December 11, 2006 5:33 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

My wife and I were in Prague in 1990, right after the regime changed, and went to a very nice restaurant where the waiter presented us with an impressive menu. Everything we tried to order was "off." Finally, we asked what they DID have. Chicken, he said, with mushrooms. When it arrived... no mushrooms. We pointed this out and the waiter said, "No, but there are lots of potatoes."
It was all very good-humoured and they clearly were making the best of a bad situation. There was, too, always the chance we might actually have chosen the chicken from the menu.
There was some good jazz to be found in Prague back then and they were happy to be paid in American cigarettes. The city isn't nearly so charming (or cheap) now.

At December 12, 2006 3:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

testing, testing...

At December 12, 2006 3:30 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Must we rely on the Sun for breathless reports of the Sunderland sex scandal ("roasting" -- what an odd term for it) or may we hope that Colin will provide some harder information here? Perhaps the Mackems need to change a couple of letters in their nickname...

At December 12, 2006 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on, don't keep us in suspense, Anonymous 1.

Anonymous 2

At December 15, 2006 12:30 AM, Anonymous Sedulia said...

Just out of curiosity, how much smoke is there in these places?


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