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PARIS – Fast Food, Timeless Views

by Jack Aslanian

A satisfying and quick meal, at a low price, in a lively ambience, with magnificent views...? In Paris? It is not an oxymoronic order at all. Just head for the BHV, La Samaritaine, or Printemps, three of the major emporiums of Paris.

Au Printemps department store.
  Au Printemps opened
  for business in the
  1870's. Note the belle
stained glass

Not far from the Opéra is Printemps de la Maison, the household goods annex of the famous and upmarket department store, Au Printemps. Its Panoramic Terrace restaurant on the ninth floor offers a good variety of French food in a self-service setting at prices which are painless by Parisian standards. The cost of the meal here turns out to be an unbelievable bargain when, at the top of the escalator, one suddenly realizes that the restaurant and the adjacent terrace provide views in every direction of the compass, free of charge. Rising above a symphony of tin, tile, and other rooftops are the landmarks and monuments of the City of Light, a vista which goes on and on, limited only by the horizon (or on occasion by clouds, smog, or fog).

The view is so captivating that physical nourishment and gastronomy quickly are forgotten. The cafeteria fare is average (though the sweets are better-than), and the tables are cramped and the interior noisy. But linger on the food, and savor the vistas out of the windows; or finish the meal quickly, and saunter out onto the terrace. The air, the light, the skyline, and the pomp, grandeur, artistic imagination, or whimsy which the landmarks broadcast create unforgettable sensations. A rooftop skating rink in winter adds immeasurably to the ambience.

Cafeteria le Rivoli, the buffet restaurant on the fifth floor of BHV (Le Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville), possibly the largest department store in Paris, and as labyrinthine as a vertically stacked oriental bazaar would be, also serves attractively priced food. The fare here is somewhat better in quality than at Printemps, and is more interesting and international. The wide selection and the prices make this a regular lunchtime destination for value-conscious Parisians. Travelers enjoy, as they do at Printemps, the convenience of self-service without the uncertainties and distresses of communication in a foreign language.

At the BHV, the views out of the windows above Rue Rivoli quicken the pulses and exacerbate aggressive impulses. So, go early for lunch to secure one of the coveted tables with a view, and savor the sight during the meal and as long after it as you wish – for no one will compel you to vacate your table if you are not so inclined.

In the foreground across Rue de Rivoli is Hôtel de Ville, an imposing nineteenth-century monument built in the Belle Epoque, neo-Renaissance styles. The intricate geometry and rhythm of the busy stonework of its facades are mesmerizing. Aesthetics aside, sculptures, some of the close-to-150 which are ranked around the building and are best seen from the elevated vantage point offered by the cafeteria, invite contemplation, and educate and inspire. They represent some French cities and towns but mainly are of over 100 illustrious figures of the country's history and culture – the most visible, because of their perches in relation to the restaurant, being those of Foucault, Boulé, and Ballin. In the vista to the east of Hôtel de Ville are two adjoining neoclassical churches dedicated to the saints Gervais and Protais. Rue Lobau intersects Rue de Rivoli and provides a serene view of the languid Seine, Ile de la Cité, and, beyond them, the Left Bank, the spire of St. Germain des Prés, the Montparnasse tower, and the residential high rises to the south of Paris. Find a table against the east wall of the restaurant, and you will have a glimpse of Notre Dame, Panthéon on its hill, and the church of St. Etienne du Mont.

La Samaritaine department store.
  La Samaritaine takes it name
  from an old water pump near
  the Pont Neuf. The pump was
  decorated with the woman of
  Sameria giving a drink of
  water to Jesus.

The most extensive (360 degrees) and most engaging view (directly above the Seine) is the one from the ninth-floor terrace and the tenth floor panoramic outlook atop La Samaritaine (nine floors by elevator and then up stairs). With views like these, only the most obsessed gourmand would complain that the bar fare offered by the café, a glorious snack shop in reality, on the terrace is limited to drinks, salads, quiches, croque monsieur, and some baked goods and desserts.

It is possible to travel relatively inexpensively in western Europe. With some effort and patience it still is possible to find unexpectedly good values. But tourists in Paris should hurry to take advantage of the glorious and addictive bargains that BHV and Printemps offer while they last. Their ilk has been fast diminishing (and are likely to be further decimated by the dissemination of the preceding disclosures). Fauchon's cafeteria, once the greatest lunch bargain (but without a view), has been closed, replaced across the street by a chic and pricey tea room. La Samaritaine, recognizing the value of its location, remodeled its full-service, and previously more-reasonably-priced, fifth-floor restaurant, removing it from the bargain category. However, the views out of the windows of Samaritaine's Toupary remain imprennable: Pont Neuf, the Seine, its two islands which constitute the highest chakra of Paris, Notre Dame, Montparnasse, the august edifices of the Left Bank... And the kitchen is good. Reserve in advance!

The cafeterias in BHV and Printemps and the café on Samaritaine's terrace serve during the hours the stores are open (until late evening one day a week). It is not obligatory to have a full meal. The views can be enjoyed over coffee or dessert (or even a free glass of water).

Be forewarned: Taking advantage of bargain meals with fabulous views is apt to give rise to feelings of guilt – not unlike that which follows the finding of a stray, large denomination banknote on the street. But, do not despair; you need not depart those premises with remorse: Just amble through the perfume department, or handbags, silk scarves, or whatever... The salesladies there have had training in leading those who feel indebted through confessionals and commercial atonements. They will help reduce the girth of your billfold by the amounts you feel to have saved on lunch and what you feel the free views should have cost... And then some.

Copyright © 2001 Jack Aslanian – All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Jack Aslanian is a physician, writer, editor and translator. He has authored over one hundred published articles and a novel, "Fixed Movements: A Portion From Our Past." Love of French gastronomy led him to classes at École Lenôtre, and subsequently, to occasional part-time professional involvement as baker and patissier.

Images: 'Photos of Au Printemps and La Samaritaine' from Paris Pages (original site by Norman Barth no longer exists), © 2001 – All Rights Reserved.


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