Feeling insulted, bad burgers, and good ice cream: a Parisian Fourth of July

You might have been wondering what became of me after my first Fourth of July in Paris since 1989, since I didn’t post anything the next day. I promise I wasn’t hungover, but I was sick. Somehow I came down with some sort of flu that had me completely debilitated yesterday. Thankfully, I’m over it now, just in time for a little weekend jaunt to London tomorrow night.

So, how did I spend my Fourth? Truthfully, it was a little disappointing … aside from the company, of course.

If you read my first Fourth of July post before the end of the day on Monday, you saw my reference to a famous American bar in Paris … a veritable institution, it has been said. Harry’s New York Bar is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. According to Wikipedia (which is as authoritative as I’m willing to get with Harry’s at this point) the establishment was acquired in 1911 by Ted Sloan, a retired American horse jockey, who converted it from a bistro and renamed it the “New York Bar.” He apparently was business partners with a New York barman who dismantled his bar in Manhattan and had it shipped to Paris to construct the interior of the place. Harry MacElhone, a Scot from Dundee, was hired to run it, and after Sloan ran into financial problems in 1923, it was he—”Harry”—who acquired the bar, changed the name and turned it into the ” legendary Parisian landmark and, arguably, the most famous bar in the world.”

Among the more famous personages to have frequented the bar are Knute Rockne, Sinclair Lewis (appropriate since I’m in the process of reading Babbitt right now), Ernest Hemingway, Jack Dempsey, Rita Hayworth, and Humphrey Bogart. Reportedly, the piano bar at Harry’s is where George Gershwin composed “An American in Paris.”

Pretty impressive C.V., huh? So what happened that soured me on Harry’s? A jerk waiter.

That’s me at Harry’s before things went sour. © 2011 Michel Denis Pouradier, all rights reserved

I arrived with my entourage, ordered my free shot of Maker’s Mark bourbon (a gift to every American citizen to cross the threshold on the Fourth of July), and then decided to order one of the two specialty cocktails of the day (as prominently advertised on the bar’s website that day): the General Washington, what promised to be a delectable concoction of white cacao, coffee liqueur, amaretto, and Maker’s Mark bourbon. What ensued was a little surprising and pretty rude, even by the standards of my French companions who have spent a long time in Paris dealing with infamous Parisian-style service. When I ordered my General Washington, I was met with a look of complete incomprehension, even after attempting a French pronunciation of the name.

“It’s on your website,” I explained in French. “I don’t know it. The drinks are on the mirrors.” (in a very dismissive tone while motioning to the mirrors behind the bar … which, it goes without saying, are completely useless to someone seated at a table without a view of the mirrors behind the bar) “So, it’s not possible?” “The drinks are on the mirrors.” (in a tone of reinforced dismissal) “Oh, okay. That’s fine. Nothing.” It’s hard to express the tension in that moment, because so much of it was about tone and body language, but hopefully you get the picture. I was a little stunned, too stunned to have had the presence of mind to tell the jerk to ask his bartender since it wasn’t really a question of whether he knew the drink. But what’s done is done … and I’ll probably never go back.

Maybe I should have ordered the General La Fayette?

Then came the search for American dinner! Where to go? Well, Breakfast in America had been recommended as the only good spot in Paris for American-style pancakes in response to my recent pancake post in the Facebook Group Americans in Paris, so I thought we could pay a visit and check out the dinner menu. It would be a sort of scouting mission for a subsequent foray to savor the pancakes. (I could have had a pancake dinner Monday night but, as I’ve written before, the French aren’t real keen on sweet pancakes as a main course.)

We went to B.I.A. Too, the second of two Breakfast in America locations in Paris, situated in the Marais on rue Mahler not far from the Saint-Paul Métro station.

The wait wasn’t very long, but once inside it was loud and stuffy. That’s par for the course in many Parisian restaurants, though, so you can’t be critical for that. Unfortunately, dinner was … underwhelming. As a vegetarian, I’m always searching for a good veggie burger, but it simply wasn’t to be found at B.I.A. The burger was a light brown hockey puck of some compacted soy product that was overly dry. The slice of gruyère I added didn’t do much to ameliorate the situation, and I ended up drowning it in mayo to make it edible. My carnivorous companions fared better, but complained that their burgers were “trop cuit” … over-done. But here’s the kicker: there’s not even an American beer on the menu. I ordered a Budweiser, of course, thinking “What could be more American?” Well, apparently quite a few things, since Budweiser isn’t even an American beer anymore: it’s now owned by the Belgians and brewed in England (at least for the Paris market). Doh. I should have ordered the Moosehead after all. Canadian’s not too far off. (Note to B.I.A.: Get some Sam Adams.)

B.I.A.’s backstory is an interesting one, though: the founder and owner, Craig Carlson, is an American expatriate who initially fell in love with Paris while studying here and decided to pursue a career in cinema because of the city’s many art house cinemas. He returned to the U.S., studied at UCLA, and eventually came back to Paris to work in French television. According to B.I.A.’s website, the only thing Carlson missed after his return to Paris was a “good ol’ American breakfast” and that is why he decided to open an authentic American diner. Carlson’s friends in the film industry “can’t wait to find an excuse to come to Paris where they know a steamin’ stack of pancakes and a bottomless mug o’ joe are always waiting for them.”

That does sound pretty good to an American stomach, so I’m not going to write off B.I.A. just yet. Next time, though, it’s going to be the pancakes and not the veggie burger that I order.

So what does one do on the Fourth of July after walking out of the oldest American bar in Paris feeling insulted, and eating a disappointing veggie burger in the best pancake joint in town? One goes to Amorino for Italian artisanal ice cream made by a French company, of course!

Viva l’Ameri … euh … Vive l’Amériq … euh … Long live America!

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

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5 thoughts on “Feeling insulted, bad burgers, and good ice cream: a Parisian Fourth of July

  1. Ahahaha at the waiter. I understand that it might have been a bit tense at the time, but pretty funny now.

    I have to ask – what is a standard French Breakfast? Croissants?

    I have a hunch that the French aren’t too tolerant of the gluten-free

    1. Yeah, it makes for a good story. As for a traditional French breakfast, fairly carb heavy. Sometimes you get multiple kinds of bread and pastries with jam and butter. Definitely NOT for the gluten-free!

  2. I would probably last about 3 minutes there. Between a) being gluten/dairy-free, b) having no patience for the French work environment, and c) having failed French miserably. So I’ll stay far away and live vicariously through you – the French thank you.

    Enjoy the pancakes when you get them! I expect an epic post!

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