When I go to have lunch in a restaurant alone, I turn into a shameless eavesdropper. I don't like to sit in silence, and often the tables in Paris restaurants are too small to give you room to deal with a book or newspaper you might want to read while you eat. Listening to the conversations of the people around you is the most satisfying sort of entertainment in such situations. (If you ever notice me alone in a restaurant, watch what you say!)
This café at Saint-Germain-des-Prés was clearly not "ripe" — too empty. Besides, the lunch crowd might be a little young for my tastes.
The restaurant, preferably in Paris, needs to be lively enough to have some interesting conversations going on at neighboring tables. The people talking need to be Parisians, or at least French — there's no need to listen in surreptitiously to people speaking English; the conversations they have in France are usually boring. If the conversation is not in English or French... well, what's the point of trying understand snippets or sentences of a language you don't really understand?
These people were American. I couldn't help but hear the odd sentence, but I tried hard not to focus on their voices. The French woman next to them, wearing the purple scarf, ordered and slurped down a dozen oysters on the half-shell.
Parisian diners have the most interesting conversations. Maybe it's because they're used to spending time at the dinner table, whether at home or in restaurants, and talking things over. They talk about politics, their families and relatives, their work and travels, and their daily tribulations and joys. It's real life. They gossip. Listening to what they are saying is like being in a movie theater watching — or plutôt listening to — a good, talky French movie directed by, for example, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, or Sautet.
This place was a definite possibility, but street noise might have been annoying.
In the ideal eavesdropping restaurant, the tables have to be close together, and there can't be enough noise to make one conversation indistinguishable from another. It's nice to be able to sit outdoors, but then the din of car, bus, and motorcycle traffic can be irritating. The best situation is the one I found myself in the other day when I was wandering around Paris — glassed in, but in a space open to the sky.
Here's the perfect situation: outside with sunny weather, but in a glass-enclosed space with little extraneous noise.
When I sat down, I chose a little table next to a man who was obviously finishing his lunch. I figured he wouldn't stay long, and he didn't. He finished his dessert, drank his coffee in one big gulp — cul sec — and was gone. Then two young women came and took the table on my other side. I could just barely hear their soft voices. A few minutes later, though, just as my salad arrived with a glass of Pouilly Fumé white wine, two men d'un certain âge entered the restaurant.
The people closest to me when I first sat down seemed to be German — a boy with his grandparents, who kept telling him to finish his lunch, if I understood correctly. He didn't seem enthusiastic about the food.
I was happy when they sat down next to me. One man was probably 70 or older, and the other closer to or beyond 80. They apparently lived in the neighborhood (the Marais) and they were regulars, I think, because all the waiters seemed to know them. They both ordered the plat du jour, and they asked for a half-bottle of Côtes du Rhône red wine to go with it. They immediately started talking. I pretended to be lost in my own thoughts...