Bad restaurants, like the proverbial Tolstoyan unhappy family, may be awful in an infinity of ways. We dislike them accordingly. But how we truly hate restaurants is largely divisible into two categories. There is personal emnity: because the ownership or a key staff member has done you grievously wrong. Then there is impersonal emnity: because you sense that the establishment targets a clientele whose tastes you question, whose influence, you suspect, is ultimately deleterious to a culture you value.
My friend and colleague Meg Zimbeck of Paris by Mouth hated Restaurant Lazare in the latter way, which is probably the only way to hate an overpriced 110-seat fortress of a bistrot installed in a wall of Gare Saint Lazare. Pioneering bistronomy chef Eric Frechon is surely not there himself, peeling onions. The staff are replaceable hotelier school grads, so predictable you can't even resent their inattentiveness. What I think Meg resented, rather, was the restaurant's perceived culture of wealth-fluffing and preferential treatment, of stout bankers gorging themselves on guinea hens before boarding first-class cars and careening off to houses in Honfleur for the weekend.
As a fellow writer, with no quantifiable skills and no discernable route to fortune in my future, I hate these (possibly imaginary) people too. And I recognise that Lazare exists for them, while the plebs wait in hundred meter lines for Burger King on another floor of the station. That Lazare thrives is in itself a Pikettian sign of increasing income stratification. So it's with a kind of melancholy that I admit I don't hate Lazare; that I find the place quite useful; that it constitutes a perk of city life I wish I could enjoy more often.
A restaurant in a travel hub is by its very nature a mass-hospitality experience, or, as the poet and songwriter David Berman so memorably put it, "like Christmas in a submarine." The spirit will always not be present.
So we must modify our demands of a restaurant experience in a travel hub. Mine are, in descending order of importance: availability, promptness, edibility, potability, comfort, politeness. Nowhere on this list do such virtues as creativity, empathy or soulfulness feature; I can also do without the rarified heights of cuisine I'd demand if I were to pay similarly augmented prices elsewhere.
Lazare was a tough booking when it first opened last fall. Phones rang and rang unanswered and attempts to book via email were - as they still are, in my experience, everywhere in Paris - totally fruitless. But to judge from every visit I've made to Lazare this year, things have changed. The difficulty of attaining a reservation is now proportionate to the quality of the food and service and ambience on offer, which is to say it's no biggie.
The restaurant's design is what you'd expect of a contemporary high-budget brasserie update. The bar retains a bit of classical allure, but everything else is a flashy study in harsh spotlights and contrasts. The white dishware stacked over all the walls makes one pine for an earthquake.
Lazare's cuisine, by chef de cuisine Thierry Colas, is impressive, but only in context. Expensive charcuterie arrives pre-sliced and pre-plated and chilly from the fridge; better pork belly and guinea hen can be had for less expense at Paris' many traditional restaurants not situated in train stations.
Ditto the safe, slightly overpriced wine list, which is almost London-esque in its conservatism. This however is appropriate to the restaurant's location - it is hard enough pushing natural wine is to any normal distracted diner, let alone one who has a train to catch or is crabby from travel. Lazare's list at least contains the solid organic burgundies of Claude Maréchal, whose Auxey-Duresses 2011 was in fine glimmery primary form when we dined there.
An wintry and decadent dessert of baked apples in a little crêpe sack topped with caramel ended our dinner on a high note.
By this time we had basically forgotten the meal's lone service cock-up, when the server mistranslated my friend P's American accent and brought him an astonishingly overpriced child's pasta serving instead of the guinea hen he'd ordered. The server's initially refused to admit any wrongdoing, but international service norms won the day over innate Parisian mulishness, and we were thankfully not charged for the pasta. Such interactions are among the only moments I am ever grateful not to be in a more intimate restaurant.
Other such moments occur between mealtimes. Across Paris, restaurants that seek to impress are almost unanimously shut between the hours of 2:30pm and 8pm. Meaning that fits of craven hungover gourmandise almost always go unsatisfied. I recent found myself staggering across Paris in search of breakfast at 5pm, having spent the entire day in a shuddery, echoing state of booze-induced dysphagia. Can you imagine my joy, when I discovered that Lazare's one hot dish on offer that day at that hour was a huge ham and potato omelet?
I duly washed it down with a glass of Lapierre Morgon and a coffee, and left thirty minutes later with a spring in my step, thirty euros lighter. Did I get ripped off, for eggs? Did I mind ?
In Paris, unlike in New York or London, it is downright refreshing to indulge in new luxury conveniences. Restaurant Lazare should be understood as one of those, rather than as a restaurant.
Centre Commercial Gare Saint Lazare, rue Intérieure
Métro: Saint Lazare
Tel: 01 44 90 80 80
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Meg Zimbeck's furious 2013 take-down of Lazare.
Alexander Lobrano's 2013 piece on Lazare reads a lot like an apology for Meg's piece.
John Talbott enjoyed Lazare in 2013; along with seemingly every other opening reviewer, he presumed it would remain a difficult reservation.
An uncharacteristically in-depth dissection of Lazare by my friend Wendy Lyn at The Paris Kitchen. It sort of reads like she was auditioning for a consultancy position on Frechon's next endeavor.