Au Passage: Paris
Perhaps it’s because I’ve never worked in a kitchen that I crave the company of back-of-house restaurant employees. There is something alluring about the camaraderie of this cool-kids club, where dues are earned, not paid, “Yes, Chef” submissions are swallowed before shift drinks and secrets bottled up like house sauces—never to be revealed on the other side of the swinging door.
I want more of this insiders’ underworld, and on Monday nights in central Paris there’s a place that offers exactly that—an up-close, through-the-keyhole, roach-on-the-wall glimpse at the restaurant industry. A standing invite to this perspective exists in the form of a seat at the bar (though table service reservations are accepted ahead of time) at Au Passage. Tucked down an alley off the Saint-Sébastien–Froissart underground, some of the city’s finest chefs and sommeliers stop by for a meal. This is their day off.
Chefs, like celebrities, shouldn’t be bothered while experiencing a good meal, but simply sharing elbow space with inked arms traced with oil burns adds to the magnetic pull of this place.
The bartender, found behind a heaping bowl of homemade butter waiting to be liberally spread on warm bread (also made in-house), fills first-courses by slicing fatty charcuterie. He is unbelievably handsome—a man as cured and time-preserved as saucisse seche itself—and yet exclusively attentive when it comes time to order.
Au Passage offers small, shareable plates at an inexpensive rate, considering Parisian prices (comparable to a “hipster dinner” in New York City) and, considering its creativity, is worth every euro and a generous tip. The ingredients are market-fresh, each dish playing off pristine nose-to-tail meats and raw and cooked seafood, along with the day’s vegetables. The staff can sniff out an American with the same expertise that must’ve cultivated the extensive wine list (with over 150 options), but most are willing and able to translate the day’s menu if you choose to reveal your illiteracy.
My advice? Arm yourself with the basics before going in: poisson means fish, du boeuf denotes beef and anything marked légumes will probably lead you toward vegetables. Scan the chalkboard and start with a glass of un vin rouge ou blanc. Point to whatever sounds interesting, then prepare for sensory overload as your swirl your wine and savor the first bites of various fromages, rich in flavor, once reserved in the States only for restaurants like Per Se.
As a self-identified obsessive, I have a tendency to take things to extremes. Add Au Passage to my list of addictions. If you, too, find yourself seduced by the restaurant’s casual charisma—like a young man you’d meet outside a jazz club—or longing to eavesdrop on cozy conversations, to learn what inspired the chef for the following day, by all means, go back a second time.
Hell, slide in there less than 24 hours later. Sit right next to the silver fox with face tattoos. Order the beef tongue and anything else the garçon recommends (or as much as your wallet allows). Drink one too many glasses of biodynamic bubbly and catch your reflection in the expansive, bar-long mirror that serves as an extension of the small restaurant. If you’ve followed my advice, you’ll blend right in. Understand that even though you may not be Parisian, you’re coming pretty close to living like a local—like one of them—at least for tonight.
But, if you’ve timed your trip right, maybe tomorrow, too.
Au Passage: 1 bis Passage de Saint-Sébastien, Paris; 01.43.55.07.52
Local Taste: Industry Night
You know a bar or restaurant is worth its salt when it attracts a high volume of industry folks. Such is the case with Sweet Afton, where bartenders and servers from neighborhood spots like Diamond Dogs and William Hallet (and even Astorians who wait tables in Manhattan) crowd around the bar after their shifts, blowing off steam. It doesn’t hurt that full dinner service is available until midnight, and a late-night taco menu runs until 3:30am.
Sweet Afton: 30-09 34th St., Astoria; 718.777.2570