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It’s not hard to eat and drink well in Paris. Within a few minutes’ walk of Hotel Indigo Paris – Opera, for example, you can enjoy Vietnamese food at Entre Deux Rives, gourmet sandwiches at Balt, modern French cooking at Le Grand Restaurant Jean-François Piège, or Japanese tea and cakes at Toraya. This elegant, well-heeled part of town may revolve around the Opera, but it has plenty to keep gourmands happy too.
A zinc, though, is rather harder to find. Somewhere between a cafe and a bistro, the zinc was originally a blue-collar bar that served drinkers and diners side-by-side over its namesake metal countertop. From a jambon-beurre and beer to oeuf mayonnaise and creme caramel, the zinc served up the classics of simple French cooking.
Today, these nineteenth-century staples are hidden amidst Michelin-starred jewels and oh-so-Parisian cafes. In the 9th Arrondissement, conveniently close to Hotel Indigo Paris, is Le Laffitte. It’s open five days a week, but hot food is served only at lunchtime. By 12:30, the interior is filled with office workers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder; those who turn up later must find a spot at the bar.
Owner Olivier Lebreton, who has run the zinc since 1999, attributes his success to one secret ingredient: concern for the customer. “Our philosophy is simple: customer satisfaction,” he says. “That has to be the focus for any business like ours, but particularly a bistro. To get people to come back on a frequent basis, we have had to be good every second for 18 years!”
Of course, customer satisfaction at a dining establishment requires good food, and Le Laffitte measures up to the challenge. Charcuterie, roast chicken, and bavette (a cheap, but delicious cut of steak) are regular menu items, but there’s also a chalkboard list of plats du jour. Any given day could present a Hachis Parmentier (similar to the British Cottage Pie), Confit de Canard (duck confit), or Tomates Farcies (stuffed tomatoes).
“Our menu is about freshness and quality,” says Lebreton. “The best-sellers are the daily specials, particularly the bavette with shallots and the Andouillette [a traditional French sausage]. For dessert there’s rice pudding, creme caramel, and the platter of cheese to finish.”
The cheese is particularly noteworthy. Waiter Lulu, who is also Le Laffitte’s affineur, matures Camembert, Sainte-Maure de Touraine, and others to peak condition in his apartment. To complement, the wine list includes four or five reds (including bistro staples like Côtes Du Rhône, Chinon, and Beaujolais), four whites, Champagne, and it’s not unheard of to a meal with a glass of Eau De Vie (a clear fruit brandy) on the house.
It’s a shame there aren’t more places of a similar calibre. “I wonder where my customers will go when I lay down my arms: where is the equivalent in terms of atmosphere, generosity, quality, fast service, value for money?” asks Lebreton, whose culinary background includes a stint at the famous Brasserie Bofinger. “All the things that should be in the DNA of a good bistro. I’m not saying it’s dead in Paris, but you have to look and to know.”
There are other excellent surviving zincs (Au Petit Fer a Cheval in the Marais for example), and the popularity of Le Laffitte suggests that a revival could still be on the cards. Lebreton emphasises the quality and ambiance as key to the zinc, but all visitors to Paris should try some of Lebreton’s AAAA-certified Andouillette, at the very least.
Images courtesy of Le Laffitte