Le Relais du Comptoir: Line up!

„Le Relais du Comptoir”, just to get this out of the way, is one of the most annoying bistros of Paris. Believe me, it’s a real nuisance. You never ever get a table – unless you’re a close friend of the chef, or ready to wait for at least six months, or stand in line half a day to get a table for lunch on the sidewalk on a freezing winter day (for those of you who want to learn about the meaning of „al-fresco-dining“ the hard way).

And yet: You cannot help falling in love with it. You feel like writing poems about „Le Comptoir“, as people just call it. You will be enchanted by every tiny detail once you have made it and are allowed to really step in, sit down, have drinks and dinner. Because: In fact, „Le Comptoir” is one of the best bistros of the world, no kidding. It’s just perfect. Simply amazing.

Just perfectly time-worn

The room is an art deco dream of a bistro but not in the plush aristocratic sense. There’s just the right amount of decoration (not that much), just the right amount of light (casual), of space (dense, intense). Everything seems to be just perfectly time-worn, the floor, the furniture, the bar, the wallpaint, even the waiters look that way and I really have no idea how they do it.

Equally sensational is the food, and for a twisted reason: Conventional wisdom would have it that a basically rustic bistro that becomes world famous in certain circles and gets reservation requests out of Australia or Japan – is doomed to go down over time. There are in fact many examples proving this theory but „Le Comptoir“ isn’t one of them. Yves Cambdeborde and his team don’t give in to the temptation of making money while serving crap. They deliver.

Modernized classics

They deliver lunch after lunch and dinner after dinner to an always packed dining room and quite a large terrace, and they keep their standards high. Product quality is excellent, cooking is impeccable, many dishes are really good, some are even outstanding. Cambdeborde serves modernized classics, well re-thought French standards. They are combined to make an ever changing fixed menu full of surprises. Cambdeborde and his cooks go to the markets daily – and if they find, say, a chest of great morels, well, they’ll rewrite the menu of the day.

Now this is a success story in a very large sense. It tells how an ambitious chef from provincial Pau in Southern France has to travel for half his life before finally finding his real destination. Cambdeborde, you know, before becoming the best bistrotier of the city, was aiming somewhat higher: He worked at the Ritz, at the „Tour d’Argent“ at „l’Hotel de Crillon“ – let’s call them the frumpy trinity of culinary Paris – before he ran his own excellent restaurant „Régalade“ for more than a decade. But he wasn’t there yet. In 2005, finally, he bought the hotel and the restaurant in Saint Germain that became the „Comptoir de l’Odéon“. I’d call it a happy-ending.

The easiest way to get a table

Will you ever eat there? Maybe. It needs good planning. You could stay at the hotel which is the easiest way to get a table (when we were there three weeks ago, an American couple, guests of the hotel, sat next to us for the third dinner in a row!). You could book six months or more in advance, why not? You can go there for lunch on a weekday, line up for hours, just to get a table outside, I’m not sure. The terrace is only half the fun but in lack of other options? Sure.

Actually, while writing, I thought: Hey, I need to make that reservation! And until I get my table (at some point next May) I wouldn’t have to make any economies. Because dinner menus at „Le Comptoir“ cost 60 something Euros. That’s quite affordable, don’t you think?

Le Comptoir du Relais

9, carrefour de l’Odéon

75006 Paris

Métro: Luxembourg, Odéon & Saint-Michel

Tel: +33 1 44 27 07 97

Photo: © AFP, Joe Ray, MAP