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The brasserie at la Closerie des Lilas –
old school charm and calm

Now here’s a place that’s been intriguing us for quite a while now. Hidden from prying eyes behind thick foliage, just a shot distance from our hotels, is a restaurant (or rather two) that has seen almost every famous literary or intellectual figure of the last two centuries pass through.

But is the food anything to write home about? We sat back, took our time, and soaked in the ambience…

photos: JasonW

You may not know it, but the Closerie des Lilas is mythical. It’s the Kraken of Paris restaurants; imposing, ancient… and possibly faintly ridiculous. However, the main thing that has always intrigued us about the place is how from the outside it looks more like a leafy fortress than a restaurant, the sort of place where you’d feel at ease meeting your mistress.

What secrets lie therein? We were about to find out.Once inside, it’s clear that the décor is definitely retro, but well cared for. If you’re looking for something with clean white lines and lights that change colour, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Here you’ll find mosaic floors, mirrors and wood, pretty understandable for a place founded in the late 19th century. Some may find it boring, otherwise will find it reassuring. We certainly appreciated the sense of history that the place carries.Anyone who is anyone in the world of literature and the arts has passed through here over the years. The new place settings have copies of signatures from more recent celebrities, taken from their guestbook. The menu probably hasn’t changed for quite a while (the website menu says ‘Autumn 2010’) and the pianist’s repertoire is similarly stuck in a time warp. Personally, we found him pretty cheesy.The staff seem very happy to work at la Closerie. Our waitress, when asked, said that conditions are good and that waiters tend to stay for a while (some have been there for fifteen years already). This helps the quality and ease of service, and we were seated with a smile in a corner which allowed us not only to sit next to each other rather than opposite (we like!), but in a prime position for people watching. Perfect!

We decided that a smoky, organic Pouilly white wine would be good to accompany our meal. The first course arrived fairly quickly; when ordering a traditional œuf mayonnaise, we didn’t realise exactly how much of both there would be (!), but the mayonnaise was very obviously fresh, and the accompanying mixed diced vegetables were very tasty.

As for the poached egg, it was the perfect combination of firm and runny, sat on ratatouille-style vegetables and crowned with sprouts. The strong taste of the red pepper mixed perfectly with the egg. A good start, especially when accompanied by the crunchy bread and salted butter.The few minutes we had before the main course arrived gave us the chance to visit the toilets in the basement. In the same style as the restaurant, they have a feeling of grandeur that takes you back in time.And so it was time for the main course. The scallops turned out to be firm and tasty, the creamy white sauce playing off the citrus bite of the fruit slices. And that risotto! Creamy but not too creamy, with a touch of parmesan. Delicious! The rockfish came with ratatouille that had a slightly orangey taste to it, but we found it needed a little extra pepper. The virgin olive oil surrounding the lot was lovely.Dessert is often where decent restaurants trip up, but La Closerie has its own in-house sweets chef, and rather proficient he is too. The rum baba had perfect consistency, perhaps a little too much cream (but certainly enough rum!), and the red fruit mille-feuille was a cracking success; light, creamy, nothing like the compacted slabs of butter and sugar you find in some shops. Amazing stuff.La Closerie actually has two restaurants in one. We ate at the brasserie, which is cheaper and open all day (yes, you can arrive at 4pm and oder steak, or just go for a dessert. The restaurant side looks pleasant enough, but the prices are much steeper (i.e. around 45€ for a main dish). We can’t say whether the cuisine is worth it.After our meal, we decided to wander through the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, passing the monumental fountain due south along what used to by the Paris meridian (created by Arago, it never caught on) and onto the Institut d’art et d’archéologie which looks a lot like something from New York. It’s one of our favourite building in Paris because it’s so stately and unusual for the city. It was a grand way to finish off a very agreeable meal.

The brasserie at the Closerie des Lilas (here) is open every day of the week non-stop from midday until 1am. The restaurant side is open from midday – 2.30pm and 7 – 11.30pm

Official site:

The history of the Closerie des Lilas (in French) on Wikipedia: here

To check out our full photo gallery, click play on the slideshow below, followed by the four little arrows bottom right.