The Last Room at the Hotel
For years, my favorite hotel in Paris was the Hotel Les Degrés de Notre Dame just steps away from Place Maubert, a squat, sturdy building located on a place shaded by spindly trees and scattered with tin café tables beneath an awning.
Inside, its three dark floors were connected by a spiraling staircase of creaking boards. On each narrow landing three doors led to small rooms, crammed with scarred furniture, fussily decorated with gilt mirrors, rich, old velvets, ancient carpeting. Every free inch of wall space was occupied by a mirror or a painting rescued from someone’s attic. The ceiling beams and wood floors were thickly coated with strong smelling varnish, perhaps to discourage woodworms. The walls were thin and the door hinges unoiled. All night you would be awakened by the traffic on the stairs, as revelers straggled in, kicked off their shoes, and threw themselves into bed. No air conditioning, fridge, serviceable wifi, or elevator. Beneath the telephone was discreetly tucked a detailed list of things you were not allowed to do in the hotel. But I have never stayed in a cozier place. Its funkiness was its appeal.
On the ground floor, a glass door led to the restaurant with tiny tables pushed against the walls. You could hardly fit inside when wearing a winter coat. And yet what atmosphere! Lamps with orange and red shades cast a warm glow over well-worn red upholstery where you could sit and sip drinks with a lover or husband for hours. Behind the bar of burnished wood gleamed row upon row of Pernod and Campari bottles arranged before a spotless mirror . Attached to one side was a covered patio with more tables, always packed at mealtimes. From afternoon till evening, in a corner near the back, or sometimes out along the street at the only smokers’ table, the Algerian owner of this establishment, Monsieur Kamel, would sit, alone or in company, surveying with keen eye his clientele.
Kamel was a handsome man with olive complexion, graying hair, and as years progressed, a bit of a paunch contained by a snug fitting pinstripe gilet. His mask-like countenance combined shrewdness and benevolence, radiating a philosophical calm. He seemed to observe you without observing you, like a Buddha, sizing you up with thickly lidded eyes. When you saw him sitting there, drinking tea, or perusing accounts with his full, pursed lips, you felt that all was right in the world.
The restaurant was justly famous for its Moroccan dishes, prepared express by the handsome, swarthy staff darting about in white jackets while well-nourished cats prowled underfoot. The tajine arrived steaming on a huge terracotta platter, hidden beneath a tall brown clay cone, like a magician’s hat. As the cone was lifted to reveal sizzling braised lamb , the heady scent of spices --ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cumin, mellowed by apricots and pears--was unleashed into the air. But my favorite were the plainer French dishes. On cold winter days ,onion soup or a blanquette de veau . In summer, a filet à point with mushroom sauce, accompanied by their Moroccan salad: finely chopped onion, romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers with a dusting of cumin. And their desserts! Their crème caramel was so light you were afraid it might float away before you could sink your spoon into it.
They catered to regulars. You’d see the same people eating there, week to week, year to year. An elderly man, reputedly a count, who munched sugar cubes as he drank his coffee by spoonsful. A set of elderly identical twins who were there every day at lunchtime and ordered identical meals. Babies in cumbersome prams, big shaggy dogs, shoppers with huge bags in tow were welcome, no matter how much space was needed to accommodate them.
The only thing amiss with the place was the lock on the bathroom door, at the bottom of the narrow stairs in an odorous cellar. That lock was so efficient you sometimes couldn’t open it again, and would have to bang, rattle, and shout till someone heard you and let you out, much to your embarrassment, after you returned up the stairs to the restaurant, having disturbed everyone’s meal. It happened to me twice, and once to a friend, who had to be rescued by monsieur himself.
Last autumn while briefly in Paris, I dined there often but noted something strange. Some days the restaurant was deserted, but on others, it was a frenzy of people coming and going, hugging and cheek-kissing, laughing and toasting from one table to another. People driving by would honk their horns and wave. Monsieur Kamel, rather than sitting like a pasha, was seen driving about in a van, looking rather harried.
A short time ago, I returned to Paris for a conference and found a room at the Degrés.
“It’s our very last room” the clerk told me on the phone when I called to book. Those words, “last room” held a meaning I had yet to discern.
I arrived after midnight and the attendant whom I had always remembered being there, carried my bag up to my room. I arranged for an early wake up call, and reserved a table for the next night for eight people, as I was inviting some friends for dinner. Next morning I dashed out without stopping for breakfast, and returned at two for lunch. Stepping into the restaurant, expecting a homey, filling meal, I found the place empty, the lights all off and the kitchen closed. A tall elderly Japanese man appeared from the shadows, puzzled to see me there. He didn’t speak French or much English, but managed to tell me that service for lunch had ended, if indeed it had ever begun. As we talked, a young Japanese man entered and watered a bonsai at the sink.
I went to have lunch across the square, and when I came out again, I saw sitting outside, at the table where Monsieur Kamel used to sit watching the street with a bemused half smile, four young Japanese men clad in white chef coats. With their long, thin, elegant legs drawn up under the tiny table where a bonsai had replaced Monsieur Kamel’s ashtray, they gazed up and down the street, distractedly. One wore a white surgical mask.
The place had obviously changed hands. But what had happened to Monsieur Kamel? I anxiously enquired with the staff of the neighboring restaurant. Last night was their last night, someone explained. While I had slept a revolution had taken place. All the old people had cleared out. Kamel had sold the place and retired to Morocco. A young chef specializing in Japanese/ French fusion had taken now over the restaurant. I was assured that the new food was “fashionable and exciting”. That night was opening night.
I had to rush back to the conference but returning before dinner, I was approached by one of the genteel Japanese boys who bowed to me and asked apologetically, “Are you certain you wish to reserve a table for tonight, for eight?” as though he couldn’t believe such a thing. It was too late to change now, I had no idea where to go, and besides, it seemed rude to say no.
That night our little party of eight were the only people dining there, served by a staff of six. There was nothing French on the menu, but lots of sushi, which alas, I am not fond of, but we all found something to order. I had exquisite shrimp tempura and fried cochon. We had to acquaint the new proprietor with the local tradition of cheaper house wine served in a pitcher, but eventually we managed. The dinner was delicious, if nearly twice what we would have paid under the previous regime, but each dish was artfully prepared. One of my friends remarked that the Japanese beef he had ordered was the best he had ever tasted.
I was sad, though, in all these years, I had never had a chance to tell the old proprietor what a wonderful place he ran. Monsieur Kamel who is probably sitting in a sundrenched Moroccan square drinking mint tea, has certainly earned his rest. But I feel homeless in Paris, another piece of an old world is gone.