PARIS -- The French are convivial diners, so the solitary patron sticks out like a sore thumb. In many restaurants, waiters seat singles at out-of-the-way tables. That never happens at Chartier, a turn-of-the-19th-century restaurant with its original white marble tables on brass stands. Waiters expect people who show up alone to find dinner companions from all over the world at the communal tables.
Louis Theophil Chartier opened the restaurant in 1896 to provide working-class people good meals at affordable prices. It once was well known in Paris that a person could have an entire meal with wine for five francs, or less than a dollar in today's money -- or, actually, yesterday's money. Today's money is the euro, but Chartier still provides budget meals.
Recently, I paid $19 for a dinner of filet of sole with potatoes, mineral water, and a dessert rather like profiteroles, a pastry with chocolate and cream (and reputedly Napoleon's favorite dessert). For the same amount, another woman at my table had the same meal with wine instead of dessert. And I learned all about her dining habits in Chartier when the waiters seated us together. Americans, French, Italians, Scandinavians, Scottish, British, Irish, Germans -- everyone sits together at the same or neighboring tables, and everyone talks to one another.
My dinner companion said she visits Paris four times a year, and discovered Chartier three years ago. Now, she dines there several times on each trip, sometimes for both lunch and dinner in a single day. She loves the prices, the ambience, and the friendly waiters.
A waiter who hadn't seen her in a while asked, "Where have you been?" That charmed her. At Chartier, she feels at home.
The food is traditional French, without much kick to the spices and sauces. I add my own salt and mustard liberally to meals such as pot au feu, a beef stew with carrots, potatoes, and leeks, the Monday special. Though sometimes a bit bland, the food is hearty, plentiful, and fresh.
My companion ordered tomato and cucumber salad for $1.90 and added oil and vinegar dressing that was on the table. She also had a half bottle of white Bordeaux for $6.55, the most expensive white wine on the menu.
One couple near me paid about $45 for lunch with a whole bottle of wine; another couple paid slightly more than $36 for a meal with wine; a party of three paid about $75; and a nearby party of four paid slightly less than $80. (I know this because waiters write your bill on the paper tablecloth that covers the cloth one, and I peeked at the other tables.)
One day I sat with an Italian and a Frenchman, both dining alone, silently, side by side. Soon, however, we all started talking -- adding a family from Edinburgh. Everyone agreed they loved the prices, the food, the ambience, and the company.
"We feel comfortable," more than one remarked.
The current owner of Chartier, Daniel Lemaire, is a tall, chatty man whose father, Rene, bought the place in 1954. He tells a sweet tale: A couple came to the restaurant one night and asked for a specific table. They agreed to wait for it, explaining that waiters had seated them there together as strangers 50 years earlier. This night, they were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
"So we gave them champagne," said Lemaire.
Leslie Gourse is a freelance writer in New York.