Around the corner from Ogilvy Paris in the 8th, there’s an eatery that doesn’t just serve the best food and drink I can afford. Inspiration comes free of charge.
Café l’Estel isn’t chic. No linen tablecloths. No candles. No sommelier. The wall-clock, a saver-store circle of twelve spoons with knife-and-fork hands, said four-fifty-five for about five years. Or three creative directors’ reigns, whichever you like. You never quite get your arse behind the table by the breadboard. The 70’s photo of a radio star at the mike, Galouises Bleu in one hand, script in the other and lust in both eyes, looks more jaundiced than the star ever was. A glowing testimony to the absence of change.
And it’s Heaven.
There’s no air in l’Estel. Only the smell of heaven’s own food, garnished with words and kindness. Here’s where I got asked in for a free lunch when a waiter spotted me on a bike on a furnace of a Sunday afternoon. Where I get twenty-four kisses on two cheeks after a cruel day. Where we all met when I left Ogilvy. Where I got the news that my Danish girlfriend had died and the owner Jean-Marc closed up, poured the first of a few killer cognacs and heard me out, grief and all, till midnight.
Everyone I see there also lives there. Rooted to their bar stools, like pines growing up from a forest floor. Maybe their parents went there for a Pastis and a natural birth. A lift attendant from the Hotel Franklin Roosevelt, silk-suited, ink-black, greased-back Presley hair, women on both arms. Accountants with bellies. Plumbers with chips on shoulders. A royally-charm luminous-bow-tie salesman in a real bow tie and oversize checked jacket. A dancer from Crazy Horse, brown muscled arms like fresh baguettes. A steely-eyed Neapolitan builder in his fifties who retired here 30 years ago.
I love them all. Nestle down here for lunch and you’ll get no pretentions, hang-ups or cross-criticism. Just a love of French things. Confit de canard. 1666. The French coast. Husbands and wives, past, present and future. Gainsbourg. Ravel. Paris Saint Germain FC. Social justice. Europe and why anyone would ever want to leave. One night in Toulouse. Pride. People, life and each other. Nobody talks money. You don’t. You start doing that when you reach Dover.
Lunchtime at l’Estel is a nourishing soup of human subjects served in quips, phrases, attitudes and points-of-view. Things that in an agency would take two hours, two trips to the gents and a dozen artificial coffees.
This is the only place in the world where you get a filet mignon, gratin dauphinoise, rosé, kisses, handshakes that mean something, a freshly-restored faith in humanity and five fresh perspectives for 23 euros.
So, next time I pass by in an evening, I’m going to drop Jean-Marc a couple of hundred euros. Thanks, everyone, for being you. Drinks for all, on me, now please.
For what I get out of it, it’s the least I can do.