The team at Le Bal Café serves the greatest Sunday brunch in Paris. Every detail of the experience - from the NYTimes-worthy coffee, to the squeezed-to-order orange juice, to the perfectly-streaked bacon - belies an approach to brunch that is as simple as it is heart-winning: they try to present only the best possible versions of things. Even if it involves staffing someone to do nothing other than squeeze orange juice for six hours straight.
The only problem is the hordes of fellow brunchers, who have risen earlier than you and taken all the tables and eaten most of the food by the time you arrive. Even then, Le Bal Café theoretically has the institutional advantage of the attached bookshop and photography museum, with which one is free to distract oneself during the interminable wait for a table.
Except, as my friend H and I discovered the other Sunday, the fellow who runs the bookshop is a raging lunatic.
I wouldn't even bother reporting on the experience, as it indirectly detracts from the deserved success of a restaurant I like a lot. But this is kind of what the internet is for - one of its fascinating social functions. On the one hand the web permits a culture of junior Yelp critics to snipe about late reservations and melted ice cream; on the other hand, it creates a realm of public accountability for those occasional bizarre transgressions of normalcy and politeness between proprietor and client that would otherwise go unacknowledged.
All that occured was this: while waiting for a table, my friend H and I were stood talking beside one of the walls of books in the bookshop. H, in describing the dissolution of the menswear company that until recently employed him, was absentmindedly leaning the toe of his shoe against the wall below the shelves of books. While he was in mid-sentence, the proprietor of the bookshop, a balding buttoned-up dark-haired fellow with glasses, charged over and said, "Excuse me! What is that?" and pointed at H's shoe against the wall.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said H. "I didn't even realize I was doing that."
This is the point where bookshop proprietors who are not, perhaps, frustrated geniuses ready to snap would just say, 'Ok, no problem,' having indicated what it was about the customer's behavior that was bothering them, and resolved the situation. Instead this fellow launched into a wild tirade, demanding to know whether we were here for the bookshop or for the café, because if we were there for the café, then, well, we ought to get out of the way, because he had a bookshop he was trying to run.
My face was at this point probably displaying sheer hilarious disbelief at the guy, who addressed himself solely to H. It's not every day you watch someone who works with the public just have a complete meltdown. H, who is much more reasonable than me, said he was sorry again, and that he wasn't trying to be unpleasant.
"Well, I'm being unpleasant about it," said Bookshop Dude, before turning on his heel and stomping off back behind his register, all of five feet away from us. H stood beside me with a furrowed brow, shaking his head at the interaction. I would have picked a fight, but none of us had eaten yet, and it wasn't going to help our chances for a table if the police were called. I contented myself with conducting a loud demonstrative conversation with H about how many of the surrounding photography books could be had cheaper from Amazon.fr, particularly if to purchase them from Le Bal meant supporting some kind of manic nutjob.
Our party was seated shortly after this interaction, and it's true that brunch itself was probably, if anything, only improved by this strange story about the Bookshop Dude. But considering the wait for a table, and the small size of the dining room at Le Bal Café, and the proportion of clientele brought to Le Bal by the café versus that brought by the bookshop, I can't help feeling that the fellow who runs the latter might be more profitably employed,* for all concerned, were his bookshop to close and the café to expand, and he be put to work as a prep cook or dishwasher, in which role his temper might be simultaneously more justified, and less visible to the clientele.
* As it is, the guy is a steaming liability, rendered all the more offensive by the fact that he has nothing whatsoever to do with the restaurant whose clientele he feels entitled to terrorize.
6, Impasse de la Défense
Metro: Place de Clichy
Tel: 01 44 70 75 51
Barbra Austin on Le Bal Café @ GirlsGuideToParis
Oliver Strand on the coffee at Le Bal Café @ NYTimes