On the outskirts of Paris Annabel Simms finds life being injected into an old-fashioned custom
I discovered the Guinguette Auvergnate by accident. I live on the Ile St Louis in the heart of Paris, and the thought of all the crowds about to descend on the riverside quais on the first really warm Sunday of spring prompted me to head for the river too – but in the opposite direction. Equipped with a local bus map and a compass, I took a train from St Michel and got off 20 minutes later at the suburban station of Choisy-le-Roi. I crossed the bridge over the Seine, went down the steps to the towpath on my right and set out to explore what I calculated would be an uncrowded stretch of the river.
The walk was everything I had hoped it would be. The paved path past the nineteenth-century workers’ cottages by the water’s edge soon became a grassy footpath, winding past scores of tiny pebbly beaches overhung by trees. I passed only a few fishermen and strollers and saw the first violets of the year and a pair of swans. Every so often, a huge working barge would slide silently by. A happy hour later, just as I was congratulating myself on my cleverness, the footpath came to an abrupt end.
There was nothing for it but to turn onto the road which paralleled the river, back to civilisation. About 50 yards further on I saw what I took to be a modest-looking café. It was, amazingly enough, open. I promptly went inside, ordered a coffee at the counter and asked to be shown where I was on the map.
I discovered that I had walked off its edge. By turning right at the bridge in Choisy I had gone south instead of north as I had intended, and for three and a half kilometres the map had obligingly contoured itself to my expectations, so that I never thought of checking the compass.
It was only when I had settled the source of the error to my satisfaction that I looked up and began to notice what an unusual establishment I had strayed into. It was half past three in the afternoon. Behind me, at what was clearly the patron’s table, sat several large elderly men in their shirtsleeves, comfortably installed in front of a litter of uncleared plates. The window behind them looked out onto the river.
Off to their right, I glimpsed a darker interior, apparently packed with people, because the girls behind the bar never stopped running backwards and forwards, ferrying wine and coffee to the tables inside. It felt exactly like having stepped onto a boat, a quietly-buzzing, happy, laid-back sort of boat.
Meanwhile, the patron was having a quiet bet with his friends as to whether I was English or American. Calling over one of the busy girls, he told her to show me the terrasse. Terrasse?
Slightly bemused, I let her lead me through the dim boat-like interior, packed with couples and families, who were being brought trays of dice for what looked like backgammon, as a kind of fourth course to round off a leisurely Sunday lunch. A burst of accordion music came through the folding doors at the end, where what appeared to be a private family party was in full swing. The remains of a huge cake reposed on an elaborately decorated trolley, surrounded by an impressive number of empty champagne glasses. Grandparents, parents, cousins and friends gossiped at the tables, while children ran from one group to another and the younger and not-so-young couples had already started dancing. It looked like something out of a Renoir painting.
People nodded and smiled at me as I and my guide wove around them to get through another door and out into brilliant sunlight, where a spiral iron staircase led up to what was indeed a terrace above the restaurant, with a magnificent view over the Seine. On my return, I complimented the patron, still enthroned at his table, on his establishment. ‘Ici, c’est un petit coin du Paradis’ came the reply. Pause, swelling of stomach. ‘Et moi, je m’appelle Dieu.’ (‘This is a little corner of Paradise. And I’m called God.’) He then let me into the secret of the bet and was delighted to have won it. ‘J’ai gagné!’
Before leaving, I asked for directions to the nearest train station and was greeted by an outburst of hearty laughter. The restaurant is exactly opposite a little station I had never heard of, called Villeneuve Triage, 15 minutes from Paris on the RER D line from Gare de Lyon.
I have since been back several times and can confirm that the Guinguette Auvergnate is indeed a little corner of paradise, although luckily not the only one. Guinguettes (pronounced ‘gang-ETTE’) are named after the wine of the Paris region which was produced in the nineteenth century and was cheaper if drunk outside the city limits, avoiding the tax on incoming merchandise. The origin of the word is debatable but the most likely explanation is that the wine made people giguet, ready to dance a jig.
Usually open-air restaurants with a dance-floor, guinguettes sprang up to cater for the urban working poor who wanted to relax on a Sunday in a pastoral setting. In their heyday, from about 1850 to 1950, scores of them were to be found along the banks of the Seine and especially the Marne outside Paris, offering the simple pleasures of eating, drinking and dancing at affordable prices. People wore their Sunday best, waltzed or listened to traditional songs played on the accordion and ate la friture (fried whitebait) washed down with guinget wine.
Only too predictably, few guinguettes survived changing tastes in popular entertainment. They suffered particularly from the impact of television, and by the 1960s so many of them had closed down that it looked as if they would disappear. But since the mid-1990s there has been an unexpected revival of this most Parisian of popular traditions, with new guinguettes catering for a younger more middle-class clientele opening up and the older ones successfully adapting to include salsa, rock and reggae influences as well as the traditional waltzes to accordion music.
The Guinguette Auvergnate is a flourishing part of this revival, with dances being held twice a month all year round, but is less well-known to Parisians than the guinguettes on the Marne. The menu offers traditional family dishes, varying with the season, which is rare in the Paris region. I have tried the souris d’agneau au thym (roast knuckle of lamb with thyme) and the civet de biche (stewed doe) and they were excellent value.
It is worth asking for the kir Birlou, an aperitif made with white wine delicately flavoured with a mixture of apple and chestnut, an Auvergnat speciality that avoids the over-sweetness of most kirs. You eat at tables alongside geranium-framed windows overlooking the Seine, in the convivial family atmosphere that is part of the esprit guinguette. It is standard etiquette to nod and smile at fellow-diners, murmuring ‘Bonjour/Au revoir, messieurs et dames’ as you arrive or leave. If you want to enter properly into the spirit of the thing and dance, I would add a word of advice, copied from a notice at another guinguette: Adoptez l’esprit guinguette!
Pas de jeans ni baskets ! (Get into the spirit of the guinguette – no jeans, no trainers !)
Join the party
On the River Seine
Guinguette Auvergnate (10 miles south-east of Paris) 19 avenue de Choisy, 94190 Villeneuve St-Georges (0033 43 89 04 64, www.guinguette-auvergnate.fr)
Open for lunch every day except Monday. Open for dinner on Friday and Saturday all year round and every weekday except Monday in the summer. Dancing on the second and fourth Friday of every month, from around 8pm and on the second and fourth Sunday of the month from midday. Admission: £21, including four-course menu and wine. Three-course menu £12 or à la carte, house wine £6.50 a bottle.
On the River Marne
These guinguettes are the most popular establishments, all a short train-ride from the east of Paris:
Chez Gégène, Allée des Guinguettes, 162 bis, Quai de Polangis, 94340 Joinville-le-Pont (00331 48 83 29 43)
Le Petit Robinson, 164 Quai de Polangis, 94340 Joinville-le-Pont (00331 48 89 04 39 www.le-petit-robinson.com).
Ile du Martin-Pêcheur, 41 Quai Victor Hugo, 94500 Champigny-sur-Marne (00331 49 83 03 02).
To find out more, see www.culture-guinguette.com
Annabel Simms is the author of ‘An Hour From Paris’, a guide to 20 lesser-known destinations reachable by train (Pallas Athene, £12.95)