Paris Bistro Cookery (1948)


By Alexander Watt, Alfred A. Knopf, 1958. Near rare. An informing, historically significant and incredibly hard to find jewel. The book was written, the notes tell us, “by the gastronomic correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph,” a Scotsman whose nickname was Sandy and lived in Paris for more than 15 years, before and after World War II. (This is the kind of little book that gained the publishing house the reputation of offering books for the discerning reader).

The author presents 100 recipes given to him from 50 of what he considered the best bistros in that city during the heyday of the small, usually inexpensive, down-to-earth, family-style cooking operations. I know of no other book from that time period that exclusively offers the detailed information on the famous and not-so-famous Paris bistros of that era – and their specialties. It is a repository of Paris bistro culinary history at mid-century. There are other Paris culinary guidebook from the '50s, but they cover the grander restaurants as well.

The names of a good half of the eateries in this volume begin with “Chez” -- Chez Pierre, Chez Lucien, Chez Pauline, and so on. By now, of course, many of the recipes are old-school classics now, but the dishes must have floored interested but untutored students, would-be cooks and tourists (like Julia Child). The book also offers a glossary listing most of the dishes that could be ordered at these bistros.

What makes this book even more exciting – and important -- are the notes of the original book owner, who, following s meal at one of these bistros, wrote impressions in the page margins, usually mentioning the atmosphere of the place, and impressions of the dish he or she tried. Additionally, on the front end paper, the book owner also wrote down a handful of other Paris restaurants not mentioned in the book. The name of the book’s owner is unknown, but a thin piece of hotel stationery tucked into the pages of the book makes it pretty clear the book owner stayed at the luxury hotel made famous by master chef A. Escoffier -- “Hotel Ritz – Paris, Opéra 28-30.” Not too shabby.

On that page of stationery is the book owner’s notation about a dinner at Chez Pauline: “Bouffe (sic) Parisien Monsigny, Chez Pauline, 5 rue Villado.” Of the three pages devoted to that eatery, author Watts advises readers that “Monsieur Génin, who comes from the Beaujolais country, does all the cooking. His wife runs the bar and restaurant, which has an intimate, friendly atmosphere about it.”

There is an interesting blog run by Sandra Lee, an avid cookbook collector. She found a copy decades ago, loves it, and give sus even more detail about the book and the author: and I suggest you take a look.

For example, she tells us that Watts wrote about “the ambiance of each bistro, recapturing the atmosphere, the particular nature of the cooking, the regional dishes for which the restaurant may be famous. He not only described the specialties of the bistro, but also offered a representative menu, suggesting the right accompanying wine, cheese and liqueur (or digestif, as the French would say) to settle a superlative meal.”

This is a small hardback, no DJ, 195 pages. Condition: the book and binding are tight, the spine edges are worn, and there is wear at extremities. Good +.

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