Recommendations of places to eat in Paris are a dime a dozen. After a while, however, you start to notice when the same hole-in-the-wall restaurant keeps popping up on the “to eat” lists to over and over – not only in the ‘reliable’ guidebooks (I am a fan of Lonely Planet) but also, reassuringly, on foodie websites as well. Refuge des Fondues is one of these places, continuously mentioned and fawned over on the Paris tourist-y internets and happens to be around the corner from my house. It took almost three years of living in the neighborhood before I finally gathered the umph to check it out – how special could it be, it’s just melted cheese, right? Remind me (and often) that assuming that I know anything about what I am doing (or talking about) in this city mainly makes an ass out of me – this place is fantastic and fun on any brisk (re: cold) evening – even more so when I am hosting family and friends.
The space itself is tiny, a narrow, deep single room, flanked on both sides by wooden tables. The walls have long been covered completely by chalk drawings and signatures of past patrons, and two men work the back stations – one, constantly stirring a combination of gruyere, wine, butter and cream (um, yeah, ’nuff said) and the other continuously filling baby bottles of wine for the next round of suckers (couldn’t resist) who walk in the door.
Once you confirm that your party is completely present, the process of seating begins. At least one of you will be helped by one of the two waiters to step up and over the main table allowing for seating flush against either wall. This process is highly amusing to those of us who have already run this gauntlet and gets increasingly entertaining to watch from afar when there are skirts and stiletto heels involved (we are in Paris). Once finally situated, citrus-y aperitifs arrive and two questions are asked: 1/ viande or fromage? Followed by, 2/ vin blanc ou rouge? Fromage (cheese) and rouge (red wine) were easy decisions and we sat back to people watch and enjoy the food that began to descend upon us.
First to arrive was the appetizer plate. Small dishes of different cured meats, a bit of cheese, pickles and spiced potatoes were a great way to whet the appetite and ease us into the idea of fighting over negotiating the last bite of food. In addition to the small bites, the waiters also dropped off our beverages – red wine served in baby bottles. This is the main gimmick of the restaurant, mentioned so often in reviews, yet still everyone giggles and poses for wine-suckling photos.
Quickly thereafter the cheese and bread arrived. The cast iron saucepan was filled with a fragrant emulsion of cheese, butter, cream and wine and the basket of bread set down beside was overflowing. We dug in, dipping and twisting each piece of bread through the vat of cheese, openly mocking each other when a piece was lost, albeit briefly, to the bottom of the pot. There were burnt tongues, strings of cheese everywhere and, in the end, very full bellies.
On one of my two recent visits, my dining companion bravely ordered dessert – what arrived was a bit like a mini chocolate ice cream cake, covered in sprinkles and filled with rich, smooth dark chocolate confection. While I can attest to it being delicious, upon my second visit I made sure that there was no space for dessert, all of it being currently (yes, right now) occupied with melty cheese.
The four guys running the place have their roles and serving patterns down pat and they know how play to their strengths (vats of melty cheese are hard to beat), as well as to the expectations of the tourist hordes who follow their guides off the streets of Montmartre and into their establishment. They stop to pose for photos helping girls over tables and can each juggle at least six of those baby wine bottles at once. Rather than overwhelming kitsch, the ambiance is one of fun and adventure. Both times I have visited, my dining companions and I have gotten caught up in conversation with our table neighbors, exchanging travel stories and suggestions for tomorrow’s touring (or dinner) destination. Most noticeably, everyone is smiling – despite the growing cheese food babies in their bellies. My only regret? That I had not brought a Sharpie along to record my enjoyment for posterity… Guess I will have to go back the next time a cold breeze blows into town.
Refuge des Fondues
17 rue des Trois Frères
Paris, 75108 (Montmartre)
01 42 55 22 65 (reservations strongly recommended, and not difficult to get)