After attacks, France revives joie de vivre with a simple act: dining out

Just days after several restaurants came under attack by radical gunmen, French diners made a point of eating out en masse to return to a sense of normality.

Peter Dejong/AP
Waiters and clients at the Au Petit Fer A Cheval restaurant (At The Little Horseshoe) observe a minute of silence to commemorate the victims of Friday's attacks in Paris, Tuesday.

Amid deadly anti-terrorist operations and constant police raids, amid grief and anguish, Parisians are doing what they do best: heading back to the bistro.

After three days of personal mourning, they responded to a call from a local food guide that ordered “Tous Au Bistro,” or “Everyone to the Bistro,” Tuesday night to claim their rightful place at the table. “Fear doesn’t prevent danger,” says Jessica Heras, who ordered a steak and frites, at the Bistro des Oies, her local haunt in the 10th  arrondissement.

“It’s important that life goes back to how it was, to tell the terrorists this is not affecting us,” says Ibrahim Basbous, owner of a nearby coffee shop whose doors were wide open last night – and will be, he adds, every day from hereon.

Life won’t ever go back exactly to how it was. The French capital was transfixed this morning as a police raid on suspected terrorists holed up at an apartment in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis turned violent, resulting in two suspects' deaths and seven arrests. And across the city, residents are learning to live with heavy patrolled streets as authorities rush to arrest accomplices of the terrorists who killed 129 people Friday night.

But “Tous Au Bistro” is one small step in helping the French find a semblance of normality and a return to what they love most, says Le Fooding, the group that organized the night with a local restaurateurs union.

Indeed, there is perhaps no place that cares more about the art of good living than Paris. Lingering over a newspaper at an outdoor café, squeezing in with friends on a terrace, eating out at the thousands of eateries that somehow always seem full, is part of the daily fabric of life of Paris.

'We are afraid, and we are going out'

Bistro des Oies, with its red wooden paneling outside, its cozy interior decorated with books on shelves, lamps, and antique utensils, is exactly what one expects of a French bistro. In a neighborhood where new coffee shops and hip restaurants seem to open daily, this has been a beloved spot since 1998 and serves all the standards, from duck confit to leg of lamb.

It also sits across the street from the Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon bar, where gunmen opened fire on patrons outside, killing 15 people who had come out on Friday night.

Bistro des Oies owner, Stephane Dantier, says he knew right away that the bangs they heard weren’t fireworks. His patrons dove under the tables for cover, shaking and silent until a long while later when police had secured the area. The restaurant, in grief and shock, shuttered their doors on Saturday, but by Sunday Mr. Dantier called his staff and invited anyone who could make it for a coffee. Almost all arrived.

“I want to reopen,” he told them. If it’s too hard, you can stay home, he said. But everyone reported to their jobs Monday. “The most troubled on the staff are the ones who were not here on Friday night,” he says. Those there, he said, moved forward, into response mode.

Tuesday night it was full, of young children, and friends, of neighbors who’ve eaten here so many times they’ve lost count.

Meg Zimbeck, who runs Paris By Mouth, an English language guide to food and wine, says terrorists struck at the heart of Parisian culture.

“Paris culture is really lived outdoors, publicly,” she says. And she says continuing to be out is an act of defiance, even if it is one that doesn’t come easily. “Everyone that I know is putting on a brave face, but quietly has a little bit of trepidation. We talk about the fact that we are out, we are in restaurants, we are on [dining] terraces, but we are looking around,” she says. “I wish I could say without any bluster that we are not afraid. We are afraid, and we are going out.”

Back to daily life

Bistros weren’t the only places buzzing on Tuesday night. “Occupy Terrace,” another "Tous Au Bistro"-like social media effort, urged Parisians back to outdoor cafes. Clubs played tributes to support the music scene that was hit when 89 people were killed inside the Bataclan concert hall. France and England fans sang La Marseillaise together during a soccer match in London, an unusual show of cross-Channel solidarity in England's national Wembley Stadium.

Everywhere, at 9 p.m. sharp, there was a moment of silence. Outside Bistro des Oies, a mother wrapped her arm around her pre-teen daughter. Friends hugged afterwards.

Next door at the popular pizza joint Maria Luisa, diners Julie Laur and François Tilly don’t live in the area, but they say they felt the need to visit this besieged corner, where so many candles have been lit outside the Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon that the supermarket next door has run out of them.

For a second, they considered whether to take a table inside or on the terrace. They chose the latter, says Ms. Laur, who like so many French people, says that the terrace is part of their daily life, a place to escape tiny apartments not conducive to hosting friends, and to relax over good food and drink.

The terrace is part of French “civility,” she says. They made a point to come last night, responding directly to “Tous Au Bistro,” but this will be the first trip of many.

“It’s important to continue to go out, and do what we always do,” Laur says.

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