(An early evening glass of wine outside Au Vieux Paris. Photo by Lynn Hughes-Hailey.)

By Jeff Maisey

“How do you know about this place?” 

A distinguished looking gentleman in his 70s from California introduced to Lynn and I as the Doctor kept looking over his right shoulder, turning in his seat to engage us in conversation. 

“How did you know to come here?” he continued to query, paying more attention to us at first than his table-for-four dinner party. 

Lively conversations are not uncommon when enjoying a highly unique dining experience at Au Vieux Paris.

The restaurant is located at 24 Rue Chanoinesse, an elbow of a side-street that seems to go largely unnoticed with no storefronts to entice pedestrians fixated on the twin towers of Notre Dame just a block away. Noble doorways to residential apartments mostly line the quiet street.  

Au Vieux is easy to spot, however, once you’ve walked a few yards down Rue Chanoinesse. It’s exterior appears more Provençal than Parisian — a large purple wisteria vine covers the front wall, a plaster sculpture of Mary praying over baby Jesus hangs over the doorway, a pair of taxidermied-like white chickens sit perched over the teal blue bars over the windows, and colorful metal cafe tables-for-two are positioned close to the building and down the sidewalk. Depending on the season, you might spy quirky sculptures in the form of roosters and egg-hatched chicks in the flower boxes. 

In warmer months, with the front door open, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to hear operatic arias sung by maître d Frederico Benani, who’s quick to welcome curiosity seekers and regular patrons with equal enthusiasm. 

Frederico is a rare one-of-a-kind personalty. He hails originally from Sardinia, speaks multiple languages, loves music and is eager to serenade. He’s a consummate showman of sorts, sometimes donning a a red and black paisley smokers jacket, and keen to insert comedic points in any conversation. When complimenting Frederico on a wine or food selection, he smiles and says, “The best ever.” 

Above all, Frederico is lively and makes everyone feel at home, whether making introductions to fellow diners, dishing out French home-cooking style beef stew at your table, or pointing you down a staircase to the cellar to select a bottle of wine. 

He’s also part historian in what is the most ancient part of Paris — Ile de la Cite. 

Au Vieux Paris is housed in a structure built in 1512. The stones within the restaurant and its walls were left over from those used to construct Notre Dame Cathedral. Of the 37 houses built on this street using those materials, only two remain today, and Au View restaurant is one of them.  

According to Frederico, a food merchant purchased the house, which used to be home to priests and others working at Notre Dame, in 1723. It soon became a dining and drink establishment. 

Owners Odette and Georges — who opened as Au Vieux Paris in 1995 — decorated the restaurant with Neo-Gothic, dark wood antique furniture and religious statues to maintain the building original Medieval atmosphere and as a nod to it’s connection to the cathedral.

“Most of the furniture came from the church,” Frederico said, “the tables, chairs. We have a wooden statue of John Vianney, a priest from a small village near Lyon.” 

The first floor dining room is snug. Black and white floral tile cover the floor. The interior walls are a mix of ancient stones and plaster with numerous wooden support beams visible. In addition to the furnishing and religious artworks, a whimsically random assortment of musical instruments, taxidermy fowl, and photographs adorn the walls. 

Au Vieux’s second floor has a completely different vibe with its plush, rich ruby colored drapery and red velvet-like wall paper and upholstery, silver and pewter statues, golden framed mirrors, and framed equestrian illustrations.  

The menu features traditional French, homestyle cooking choices. My go-to is Beef Burgundy, a rich beef stew made with red wine, potatoes and carrots. Beef fillet, duck, and chicken dishes are also delicious. 

Over the past five to seven years, Au Vieux Paris has been a favorite place to spend time. On one early evening, my friend and journalism colleague Tom Robotham and I stopped in for a glass of wine — a whiskey for Tom. Four hours later, we got around to ordering dinner.  

Frederico was playing Gregorian chant music on the low volume speakers for ambience. Heavenly. 

Good food and an enchanting atmosphere alone are worth returning for, but so too are friendships made with local Parisians.   

On several occasions, Lynn and I have serendipitously arrived and found Christophe Roth le Gentil and his partner Laura seated with a glass of wine in-hand. 

Though they live in Paris, the couple feels magnetically drawn to the restaurant and have been patrons for 23 years. 

“It’s like a place that cannot be,” explained Christophe of the atmosphere. “You won’t find another place like this in Paris.”

Echoing Christophe’s sentiment is French television cameraman Jean-Marc Giovanangeli and his friend Laurence Menevoo, who was on her first visit to Au Vieux when I met them three years ago. 

“This is a special restaurant for me,” explained Jean-Marc. “When I was planning my mother’s 80th birthday I discovered this place and the beautiful people at this restaurant. For ten years this is the restaurant of my heart.”

Jean-Marc said the restaurant’s close proximity to Notre Dame might give the impression that it is a tourist cafe. 

“But it’s not,” he said. “It’s the inverse. It’s a very good restaurant with good people and good food. It is a very special place. The best in Paris.” 

I once dreamed of Au Vieux Paris. 

An elderly woman was walking her dog down Rue Chanoinesse. The restaurant was boarded up and in disrepair.

“Pardon, Madam,” I asked, “What has happened to this restaurant? I was here just six months ago.”

“Monsieur,” she replied in my dream, “This is impossible. A restaurant has not operated in this location since before the second world war.” 

As she strolled away on the dreamt rainy day, I replied, “This best ever?”

She paused, looked back, and said, “Oui, Monsieur. The best ever.” 

As I type these last few sentences, I confirmed me reservation for late March and look forward to dinner with Lynn and our French friends. 

How do I know of this place?

It seems old souls find their way back to Au Vieux Paris.