I think at some point walking around Paris everyone starts to day dream about a life in the City of Light. As I stroll through the familiar warmth of a special bistro a vin, my dreams turn to thoughts of sipping wine with locals. Since my first visit to France, I have known that in my fantasy I would own a bistro a vin. It would be a casual place, a second home for its habitués, with a limited menu and lots of tasty country wines served by the glass. It would be wine with wonder it would be just like, Taverne Henri IV.
Enviably situated on the Pont Neuf, a bridge connecting the le de la Cite with both the Right and Left Banks, the Taverne Henri IV sits on the edge of the Place Dauphine, an enchanting triangular square with the Palais de Justice at one end and the Quai des Orfevres not far beyond. Each time I journey to Paris, this is my first stop after dropping off my bags. A stroll through the shady square followed by lunch at Henri IV consisting of a glass or two of a cool red Chinon from the Loire and a ham sandwich (on sourdough bread) taking the edge off jet lag.
Comfortable wonderful warmth, Henri IV is a no-frills room with a long bar and a dozen or so tables. The place hasn’t been redecorated since the 1970s, except for the curtains that run the entire length of a wall, just above the booth seating, appearing bright, clean and crisp. Looking at the wooden bar cluttered with memorabilia, the observant visitor will notice that the owner loves rugby, with a strong partiality for the team from Toulon. Taking cues from the horseshoe and the French blue-enamel address plaque with the number 13 on it, you’ll also assume that he is slightly superstitious. And you’ll know that he’s generous when you see regulars invited up to the bar for a little prune after the meal—une petite prune being a shot of incredibly flavorful Armagnac that is likely to burn a hole right through your overfull stomach.
Staff shared the history of bistros a vin to me one afternoon following the lunchtime rush.
Bistros were always wine bistros,” the waiter said. They served wine and maybe a little absinthe. Other drinks weren’t offered until later. Truly good wine disappeared during and immediately after World War II when we drank doctored wine. Sometime in the 1950’s bistros ‘a vin began to come back slowly. Now there are about 25 old-style wine bistros in Paris where the owners go directly to the properties to find their wine. ”And,” he paused, his voice dripping with contempt, ”then there are the ‘wine bars’ run by directors. They have no personality. They just select wines from a list prepared for them.”
For honest-to-god bistros ‘a vin there is a yearly award called the Meilleur Pot. Named after a half-liter jug, it honors a bistrotier who brings characterful country wines from small estates to Paris in bulk and bottles them himself. For the latest on this a wonderful little resource is this site: Paris Bistro.
Truthfully, the wine tasting is full of wine with wonder. The kind of wine that has joie de vie all its own. Layers and layers of notes, aromas and with each passage hints of fruit, flowers, herbs and the ever present terroir
In many ways Henri IV is the archetype of the great bistro ‘a vin, from its bare-bones d’ecor, its wine paraphernalia, its rustic little crus and its cholesterol-laden bill of fare consisting mainly of cheese, charcuterie, croques (with melted ch’evre, perhaps, or ham and Laguiole cheese) and at lunch (like most wine bars, Henri IV winds down in the evening), on my last visit there were cèpe mushroom raviolis, goose confit, chicken steaks and stuffed cabbage, with rich sauces accompanying each dish.
In my day dream I live in Paris an apartment and friends come visit and discuss a glass expressed from a bottle secured from a small vineyard. We talk about music, literature, ballet, art, opera and travel…although I sigh with satisfaction as I sip my wine and watch the last pink ray of a sunset cross the surface of the Seine. A passerby wrapped in the warmth of a lovers arm as they observe the view. Oh yes, here is to wine with wonder inside my little Bistro a Vin. Oh yes, here is to Paris!
La Taverne Henry IV 13, Place du Pont Neuf, in the 1st Arrondissement. 01 43 54 27 90. Open Mon–Sat, lunch and dinner; closed Sunday
If you like the sound of La Taverne Henry IV, you’ll also love le Porte-Pot. Le Porte-Pot 14, rue Boutebrie, in the 5th Arrondissement. 01 43 25 24 24. Tues–Fri, lunch and dinner; Sat, dinner only