My favorite restaurant smells like sourdough starter, candle smoke and some unidentifiable, slightly stale scent that wafts in from the Old Market alley.
In the summer, it’s a warm breeze on the patio, a glass of cold rosé and my favorite saffron rice and baked salmon.
In the winter, it’s all twinkling Christmas lights and colorful ornaments dangling from the ceiling, with red Bordeaux and hearty boeuf bourguignon.
If I close my eyes I can taste the funky cheese and salty cornichon pickles.
This restaurant, La Buvette, is where I go after I’ve had a long day and where I take friends whom I want to teach the secrets of my hometown.
It’s the answer to the most-asked question of the local food critic — “What’s your favorite restaurant?” — and it’s one that some people like and many don’t.
It’s my spot.
I never realized just how Parisian this creation of Vera Mercer’s was until I actually went to Paris three years ago. I instantly recognized the rickety cafe tables facing the street, the wine that’s cheaper than the Coca-Cola, and the treacherous 21 steps that lead diners down to the basement toilet. When I got home, I cherished Buvette even more.
“ ‘La Buvette is alive’ is what Vera says,” Darech Gaskill, Buvette’s manager, tells me one afternoon over two glasses of wine. “For better or worse, it’s like a living thing, in all its parts, ugly and beautiful.”
Gaskill has spent more than a decade at Buvette; his face has become as familiar as those of the Mercers, Mark and Vera, who opened it in 1991 and dine there daily.
The faces of other Buvette regulars include those of artists like Joseph Broghammer and Amanda Lynch of Jackson Street Booksellers. But there’s plenty of other Old Market dwellers, artists, writers and musicians I don’t know, people I recognize but have never met. They are the generally artsy folks who make this place, with its rough brick walls, uneven wood tables and spindly metal candelabras, tick.
People-watching is one of the best parts of Buvette. It is the best spot to run into people you know, or to casually take in the antics of those you wish you knew.
It’s the best place to watch Vera Mercer arrange a giant, artful bouquet of flowers on the bar without even thinking, the result perfect. It’s the best place to meet other people’s pets. In the summer, it’s a veritable sidewalk parade of gawking: the other customers, the teenagers and the tourists.
There’s always something to look at. It is the best patio around.
What began as a wine bar has, over time, turned into a full-fledged restaurant. Gaskill remembers that when he started there were just a few food specials. Now there’s a whole list of dishes that diners can get anytime on one side of the menu and, on the other, a rotating list of about a dozen specials that change daily. The special dishes are also written with flourish on chalkboards, one outside and one in the kitchen.
“When I started working here it was constantly answering ‘What is brandade?’ Or beef tongue?” Gaskill says. “Now they Google it, or they know it from watching Food TV. We didn’t invent those dishes, but we did invent them in this market.”
He’s right. I know I started my days at Buvette eating the simple hot grilled sandwich, which is essentially melted cheese and meat on toast. But I’ve graduated to the point where I don’t have to Google brandade anymore; it’s a whipped salt cod spread. (I always forget, though, what taramasalata is; it’s a different dip made from salt cod roe.)
At Buvette, I first had steamed mussels, foie gras, gravlax and whole roasted fish. Those dining experiences prepared me well, in fact, for what I do now.
Gaskill, like me, has been coming to La Buvette since he was 21. He remembers on one of those first visits spilling wine all over the tablecloth.
“I wanted to apologize,” he says, laughing, “but the waitress never even came back.”
The restaurant’s brusque service hasn’t changed since that night, and though it can be off-putting to some, to me it’s strangely comforting. Buvette regulars know there are rules. Regular diners have earned a badge of sorts. Gaskill calls them “trained.” I’m one of them.
“There is a secret club and a secret handshake,” he says, smiling. “People want that. It’s different from what they expect. If nothing else, it’s not generic.”
The rules include, but are certainly not limited to, the following: There are no reservations. Seat yourself. Get your own beer from the cooler in back or bottle of wine from the restaurant’s vast selection. (A bottle is almost always a better deal, even when a glass is only $4.95, because you’ll want a second.)
And maybe most importantly, don’t go to La Buvette and expect to be out in 45 minutes, because it will never, ever happen. It’s not built that way.
La Buvette means to jolt us all out of our rush to be somewhere else. It forces us to appreciate the beauty of — the true pleasure in — the art of lingering.