Hemingway Ate There?

Paris: Beautiful. Artistic. Literary. Culinary. Absurd. Where else can one restaurant offer up so much history?

Cremerie Restaurant Polidor has weathered an emperor, several French republics, two world wars, the Prussians, the Commune, the development of pataphysics, and supposedly Hemingway. And she’s still serving tasty traditional cuisine on her pretty corner in the 6th!

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris made her even more popular, as the location for Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) meeting his literary hero Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) for the first time. Who can forget Gil’s face when they’re introduced?

Polidor in the Past

Before we deep dive into the history of the restaurant, let’s take a little peek at the neighborhood. Part of the reason I love Paris is the endless layers of history always at your feet. In the case of Le Polidor and its little corner of the world, we can go all the way back to the early 13th century! Ok, technically we can go all the way back to Roman Lutetia (aka Paris). But for the sake of some brevity and my greater interest in medieval Paris, we’ll start around 1200. 😀

Philippe on the move

France and England were at war. While this is true for most of the medieval period, we are in the time of Richard the Lionheart and Bad King John. Richard had a rocky relationship with French King Philippe II Auguste (Philip Augustus) but his successor King John was the main protagonist in this episode. Philippe wanted to shore up Paris as he battled first Richard and then John for territory in northern France. He began building a wall (and the original Louvre castle) in 1190, starting closer to the threat on the right bank. The left bank was finished in 1215, shortly after the fighting ended.

In 1199, Richard the Lionheart died of gangrene from a crossbow bolt wound. His little brother John finally inherited the throne of England and the duchy of Normandy. Before Richard’s death, John’s nickname had been “lack-land” (sans-terre) due to his lack of property. Now he wanted even more and sought to expand his new lands in France.

However, Philippe rightly perceived John as a weak opponent and made the best of it. He eventually took most of John’s lands in France–everything north of the Loire–greatly expanding his own kingdom. John’s spectacular losses in France were also part of the English baron’s grievances that lead to the creation of the Magna Carta, one of the foundation documents of modern British and American democracy. History is a complex tapestry!

Actual King John and how we remember King John

How does this all tie into Le Polidor? Well, Philippe’s wall on the Left Bank had a large ditch around its exterior. In the 16th century, just outside the wall (and the ditch) the Prince of Condé, a prince of the blood, had his “hôtel” or palace. The princes of Condé were ceremonially known “Monsieur le Prince”. The ditch had a path that became known as “rue des Fossés Monsieur le Prince” (Monsieur le Prince ditch street–sounds better in French!).

Future Site of Le Polidor

Eventually the ditch was filled in, the princes moved to the right bank and the Hôtel de Condé was demolished. The Odéon theater was built, the wall and a lot of the historic medieval and Renaissance buildings were demolished, rue Monsieur le Prince dropped the “ditch”, and by 1835 the eastern arm of rue Racine was constructed. At this time, the buildings at the corner of rue Monsieur le Prince and rue Racine were built, incorporating parts of Philippe’s wall and in some cases parts of the convent that used to exist on the inside of the wall. Incredibly all of this survived Haussmann’s handiwork in the area as well!

Ten years later, a little cremerie moved onto the corner…

Le Polidor’s origins are humble. In 1845, the restaurant started out as a cremerie (creamery) or store that sold milk, butter, cheese, and eggs to the local households. As part of their services they began selling food based on these ingredients, mostly to the same people picking up their eggs. According to their website, the original clientele were mostly women, presumably maids, cooks, and lower-income local housewives. By the end of the century Le Polidor had expanded into a full-fledged restaurant, now catering more to the male-dominated literary and student crowd. But what a crowd! A short list includes:

Ernest Hemingway*
James Joyce (fan of the omelets)
Jack Kerouac*
Victor Hugo*
Charles Baudelaire* (The French Poe)
Arthur Rimbaud (French Poet)
Paul Verlaine (French Poet)
Germain Nouveau (French Poet)
More French Poets and Authors
The College of Pataphysics (surreal? absurd? the truth? learn more here)

Now for the caveat: People with the * next to their name, including Papa, are listed across the internet as having dined here. In Hemingway’s case, he is even named on Le Polidor’s website. But John Leland, in his book, A Guide to Hemingway’s Paris, points out that we have no extant evidence that Hemingway actually ate at Le Polidor. We have evidence of James Joyce, Rimbaud, Verlaine, etc., but not Ernest.

Nor could I find definitive information on Jack, Victor, or Charles, though this website states that Baudelaire even played cards there. This feels like a stretch. He died in 1867, having left Paris in 1864 for Belgium. And it seems decidedly down-market for him, though he suffered from poverty for the last decade or so of his life. Maybe a cheesy omelet was just the thing after a night of drinking and laudanum?

That said, I don’t think it is outside the realm of possibility for Hemingway to have spent some time here. He lived in the neighborhood, loved walking in the Luxembourg Gardens just a few blocks away, and many other writers and bookshops were in the area. He also didn’t always have a lot of money, so an affordable meal with affordable alcohol would have been just up his alley.

Hemingway in 1923 (The Paris Years). Not bad for a passport photo…

As for the others? Hugo lived long enough to reasonably have eaten there and is mentioned on the Polidor site. Kerouac spent time hunting down his heroes in Paris, so it is possible he did as well. One of these heroes, Rimbaud, stayed at the hotel above the restaurant in the 19th century. Others too could have stayed there, who then grabbed a quick and cheap bite at Le Polidor.

In the end, the restaurant’s history is full of literary ghosts. And if Papa isn’t one of them, well, he certainly knew a lot of them and maybe he stops by for drink now and then!

Le Polidor for the Traveler

Like nearly everything else in Paris, Cremerie Restaurant Polidor is currently closed due to COVID-19, probably through at least June or July 2020. Traditionally they close in the month of August, though economic necessity may change things this year if they are allowed to open. Note that they do not take reservations or credit cards.

Once we are able to go, I highly recommend the experience! The interior remains essentially unchanged from the Belle Epoque. The mirrors, the fading gilt trim, the Mucha-esque advertisements all still line the walls. The tables are communal and long with red checkered “cloths”. It is evocative, historic, somewhat kitschy, and carries the spirit of all those that came before you.

The food is traditional French. Nothing fancy, generally filling, and served with a brisk, matter-of-fact attitude. They serve the neighborhood’s workers, local students, and the curious tourists. They don’t cater to the tourist aside from some small souvenirs (which I didn’t see while I was there but have seen on Trip Advisor). I don’t recall an English language menu (it is online) but I try to get the French menu anyway in France–the English translations are usually even harder to decipher!

I had the suprème de poulet velouté de morilles avec purée (chicken with a mushroom cream sauce and mashed potatoes). It was served simply in a bowl and tasty, if a little expensive at 17€. The bread is sliced with a dangerous looking slicer that may be as old as the restaurant! The tarte tatin for dessert, however, was sublime. Remember, this is a traditional restaurant so coffee is served after dessert, not with. Do not wait around for the coffee like I did until I realized my mistake. 😐

The restaurant proudly serves carefully-sourced meats, even creating a short video on their viandes (only in French, but the meat speaks for itself):

For the Carnivore

Much has rightfully been made about the toilet. It is “Turkish”, meaning a hole in the ground in a semi-outdoor, sort-of-alley space. I’ve encountered these before in Europe, but none have had such a dauntingly small hole. If any women have achieved success at this endeavor, please let us know in the comments! My hotel was happily only a few doors down, so I snuck back for more comfortable relief.

Bon Chance

For the ambiance alone, check it out. If you are a literary buff you will be in heaven, with cheaper prices than the grande cafés. The food is an added bonus (seriously try the tarte tatin). I was there for an early lunch on a weekday and had the place nearly to myself for most of my meal. For the first half an hour or so, it was just me and some blue collar workers who were clearly regulars. Le Polidor retains a very masculine vibe despite the beautiful fin de siècle decor, which I was admittedly unprepared for.

Quiet midday meal

This experience made me reflect on the writers who have frequented Le Polidor and what this says about our literary past. The fact that most of the women in the restaurant appeared to be tourists (perhaps a symptom of mid-week dining?) actually gave me hope. Because fans of literature often become writers and we always need more voices. And while we write, Le Polidor will happily feed us all.

Practical Info:

Le Polidor is in the 6th arr. at 41, rue Monsieur le Prince. Mo: Odéon, Cluny La Sorbonne, or RER Luxembourg.

The website has not been updated with any COVID 19 info but watch France24 and of course here at PGB for news on reopening.

For your stay in Paris, I also recommend the hotel several doors down, Hotel Saint-Paul Rive Gauche. It is a lovely boutique hotel, with a historic breakfast room that incorporates part of the medieval convent. It is worth the money if you can swing it!

Photo Credits
Polidor Exterior: ©Google from Street View of Le Polidor.
Gil and Hemingway: Compilation from Midnight in Paris, ©Sony Picture Classics 2011
Philippe on the Move: From Wikicommons: Philip II crossing the Loire. From Grandes Chroniques de France, France, Paris, 14th-15th centuries. From Bibliothèque nationale de France. Public Domain.
King John:
1. From Wikicommons: King John hunting deer from the Cotton Manuscript Claudius D II. British Library, CCO Public Domain license.
2. ©Disney Corp. Still from the 1973 Disney Film Robin Hood.
Future Site: Extract taken from Wikicommons: Atlas des anciens plans de Paris – Vassalieu dit Nicolay, Paris en 1609 – David Rumsey. Reproduction of 1609 by Vassalieu dit Nicolay, 1900. Public Domain, including in the US: {{PD-US-expired}} â€“ published anywhere before 1925 and public domain in the U.S. (preferred over {{PD-US}}). Mark up by Michelle Keel, author.
Hemingway: Wikicommons: Ernest Hemingway 1923 passport photo, National Archives and Records Administration Electronic Records Archives Program ARC Identifier: 192693. Public Domain
Toilet: Photo from Trip Adviser review by Stefan Lang, March 2017.
Interior: Photo by Michelle Keel, Oct 2018.

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