Dispatches From Paris by Taras Grescoe Taras Grescoe

Chez Omar

If we’re to believe Ernest Hemingway, it was once possible to dine in a civilized fashion in Parisian brasseries for a handful of pocket change. Affordable cassoulet and pot-au-feu in certifiably French settings seems to have gone the way of the sidewalk urinoir, but there is a modern-day alternative: couscous, a North African meal of fluffy mounds of fine-grained semolina, typically accompanied by barbecued lamb and spiced merguez sausages.

There are hundreds of couscous joints in Paris—particularly in North African neighborhoods like Belleville and the Goutte d’Or—but one of the most accessible—and convivial—in the city has to be Chez Omar (47, rue de Bretagne, 3rd. No credit cards, no reservations). Housed in an old-fashioned bistro, the kind where the counter is made of zinc and the waiters write your order on the paper tablecloths, Chez Omar is packed from 7 pm on with artists, designers, and other Bohemians looking for a copious—and cheap—meal.

A no-nonsense waiter pulls out a table to allow me to slide into my chair, and I’m seated elbow-to-elbow with a long rank of smoking, arguing, cell-phoning diners. Then the food arrives, fast: a silver platter piled with a crumbling mountain of couscous, a bowl full of vegetable stew for 65 F ($10.32 U.S.), and a plate of chicken for 85 F ($13.49 U.S.), along with a red chili paste called harissa. The wine, an Algerian red called Sidi Brahim, is acidic, and I’m unable to eat my way to the bottom of my bowl of potatoes, garbanzo beans, carrots and celery. By the end of the meal, I’ve gotten to know my neighbors—they’re just off the plane from a vacation in Morocco—and we’ve traded notes on where to find the best hammams in Paris. Dessert is a trayful of pastries for 18 F each ($2.86 U.S.), dripping with honey. If Hemingway were around today, I reflect, he’d probably be sipping mint tea Chez Omar.

Dinner for two at Chez Omar, with wine and desserts: 307 F ($48.73 U.S.).

Taras Grescoe, a frequent TRAVELER contributor, wrote “22 Great Hotels—for $100 or Less” in the March issue.

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