Delights of Food Eaten Al Fresco - 1916

The Open Air Salles-a-Manger of French Town and Country Life   -  By Blanche McManus

Open Air Salles-a-Manger of French Town and Country Life

An open-air restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne

Summer in France means life outdoors, not spasmodically, but as a rule, the household living literally in the open.

The French have no halfway measures; they live either in a sealed-up house or practically au grand air. They sew, gossip, receive their friends and make open-air living-rooms of their gardens from the moment the first buds of spring appear.

In the fair land of France, the crowning pleasure of summertime means meals taken out of doors. The French at home, while touring on holiday-making, demand to be fed out of doors; indeed, they would consider themselves defrauded of the best part of their outing if condemned to eat in a stuffy salle a manger when the leaves are on the trees, and the sun is brightly shining, and as they have a delightful fashion of making a pleasurable function of the prosaic process of feeding, idling in the country holds out the great attraction of al fresco meals.

So it is that one finds himself catered for in the open air at hotels and restaurants of all classes and importance throughout la belle France. And few there are who would object to what is really a picnic without any of the attendant ennuies that meals out of doors usually entail.

Couple Eating Al Fresco

The Parisian out-of-doors cafe-restaurants (note that it must be thus hyphenated, if it is a place where meals are served, a cafe alone being a place where drinks only maybe had) decorate not unpleasingly the broad pavements of the tree-shaded boulevards of all the quartiers.

Their brightly tinted chairs and wicker tables, set out with snowy napery, fluttering in both winter and summer breezes are marshaled in long rows on what is styled the terrasse of the restaurant, which is but a slice of the sidewalk, leaving only a narrow thoroughfare for the passerby, overflowing even into the street itself on fete-days, when all true Parisians flock to these gay open-air dining-rooms for the better part of their day's amusement.

Along what the Parisian calls "Les Grands  Boulevards," the spacious, linked up series of tree-lined thoroughfares, which form the main artery of the lively, beating heart of the ville lumiere, are to be found dozens of these sidewalk annexes to the establishments of the famous purveyors of the best French cuisine.

There may be a screen of a thin dado of evergreens, placed in ornamental tubs, or, more unblushingly, all may be in the open, as once French royalty dined in sight of all the world.

Then these dining-rooms of the Paris boulevards furnish what may be styled the box seats, from which to view the kaleidoscopic, passing-show of the gay capital.

The many varied, interesting and astonishing and amusing types of the deux mondes, so wonderfully represented here, actually brush past one's luncheon or dinner table and furnish the sauce piquante that gives the true zest to the recherche plats, creations of some celebrated chef, which are served in this gayety-charged atmosphere of Paris en plein air.

It is, however, that sylvan paradise of the Parisians, the Bois de Boulogne, whose leafy alleys and flower decorated garden plots form the ideal staging for open-air repasts unequaled by any other of Paris al fresco dining-rooms.

There are a dozen or more of these restaurants of the Bois, many of them housed in ornamental pavilions or artfully rustic chalets, dotted over the green vistas, whose reputations are not only for their famous cuisine, but for the unique facilities they offer for enjoying a meal under spreading chestnut trees or to the accompaniment of soft-sighing breezes through stately pines, within sight almost of Paris' shops. For this, they have become international in their fame.

Courtyard of the Hostellerie Guillaume le Conquerant

Courtyard - Hostellerie Guillaume le Conquerant

Among the memories of Paris days and nights there flits, as a bright painted butterfly hovers over brilliant summer  flowers, pictures of gay luncheon parties, or groups of afternoon-tea votaries picturesquely disposed around the little tables on the banks of the tiny rose-bowered lake dotted with swans, the mis-en-scene of the open-air dining salles of the Pavilion  d'Armenonville, or the perfumed clematis domain of the Pre Catalan's group of chalet restaurants.

Again these reminiscences du gourmet will be spangled, as with a dance of fireflies on a southern night, with the glitter of evening hours at the Chateau de Madrid, stately as a veritable Renaissance chateau, and the most frequented of all the chic Bois resorts, its open courtyard dining room representative with a throng of mondains of many circles within circles and without circles, which make up the complex, mysterious, often dubious, but always entertaining and fascinating social system of the constellations of Paris. It is as a fete-champetre of the old court days at Versailles when Louis XIV first set the fashion of dining out of doors in France.

All these al fresco restaurants of the Bois are high in popular favor for wedding breakfasts, chic Parisian bridal parties considering it the crowning joy of an auspicious day to have their wedding breakfast, which is really a banquet of prodigious proportions, under the trees of Paris' great dooryard park.

Saturday, the popular bridal day of the Parisians, sees a continual stream of bridal processions about to celebrate the day by sitting down to a many-course luncheon served and prepared beside the tinkling music of the  Cascades," about which is circled a colony of out-of-door eating places.

War's prelude did dim the custom during the first feverish months when the grassy lawns of the Bois were turned into a convenient pasturage for Paris' supply of butchers' meat on the hoof; at which time flocks of sheep browsed pastorally in the fashionable precincts of the Pre Catalan's ample enclosure, and Longchamps sporty cafe-restaurants looked blankly down upon thousands of country beeves, and cows herded on the famous race-course.

Fortunately for Paris and all its world of lovers- this unpleasant phase passed rapidly, and while eating al fresco has naturally lost some of its accompanying gayety, society, though much militarized and somewhat shorn of its sparkling attractiveness, still flocks to a cool repast in the umbrageous shades of its beloved Bois much as it always did.

In an even livelier vein, and a more unconventional manner, has the banal habit of taking three meals a day been diverted from a mere absorption of sustenance into a popular amusement for the versatile French through the medium of numerous waterside eating places which line the bosky banks of the Seine as it wanders leisurely in many winding loops through and around Paris as if, like all the world, its silvery stream was reluctant to leave the city.

Cafés on the Boulevard Montmartre

Café on the Boulevard Montmartre © 1893 Old and New Paris


The character and environment of these Seine-side open-air restaurants are designed to please the taste of the French who, when they graft rural pleasures on to their sophisticated existences, demand that they be served in an amusing and bizarre manner.

For this, they flock joyously to these suburban resorts, for the charm, to them of dining out of doors is to accomplish it in some freak place in fantastic style, maybe in a tiny rustic summerhouse with a thatched roof of straw as on the farm, in arbors perched high on wall, and terraces overhanging the river, in imitation boats and even in huts hung perilously on the lower branches of trees, on one or another of the many ilots which dot the river below Billancourt.

Many of these aquatic resorts bear fantastic appellations such as "Restaurant of the Miraculous Fishes," the "Blue Pavilion," the "Boudoir Rose" or the "Green Arbor," a colorful nomenclature to attract the throng for their almost universal specialty of "friture de la Seine" minnowy fish from the Seine, grilled entire.

For the still more freakish, hilarious form of dining in the trees, one climbs, at "Robinson," into the branches of great chestnuts where are set platforms and tables lighted by swinging lanterns to the blare of the calliopes of many merry-go-rounds, open-air theatres and side-shows of this popular amusement ground of the Parisians.

A Bohemian Garden Dining Room in France

A Bohemian Garden Dining Room in France

No sooner does the guest appear at the  French country hotel than it is assumed that he wishes to take his meals in the open, whatever outdoor dining-room the hotel may afford. If it be not demanded by those wise in French customs, it is usually artfully suggested as one of the chief attractions the house has to offer.

The little bonne, or garcon, most obligingly hurries to spread the table, bringing everything necessary many steps across from the pantry with never a thought of objecting to the extra labor involved, looking upon it as a part of the summer routine of work. It cools the plates, someone complains. Maybe — a trifle. No enjoyment is perfect.

But in the French country hotel, they are now beginning to take notice that les etrangers must have hot plates from which to eat their food, though one is cool oneself, quite as important adjuncts to a good repast as anything could possibly be, and amusing. After all is this not what one goes a-journeying for?

French country hotels are well adapted to this pleasant custom, frequently being built around a central courtyard, often a garden enclosing shade-trees and neatly graveled walks, around which are set rows of little iron  tables and chairs — the sort of thing the French call "garden furniture."

Or the tables may be set under gay, striped umbrellas which contrast prettily with the green foliage, or in little bosquets — summer-houses smothered in ivy or roses, where the diners will be assured of as much privacy as in a salon particulier in the Elysee Palace Hotel.

It is this sort of thing one finds so often in Normandy, in the little wayside inn of some famous touring centre of this most charming of old French provinces, where one hears English — of a kind — spoken quite as much as the native language.

At night one dines in a little bower under electric lights swung through the shrubbery, which glows supernaturally and gives a stage-lighted effect to the little garden and its diner, who may be in full dinner dress, if at one of the famous inns—cradles of history and romance which line the Normandy coast, and of which the Hostellerie of Guillaume le Conquereur is certainly the most famous—the favored rallying place of the French for the sole amusement of dining out of doors in a manner "si bien Francaise."

It may be that the little hotel boasts only of a cobble-stoned courtyard, as is frequently found in other parts of France, but, nevertheless, it will be utilized for an open-air dining-room most appropriately; walls, otherwise unsightly, are clothed with a trellis of green-painted lattice which serves as a frame for clambering vines, the whole bounded on three sides by the cuisine, the "offices" and the remise, or stable, now most likely modernized into a garage, in contrast to its ancient functions.

Here one may dine in company, as it were, with one's automobile, and the country carts that keep it company are of an epoch contemporary with the cabriolets of the days of the "Sentimental Traveller."

 The family of cats or the household dog look on in friendly fashion and attach themselves to the diners as possible recipients of an expected bounty, and are rarely disappointed.

Breakfast in the Garden

Breakfast in the Garden


There may be cages of singing birds hung about, trilling accompaniments to the clatter of knives and forks, or perhaps a gaudy parrot that shrilly calls out "Bonjour," or a soft-cooing wood-pigeon hidden in a leafy corner; for the French adore pets, and they add much to the lively setting of the outdoor salle a manger.

There are numbers of these picturesque little wayside inns tucked away in unpretentious, half-hidden nooks throughout the French countryside,  many of which have been hallowed as the stage-settings of recent popular novels, as, for instance, Tarkington's "Guest of Quesnay," Chamber's "Girl Philippa," Blanche Willis Howard's "Quenn," Locke's "Beloved Vagabond" et als.

But they are all alike; one would have done as well as another, though they were all real, the characteristics and details varying little from the simplicity and excellence of French standards. The reality only goes to make their halo of romance more brilliant.

There are innumerable charmingly antique roadhouses dating from the days of the poste-chaise, the berlin-de-voyage and the coach-and-four, about whose ancient doorways are to be seen gathered today, even in spite of the war, automobiles of all marques and of all lands, sought out by a cosmopolitan clientele, not alone because of their attractiveness replete with souvenirs of other days, but for the pleasurable variety, they offer the devotee of this French sport of eating in the open air.

In this category belongs the fame of the Hostellerie Guillaume le Conquereur, so widely reputed that it brings the touring world up to its quaint timbered Norman gateway in throngs, the same from which, legend tells, that William the Conqueror set out when he led the hardy Normans to raise his standard of the twin leopards over English soil.

This not alone for the  pleasure of admiring and coveting its antiques housed under the ancient black-timbered roof-tree which has sheltered so many distinguished heads in its thousand years of existence, as for the cachet of a luncheon or a dinner which the guests are privileged to order themselves in the sombre, time-mellowed kitchen hung about with a marvelous and authentically valuable batterie de cuisine of glittering old coppers and brasses and brightly colored faience.

At an appreciable interval, later the specially cooked repast will be served in the inn's quaint garden courtyard against a background of clambering roses and honeysuckle interspersed with many a bit of rare old sculpture and time-hallowed relics.

This is a savantly composed meal from a cuisine of the ultra-premier-class, set upon a stage garlanded with choice flowers, amid a charming present as well as a most romantic past.

Another of these country inns of the class is that of "La Belle Ernestine," which, though but a farmhouse many generations old, folded away discreetly in one of the tiny pastoral valleys that lie among the white cliffs of the Normandie sea coast, has nevertheless a reputation as a literary and artistic shrine the envy of much more worldly and pretentious hostelries. 

For more than half a century it has been presided over by its peasant mistress — Ernestine, and has been the gathering place of the most brilliant of the grand flambeaux of French art and letters. Its few modest rooms are filled to overflowing with the priceless souvenirs of genius, presented to the chatelaine who, through snowy locks now glean from under her Normand coiffe, still deserves the sobriquet of her admirers of long ago — "la belle Ernestine."

Today the most worldly and frivolous, as well as art lovers, consider it a privilege to go miles off the beaten track of restless latter-day wanderings, in order to dine a la campagne, seated on backless benches at a long table covered with coarse country linen — and at a stiff price too — in the garden of the inn which has ever been known as "la Belle Ernestine" (in default of any other name,) amid a wealth of old-fashioned flowers in which once Dumas, Flaubert, Isabey, Corot and others of their contemporaries bred golden bon mots between sips of golden Normand cider and the degustation of "la belle Ernestine's" specious cuisine.

These are only a few of the more widely known of French inns whose out-in-the-open dining-rooms are known to all good gourmets. They can be discovered in countless beauty dimples that peep out from the fair face of France, from Brittany to Finistere and from Biarritz to Boulogne.

Tea Wagon used to Service Tables Outdoors

Tea Wagon for Servicing Meals Outdoors © 1920 Good Housekeeping

"Delights of Food Eaten Al Fresco: The Open Air Salles-à-Manger of French Town and Country Life," in American Cookery, Boston: The Boston Cooking School Magazine Co., Vol. XXI, No. 2, August-September 1916, pp. 99-101, 152, 154, 156.

Return to Top of Page

Epicurean Food & Fine Dining
GG Archives

Culinary Articles

Epicurean Topics

Vintage Menu Collections