There is a restaurant in Paris which people either love with a passion or hate with a vengeance and for that reason among others, it is a place worth testing for yourself. I am talking of the illusive restaurant Le Refuge des Fondus, a little fondue place situated on 17 rue des 3 Frères, Montmartre (closest metro would be Abesses). Before I moved to Paris my mum used to talk about this restaurant as the place she and my dad would take visitors when they were newlyweds living in the city in 1700s or so. It seems to have existed forever and I am pretty sure that the waiter has been the same since the 1700s also, and thank god for that. The waiter/owner/whoever is the best character ever as he personifies every single stereotype of a Parisian that you could possibly think of. He doesn’t actually ever speak, he just smirks at you in disdain and with zero cares in the world for customer service etiquette. His idea of meet and greet is to shrug you in the general direction of where you are supposed to go and sit. Oh and his uniform is a stripy black and white t shirt…probably. He is all part of the fun and experience of the restaurant.
The inside is a small and rather warm room, which is ideal for cold winter nights (which get surprisingly chilly in Paris) and sometimes heat up rather uncomfortably in the middle of summer. There are only two long tables, so you will always be sitting in amongst strangers. There is no requirement to chat to your neighbours but generally the atmosphere of the restaurant is very convivial and informal. The only issue with sitting next to so many people, is that if/when you need to go to the ladies room to powder your nose (how is this less weird than saying you need to pee?) then you will either need to wriggle under the table to your escape or to step over the table. The latter option is not that rare, specifically when the food has been taken away. As I said, very informal. There is also graffiti all over the wall. Not street art graffiti just people who have been here over the ages who have written their names everywhere, the typical “Gaz was here” –style scrawls to prove we have existed throughout the centuries. It is therefore customary to do the same thing, despite the large “don’t write on the walls” sign, but who honestly, are they kidding with that?
Baby bottle wine, grafitti and giggles
Ordering is easy. There is only really one choice, which is the fondue menu. The Fondue menu will always come with a starter, which is a variety of silly things like pickles and olives alongside a weird sugar drink which I have never, ever been able identify. You are not here for the starter, you are here for the fondue, so patience is your friend.
As it is a fondue restaurant specifically dedicated to fondue, you will get the choice of two fondues for your main.
1. Fondue bourguignonne- The Meat Fondue. This consists of a boiling pan of oil and some raw beef. The idea is you can cook your meat to exactly your preference, by leaving it in the oil for however long. This ensures you can finally have that perfectly cooked piece of meat that you have always dreamed about, whether that be cremated á la Britannique or rare to the point it may still have a pulse, á la Française.
2. Fondue savoyarde- The Cheese Fondue. Probably the more famous variety of fondue with cheese and lots and lots of white wine mixed in. This will also come with bread, instead of meat to dip into the cheese.
If you are a bigger party, I advise you get both so you can sample both, have a little variation and not have to eat a whole pan of cheese between two people. Be aware, Pierre (this is the name I have decided to give to the Parisian waiter) is not here for your service but for comic value. Do not rely on him to attend to you anymore past dropping the food at your table, with perhaps the exception of sighing exaggeratedly if you set something on fire, but again this is not a certainty either. This means that if your oil or cheese is heating up too quickly or equally too slowly, then you have to be the one who dials up and down the flame accordingly. If you don’t want clumpy cheese fondue, then you are going to have to stir it yourself every now and then. This may seem fairly self-evident to the majority of those who have eaten fondue before, but this seems very weirdly to be the number one cause for complaint on Tripadvisor. You have been warned, you will have to stir the cheese yourself.
So this restaurant is also known as the biberon place (or baby bottle place) because the wine which is served with the menu (a choice of red wine or white wine… I told you it wasn’t complicated) is always, without exception, served in a rather large baby bottle. Now, I know we live in a time with Cat cafés and restaurants dedicated to the exclusive selling of cereal as a meal, so these weird marketing ploys don’t seem too out of place for at least our generation. The thing you have to remind yourself here is, our man Pierre, the mad Parisian owner/waiter. This baby bottle tradition has existed since the restaurant opened in who knows when, which mean Pierre has been serving wine, in the capital of France (the Motherland of all wine connoisseurs), in babies bottles for centuries now. It is the ultimate showing of the finger to all the pretentious wine snobs. Apparently it was originally done, not as a marketing tool, but as way to stop people spilling wine in such cramped conditions that it would be nigh on impossible for our pal Pierre to clean up the spillages. I don’t really care what the reason is, I just like to bask in the thought of Pierre serving wine in baby bottle with the same look of disdain to customers from epochs long ago.
This place is rarely empty
Normally there is always a bit of a queue for Le Refuge des Fondus (especially on Friday and Saturday nights) so they are always busy. They have always been busy, Pierre can’t even be bothered up putting up a website for his restaurant (if it is in fact his). He doesn’t need to, it gets by fine through word of mouth. Yet, people do have their complaints about the restaurant. So where do these complaints come from and are they fair? Well apart from the comments about having lumpy fondue due to lack of stirring, the major issue nae-sayers seem to have are the same precise reasons other people love it. They do not like the informality of the space and the terrible customer service (don’t worry, I doubt Pierre loses sleep over these comments), which is perhaps fair enough. The other issue is the price. The menu costs, give or take 20 euros which is fine for a two course meal with drinks but you can easily find places in Paris which are cheaper and where the food is of a better quality. Yes, the wine is cheap store-bought wine, yes the starters are a bit n'importe quoi, but the fondues are good, the experience is always fun and tipsy but most of all Pierre, the waiter, is a comedy gift from the heavens above.