Dining out in Paris with the Lizard King

Jim Morrison ate his last meal at Le Beautreillis, a little restaurant near the Place de la Bastille in Paris.  What killed him remains murky but the authorities ruled out dinner, so cult followers have flocked to the place ever since.  A shrine it may be, but the restaurant serves up more than warmed-over memories.  The blini are terrific.  And so is the host, a genial Croatian named Verian.  He bought the place two years ago, serves honest Slav food, and says he doesn’t much care about the legend of “Jeem.”  But his black leather pants tell a different story.  So do the the luvmobile up the street and the heaps of Morrison memorabilia threatening to avalanche the restaurant’s side room.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. . .

Jim Morrison moved to Paris in April 1971.  Even though he was burned out as a performer, creativity still simmered up between the alcoholic binges.  He was bent on being a poet in the City of Light.   Together with his longtime lover, Pamela Courson, he moved into a sunny, third-floor apartment at 17 rue Beautreillis. The neighborhood was the ideal retreat.  One of Jim’s idols, Charles Baudelaire, had lived in an apartment kitty-corner to theirs more than a hundred years before.  Directly across the street was a little restaurant with a garden.  It wasn’t fancy, but perfect for a good dinner when they were feeling too lazy to go any farther.

Today, its exterior looks like a thousand other unpretentious family-owned eateries in Paris–ivy dripping over a cast-iron balcony, a window covered with stickers, tidy lace curtains to keep prying eyes at bay.  But the bland exterior is a ruse.  The true nature of the place is found at the car parked a few yards down the street. The one whose paint job hints of high times at the Free Love Garage.  Little bare feet march across the doors in the direction of the restaurant.  Peace signs abound.  Morrison’s name appears a few times on the exterior and often in restaurant reviews plastered inside the windows.  The message to Jim followers is not subtle–this way to the last supper.

Given this come-hither, stepping in is a bit anticlimactic.  The main room has charming folkloric paintings on the wall, bright madras tablecloths, candleholders encrusted with years’ worth of wax drips.   The elderly strolling guitarist smiles, a demure waitress leads us to a table near the fireplace.  No doubt the place is a favorite of the local concierges,  but just where did he sit in here?  We ask the man with the short gray  ponytail, the one with the proprietrary air.  “Mowreesone?” he asks.  “You are here for Jeem?”  He smiles broadly and spreads his arms.  We just said the magic words.  “They are here for Jeem!” he shouts at the guitarist, who gives a small bow.  “Prepare them a place!” he hollers to the waitress, who scurries into the adjoining room.  Veiran, our host, is already talking 200 m.p.h., describing the long strange story of buying a restaurant with a notorious past.  But it’s hard to pay attention just now.  We’re entering hallowed ground.

The tiny room just off the front door  is empty of diners but feels crowded anyway.  A patchword of pictures covers all four walls–posters, snapshots, drawings.  Apart from the odd Val Kilmer, it is a kaleidoscope of Jims.  Those bedroom eyes, those sulky lips!  Thousands of them!  Like the acid trip we never had.

“How do you like it?” Vieren beams, not waiting for an answer.  “He sat right there!”   There is in a chair by the window, the rush seat busted through with the weight of many bottoms, further frayed by busy fingers eager to take home a relic.  (What the pickers don’t know is that Vieran has had to change the seat bottom a few times a year, just because of this wear and tear.) The waitress asks if we’d like aperitifs.   And how.  We notice a sign on the wall for a “Jim Morrison cocktail” and ask what’s in it.  “Oh, you don’t want that,” Vieran says quickly. “I suggest vodka.”  Certainly a beverage Mr. Morrison enjoyed, but it’s unlikely he sampled the likes of  Vieran’s special brand from Russia.  The bottle has been frozen in a block of ice, the spirit infused with an herb called buffalo grass.  It’s syrupy-cold and scented like a fresh-mown lawn, the heat kicking in down around heart-level.  A fine start, and the menu looks promising, too–a happy balance of Russian, middle-European and Slavic specialties, at prices that (for Paris) pass for reasonable.

The only problem is, Vieran is so eager to tell tales that we can’t get an order in edgewise.   Sitting down at the table, sweeping his arms, leaning in for the kicker, he tells what it’s like being a caretaker to legend.  Now and then he bounds off to get a framed copy of an article.  When these are exhausted he pops a tape into the VCR behind us.  Jim’s sultry baritone fills the room.  The strolling guitarist nextdoor just keeps rolling through Old Man River.  Finally, the waitress sees our pleading glances and comes to take the order.

For starters, we request the blini with an assortment of toppings–tarama, pickled herring, and smoked salmon.  The blini are a revelation, emerging from the kitchen in their own mini cast-iron pans: crisp, hot, and light as mom’s best pancakes.   They are even better smeared with the bright pink tarama, a creamy spread flavored with caviar that starts to melt as soon as it hits the blini.   A nice contrast to its brineyness is  the herring–plump, juicy, with a perfectly pickled tang.  Finally, the smoked salmon has the velvety texture and a flavor like woodsmoke.

If these had been served in Jim’s day, maybe he would have tried harder to hang in there.   They make us eager for the recommended main courses–beef  Stroganoff and  Hungarian goulash.  In the meantime, two other couples have joined us in the Morrison room.  We had anticipated a  colorful crowd–a few aging hippies, perhaps, or zoned young rebels just back from the grave.  But the newcomers were chic French kids off on an American lark.  When Vieran rejoined us, we asked about his clientele.  He said  the majority were German, followed by Dutch, then Americans, with the French way down the list.  In fact, he explained, the Parisians were more interested in Morrison’s poetry than his music; there was even a symposium on the subject in December ’93, the 50th anniversary of his birth.

Some of those poems were recorded on his last album, An American Prayer, which was now playing over the speaker .  Jim’s voice is captivating, but the steaming main courses, which had just arrived, also commanded attention.  These are big plates of food; goulash or stroganoff pooled on one side, a crisp potato pancake and salad cozying up on the other.  While the goulash beef is a bit overcooked and the sauce missing some oomph, the Stroganoff is perfect, like the pancakes.

We also get a better taste of the memorial room clientele by reading the inscriptions left in a listing pile of guest books.   College admissions offices only dream of this kind of diversity.  There are prim thank-you notes from couples on honeymoon, quite a few lovingly rendered rearing stallions, bursts of fine poetry.  One note, from a German teenager named Hans, explains “he visited Jim’s tomb, this was the most excellent day of his life, and . . . ” at which point the pen  line dives straight off the page.  He must have ordered the Morrison cocktail.

What with all the idolatry and vodka, we’re none too shipshape either.  We decline a piece of gateau Jim Morrison, a poppyseed cake that ordinarily would have been irresistible.  Vieran is back one last time to outline his plans for a weekly Monday-night Morrison club.  “His good friends” (and paying customers) will enjoy an evening of Jim’s music, free from interruptions by the strolling guitar.  It sounds like a good scheme.  As we set off into the foggy night, we promise to come back.  But to be honest, one evening of Morrison memories was plenty.  Next time, we’ll be with the concierges in the main room. Le Beautreillis 18, rue Beautreillis, 4e



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