For a good, quick Parisian meal, try a 'canteen du quartier'
''Eat that now,'' commanded Mme. Andre Persoons as she stood over my table at her restaurant. But my stomach could not obey. It asked for a few more moments of repose before finishing the last bits of boeuf bourguignon on the plate.
I waited. Mme. Persoons didn't. She leaped into action and with quick, deft hands, she scooped the plate off the table.
''Any dessert?'' she asked.
The 25 or so other customers crammed into Au Pied de Fouet's small dining room broke into laughter. I had more important things to do. Looking up at the succulent tarts on the shelf, I picked out a luscious-looking strawberry creation.
Why wasn't I outraged? Because when I finished my tart and went to pay the bill for the delicious three-course meal, it came to a mere $5.
Strangely, too, Mme. Persoons's authoritarian manner didn't bother me. It was all part of the good (if sometimes outrageous) fun that makes dining at Au Pied de Fouet a unique, enjoyable experience.
When a Parisian wants a good, quick meal, he heads to his canteen du quartier - the French equivalent of the neighborhood coffeehouse. These are small, often family-run operations, with maman and papa cooking and the relatives serving. Every neighborhood has them.
Au Pied de Fouet is typical - even quintessential. It is set in the center of one Paris's most chic neighborhoods, amid groups of mansions that used to house aristocrats and now serve as ministries. Only a little yellow sign marking ''restaurant'' offers a clue to its true role.
''This used to be a place for the horse drivers of the aristocrats to come,'' explains Mme. Persoons, the owner. ''They would tie their horses out in the courtyard, bring their reins inside - thus the restaurant's name - and eat standing up at the counter.''
The Persoonses did not upgrade the interior much. Four wooden tables each with four wooden chairs take up almost all of its one room. A bar stands on the left, and here clients queue for an empty spot. The kitchen is visible in the back; it comprises one simple counter. Decoration is sparse.
But at closer inspection, small, intriguing details stick out. On one wall, napkins are stuffed in cubbyholes for regular customers. On another, bank notes from around the world are plastered about haphazardly.
A look at the customers offers the final proof that this is a special dining experience. There are construction workers in blue overalls side by side with ministry workers in three-piece suits and stunning women in fur coats. A number of young students add the final touch.
Everybody is in good spirits. For lack of space, separate couples sit side by side and large groups must split up. Single diners are welcome: They soon fit into the communal conversation.
The standard offerings are succulent chicken livers and a plain steak. But every day the chef adds two or three more dishes, according to what he finds in the market. Typical plates include a variety of boeuf bourguignons, coq au vin with a vinegar (not wine) sauce, and boudin, or blood sausage. Fish is offered every Friday.
Hold some room for dessert. Every day Mme. Persoons dreams up two or three fresh tarts to go along with her standards of chocolate cake, creme caramel, and chocolate mousse.
All are delicious. But ''I just learned to get by. Everyone in the country just learns,'' says Mme. Persoons, who hails from the province of Poitiers.
The need for a quick turnover means that no lingering at the table after the meal is permitted. Many patrons prefer to sit down and relax at a nearby cafe.
No complaints, though.''Canteens'' such as Au Pied de Fouet must be savored in their own way. The brash formula is popular, and Mme. Persoons is not about to change it.
''I don't want it to get any larger,'' she says. ''Here I can scream zut (''Hang it!'') when I want to. I can stay myself.''
Customers also flock to Au Pied de Fouet with the knowledge that, like most good old traditions, its days may be numbered. While many continue to exist, not many are as authentic today as this one. Some have become too large to offer such good food or intimate charm. Others have been driven out of business by chains such as Bistro de la Gare and Assiette de Boeuf, serving passable, if uninspiring, cheap meals of steak and French fries. Fast food has hurt as well. But the biggest problem for the family ''canteen'' is the difficulty of the work. The Persoonses slave from early morning to midnight, and they cannot do any less if they are to make ends meet.
''This is such hard work,'' Mme. Persoons says. ''We were so poor when we came to Paris that we just worked. But after us, I don't know what will happen.''
Her hands rise in the air with the fatalism of an artisan who knows that she might be practicing a dying art. ''Oh, I'll be here until the end,'' she promises. Practical information:
Au Pied de Fouet, 45 Rue de Babylone, 75007 (telephone, 705-12-27). Closed Saturdays and Sundays, Christmas and Easter weekends, and during August.
Chez Germaine, 30 Rue de Pierre Leroux, 75007 (273-28-34). Around the corner from Au Pied de Fouet, Mme. Germaine's restaurant looks much the same as the Persoonses'. Its food is almost as good, and believe it or not, cheaper. But the atmosphere is even more rushed than Au Pied de Fouet and less homey. Closed Saturday evenings, Sundays, and during August.
Polidor, 41 Rue Monsieur le Prince, 75006 (326-92-64). This student-quarter restaurant is more spacious than the typical ''canteen.'' It is also a bit more expensive. Food is solid, but not spectacular. Closed Tuesdays.
Restaurant des Beaux Arts, 11 Rue de Bonaparte, 75006. This is also a largish student hangout. It is very hectic, with waiters running about and shouting out orders. The food is passable but extremely cheap - only $4 for a complete three-course meal. Good fun, too. Open all week, all year.
Le Petit Benoit, 4 Rue de St. Benoit, 75006 (260-27-92). Close to fashionable St. Germain des Pres, this restaurant also caters to the nearby student neighborhood. It has the expected dishes at the expected cheap prices, calmer than Beaux Arts, not so good as Polidor, but fun nonetheless. Closed Saturdays, Sundays, and August.
Le Crystal, 13 Rue de Beautreillis, 75004 (272-38-34). In the heart of the Marais District, this is one of the prettiest and best of Paris's cheaper bistros. It occupies the ground floor of a graceful 15th-century building, with the wood beams and stone walls preserved. Although it is almost as small as Au Pied de Fouet, it is much more relaxing. The food is very good, with a solid three-course menu for $4.50, and a very good three-course meal including duck for $5.50 to $6. Closed Saturday lunch, Sundays, and August.
Le Volnay, 6 Rue de Laborde, 75008, near the Gare St. Lazare. (522-14-81 ).This is one of the fewer cheap restaurants on the more fashionable Right Bank. Mainly a lunch place, it serves the standard beef and chicken dishes for the right price. Closed Saturdays and Sundays, and during July. Dinner served between 7 and 8.
Le Paradou, 6 Rue de Commandant Riviere, 75008 (359-40-39). On the Right Bank, nearer the more fashionable Champs Elysees area than Le Volnay. A favorite with the many office workers in the neighborhood with reason: good food. Closed Saturdays, Sundays, and August.