Sunday, November 11, 2007

Classically Drinking at Bar Hemmingway - Ritz Hotel, Paris

Cliché? Perhaps. After all, it makes every list when talking about anything to do with “classic cocktails.” But, I can tell you now, finally, from experience, that the Bar Hemmingway at the Ritz Paris is a cocktail-lover’s absolute “must-do.”

First of all, walking into the Ritz itself (ie: a golden tribute to utter, privileged opulence)
is a heady experience. I managed to get one picture of my sister, Amy, in a grand hallway before I was politely asked to refrain from taking photos in the hotel.

(Personal Aside: This is a rule I find pompous and annoying. Some places in LA also get their panties in a ruffle when people photograph their venues. I understand that “fine” places want to ensure the privacy of their guests… but seriously, I, with my pocket-sized digital camera, am obviously no paparazzi star-stalker. Quite frankly, I’d rather get their wandering guests out of the way so I have a clear shot of that cocktail, bartender or pretty plate of food – in order to rave about them on The Liquid Muse Blog. But, I digress…)

After snaking down the Persian carpet-lined entrails of the hotel, we eventually found our way to the tiny, world-renown drinking hole tucked into a corner of the bling-filled logement, and pulled up a couple of stools at the bar.

First thing to note: Unlike many places in Paris, the bartenders at Bar Hemmingway were smiling, charming and talkative. This was surprising, not only because the French are not recognized for their friendly business interactions, but given the fact that is was an establishment “de luxe” it was a doubly pleasant experience.

We chatted with Guillome. Or, was it Herve? Maybe his name was Aurelie, that day. Our barman confided that he does not like the American custom of wearing one’s name on one’s uniform, so in his own personal protest, he changes nametags daily. Frankly, in my restaurant service years, I felt the same way. The few times I was forced to say, “Hi, I’m Natalie. I’ll be your server today,” my skin crawled. And, the occasional customer actually had the gall to call my name from across the restaurant when they want something. Horrid. Uncivilized, I’d say. So, Mr. X, I applaud your rebellion. Vive la revolution!

Now, let’s move on to the actual reason Amy and I rallied to apply makeup, dress ourselves in suitable attire (did I mention that Amy works at Givenchy?) and leave her cozy condo to careen through the streets of Paris on her Vespa, to the Ritz. What other reason could there be, dear Sipster, than the cocktails?

When nestled into a luxurious little nest, in an impressive palace such as this, I’m always tempted to order a simple glass of champagne. No fanfare, no risk. Just simple, French and classic. However, I have the Ritz cocktail book at home, and have pored over it so many times, dreamed of sampling these creations for myself, envisioned the ghost of Hemmingway himself sipping alongside me at the bar, that I just had to go for a cocktail.

And, my, what a lovely cocktail it was.

Henri-Michel (or whatever the bartender’s name was) suggested one of their signature drinks - I believe called Serendipity. (I should have asked how it got that name, but was too enthralled with taking everything in that I didn’t…but I’ll look it up in my book when I get home…) The drink blends calvados (apple eau de vie), apple cider, gently muddled mint and is topped with dry champagne. Garnished with a white rose. Refreshing and slightly sweet – but not too sweet – it was one of the loveliest drinks I’ve had in a long while.

Amy wasn’t sure what to get so our cocktailian guide did what any skilled bartender should be able to do: he asked which liquors she liked (she went for rum) and after thinking for a moment, he created something fantastic, on the spot. It went like this: a muddle of fresh ginger and simple syrup, a squeeze of fresh mandarin juice, a dash of Angostura bitters and a generous splash of rum. Garnished with a small lilly, if memory serves me correctly.

We weren’t allowed to take photos here either, but when our barman turned a "blind eye" - as long as we didn’t use a flash - Amy snapped each drink.

And, I have to mention the beautiful shakers. Oh.My.God! They have the most beautiful cocktail shakers I’ve ever seen. They were sleekly designed, and wide enough for big, rock-like ice cubes. Flat on top. Absolutely stunning.

Now comes the only downside. Never in my life have I paid $35 per cocktail. (And, if I’ve ever drunk one, I’ve surely never paid for it myself.) The two drinks - one cocktail each - came to nearly $78! Quite a shock, and completely unnecessary, in my opinion, to charge such a ridiculous amount. But, you know, Parisians pride themselves in getting away with murder. And, those of us who are dazzled by the City of Lights, and all it has to offer, fork it over with a big, white American smile.

This is where I had my Parisian brain-fart, and it was entirely unintentional. It is so annoying that even in high-end places (frequented by tipping Americans – and some Europeans) most places don’t have a “tip line” on the credit card bill. So, you sign and have to leave the tip in cash. After signing the check, talking with people and allowing myself to get completely distracted – I did another odd thing for the first time in my life - I completely forgot to tip the bartender! What a total ass I felt like when we got back to Amy’s apartment. I just wanted to die!

Luckily, French bartenders and waiters don’t rely on tips the way American ones do. “Le service” is included in the price. And, although French people may leave a few coins, it is not customary to tip 18 – 20%, like we do in the States. So, although “Jean-Francois” may have been a bit surprised that I didn’t leave a few euros, he would at least not be completely reliant on that money to make or break his night. And, yes, next time, I will double up the tip. I’m in Europe a few times a year and will surely be passing through Paris again, soon. And, definitely swooning over drinks at Bar Hemmingway again.


claire said...

Ooh la la....sounds just heavenly!!

Jeff B said...

Great post, sounds like a lovely place. Was the price due to conversion rate?

Would think with the high cost of the cocktails a person could snap a photo or two. I mean come on now.

Were there very many people in the bar when you sipping with Mr. Hemmingway?


Dominik MJ said...

Nice post, Natalie!

Unfortunately you didn't met Colin (Peter Fields) the designated head bartender! He is just a miracle of style and distinction!

The prices are quite unsurprising! In Europe you have a high cost - beverages (even champagne) are usually more expensive, you have labor cost, which are staggering high, and, and, and...

But may I upset you? Also in Europe bartenders rely on tips - however they are not used to get that much! Also in Europe it is impolite to give less than 10% tips, and don't reckon that the usual 10% service charge goes directly to the staff - if they are lucky enough, they are getting a small share...
Thats why in Europe you need quite a lot of idealism to work as (normal) bartender - even in great hotels with reputation! said...

Thanks for the comments, all. And, to answer a couple of questions...

Indeed the disastrous exchange rate has something to do with the price of the cocktails. It now costs $1.48 to buy one Euro - so everything is quite a bit more expensive than normal. That said, the drinks were in the vacinity of 25 - 28 Euros.

As Dominik pointed out - this is not atypical in cities like Pars (when I worked there in 2002 and '03, drinks at chic places cost at least 20 Euros). The exchange rate is a killer,though.

And, Dominik, good point about 10% being customary in fine places in Europe. This is becoming a standard. However, that is a relatively new phenomenon, and really more expected in nice places (like the Ritz - much to my personal dismay, and making me feel more like an ass...).

Having worked as a young person in restaurants & bars in both France and Spain over stretches when I lived there (our dad is French so we spent a good bit of time over there) the "pour boire" is a new expectation, and mostly in chic, expensive places frequented by Americans.

And, yes, I would have loved to have met Peter Fields. I've heard so much about him.

Oh well, "la prochaine fois!" One more wonderful reason to return...