by Richie McNanna
“Nostalgia is denial … the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” – Paul in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris
I have never set foot in Epcot’s Monsieur Paul restaurant – well, sort haven’t. I did dine at this restaurant located on the seemingly covert second floor of the Chefs de France building when it was known as Bistro de Paris, but no matter the label, I will always tip my beret to the France pavilion’s nod to classic promenade cafés and gourmet dining.
Because I fell in love with an experience; and like a final, distant kiss with a girlfriend from the past – a demonstration of affection one always has a sneaking suspicion may be a final “goodbye” – I had a mysterious, melancholy premonition the last time my wife and I ate at Bistro de Paris that it might’ve somehow been the first and last time I experienced the establishment. Not that I predicted it was necessarily closing – my thought wasn’t as concrete as that – but maybe more along the lines of “Nothing could ever top this experience.” It’s a sad thing to fall head over heals with a place in which one has had an enormously enjoyable experience, only to find that once one returns to the place, the original, transcendental feelings can no longer be duplicated. It’s a testament, probably, to the combination of newness, conversation, and any other delightful aspect of the evening in which the establishment was most certainly the vehicle of the fun; but alas, without those original, specific ingredients, a sometimes empty shell of a restaurant can remain even when considering the best of places. I suppose if I kissed one of those ol’ ex-girlfriends today I might experience a similar feeling of hollowness, but that would only anger my wife and lead to trouble, so I won’t test that theory…but I digress.
It all started about two years ago when my wife and I tried something out we had been contemplating for some time: an exclusively food-centered day at World Showcase. Our plan was to arrive at Epcot mid-morning, take our time through Future World so as to set a tone of ease and leisure and arrive at the international pavilions upon their opening. (The whole day was, of course, to be experienced in a wayward, carefree way… kind of like culinary diplomats touring a mini-world of taste and smell at a stately, respectful pace.) Dreams of churros, Bavarian beer, sushi and English tea all rolled up into one indulgent, peaceful bacchanal set our hearts aflutter and was the object of our dreams for some time. The proverbial “cherry on top”? An evening reservation at a restaurant we’d identified as a “must do” some time: Bistro de Paris.
In a way our plan worked … and didn’t. The day was as relaxing as could be. We experienced food of unparalleled variety and quality. However, our stomachs were full by 2 PM! Remembering that French cuisine is notoriously rich, we decided to ease up on our foodie pursuits and do some casual shopping for a while.
I’m extremely glad we did this.
Later, a few minutes before our reservation, we approached the French pavilion with a second wind and were very excited for our meal. Entering the clandestine entrance and ascending the elegant circular staircase which led to the culminating locale of our epic day, we were immediately struck by the other-worldliness of the lace curtains, red leather, and simple lighting of this continental atmosphere; and it was, oh, so quiet! We had just left a bustling, complex sound experience that was eagerly anticipating IllumiNations, and what awaited us was what I’d always imagined the inside of a Cadillac to be; honestly, you could have heard a pin drop even above the romantic ambient music playing in the background – and the place was full.
Upon being led to our private two-top table – lagoon view, of course – we were met with service and attention that was quintessential Disney; pronunciations of French terms, recommendations per our tastes, and explanations of dishes were all provided by our servers, and all of this done with an authenticity and congeniality so typical in the World. The dishes in and of themselves are unimportant…at least, for this story. Sure, we had our three courses. Scallops and butter and snails and Bordelaise sauces and decadent desserts were all involved – but the real point of note is that my wife and I laughed, talked and simply inhaled as romantic a setting as you could have in the most magical place one could conceive. To top that off, we watched fireworks. To top that off, it was the final meal on the day of our virtual world tour. To top THAT off, it was our last meal before waking up at 5AM to fly back to New Jersey.
Talk about a loaded moment.
The result? Well, you know. Call it vacation hangover, Disney downer, or simple back to work blues, I dwelled on the reminiscences of that evening for days. Work – I’m a teacher – was a constant struggle of trying to make lesson plans while not being distracted by floating, ghostly images escargot and raspberry soufflé. Sure, I thought of all of the other great times we had had on the previous days of our trip, but there was something about that magical night, set ever so appropriately in that conjured French countryside that just would not escape my head.
Enter: Chez Catherine.
A few weeks later, my wife’s family and I celebrated a birthday. The recommendation? A local French restaurant I’d always driven past without noticing – a nondescript little place that unbeknownst to me was one of the best restaurants in my home state: Chez Catherine in Westfield, NJ. Owned, operated, and “officiated” by proprietor Didier Souvenir – a charismatic spitfire of a man whose talents as the manager of a place of fine dining are matched by his ability to work a room – Chez Catherine turned out to be every bit of Bistro de Paris, and as a result, became my new favorite restaurant. Perhaps the décor was slightly different –although the characteristic white linen curtains and appropriate lighting were present, the dominant theme can best be described as “provincial French country” decor – but the essence of this “place” seemed singularly in tact: exquisitely executed classic French cuisine, impeccable service, outstanding wine, great conversation, and music – I’m a sucker for ambient music. It was like I was magically transported thousands of miles south, back to that magical night months earlier when champagne flowed as freely as vanilla essence over my mouse ears on Main Street, and the chocolate was a decadent as a
The result? Chez Catherine is on my list of “go to” Disney food portals – a destination that fulfills my pining heart whenever I need a real Disney fix. Is it a Disney restaurant? No. But Chez Catherine is to me what all Disney experiences should be: a total sensory immersion dedicated to transcending the time and place you currently occupy – a place of great conversation, food, and maybe even a little pixie dust. For while it may seem overly nostalgic – maybe even a little out-of-sorts – Bistro de Paris was once a place that transformed me to place of authentic French origins rooted in artistry and service…Chez Catherine reminds me of a restaurant in Disney that no longer exists, but always will in my heart.
Will I ever have dinner at Bistro de Paris again? No – both literally and figuratively speaking. But in Chez Catherine, I am able to find enough of a correlation in my mind to make that seemingly never-repeatable evening a few years ago live on in experience and appreciation.
Monsignor Paul? I’m sure you’re great, but we have yet to meet. For now, the memory of your predecessor will have to suffice in a little corner of Union County for this Disney nut with an insatiable desire to relive Disney World on every occasion he can…flawed nostalgia or not!
* Note: full details about Chez Catherine may be found by clicking here.
Rich McNanna is a seventh grade language arts teacher and avid Disney, baseball, and food fan from Westfield, New Jersey. He is a regular columnist sharing his passion for Disney food experiences and an avid listener and reader of the WDW Radio world. He and his wife dream of one day purchasing a Disney Vacation Club membership so that they can take their baby boy to the greatest place on Earth at least once a year…just for the churros.