Paris in Winter

Article excerpt

Byline: Akhil Sharma

Springtime is sweet, but the barren months are the best time to visit the City of Light.

I was standing in the lobby of the Hotel Plaza Athenee. It was winter, a gray morning. I was in Paris as part of a series of celebrations my wife had arranged for my 40th birthday. I did not feel like celebrating, though. I had been having health problems, including learning a week before I arrived that I was probably going to develop diabetes.

Paris is like pornography. You respond even if you don't want to. You turn a corner and see a vista, and your imagination bolts away. Suddenly you are thinking about what it would be like to live in Paris, and then you think about all the lives you have not lived. Sometimes, though, when you are lucky, you only think about how many pleasures the day ahead holds. Then, you feel privileged.

The lobby of the Plaza Athenee is a red-and-gold fantasia. It gives off a whiff of Moulin Rouge decadence. Probably as much as any hotel in Paris, the Plaza Athenee is sexy. I was standing facing the revolving doors and the driveway beyond. A Ducati with a woman on its back--a woman in a short skirt and black-leather jacket--pulled up before the hotel door. She swung off and she was wearing high heels. Normally, my mind would have leaped and imagined a story for this woman. Now it didn't. I stood there and told myself: Cheer up. You're in Paris.

In many ways, Paris is best visited in winter. The tourist crowds are at a minimum, and one is not being jammed off the narrow sidewalks along the Rue Dauphine. More than this, Paris is like many other European cities in that the season of blockbuster cultural events tends to begin in mid- to late fall and so, by the time winter, bracing and demanding, appears, most of the cultural treasures of the city are laid out to be admired. For example, the Louvre has a show on China's Forbidden City that started at the end of September and will run till early January; the Musee du Luxembourg has a gorgeous exhibition called Cezanne and Paris, which started in October and will go through February; and the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, maintaining its recent record of truly surprising reconsiderations of art that we thought we already knew, is showing Matisse, Cezanne, and Picasso through the collecting habits of one American family, the Steins.

The other great reason why Paris in winter is so much better than Paris in spring and fall is that after the end of the August holidays and the return of chic Parisiennes to their city, the restaurant-opening season truly begins hopping. By winter, many of the new restaurants have worked out their kinks and, once the hype has died down, it is possible to see which restaurants are actually good and which are merely noisy and crowded.

This season brings Chatomat, a lovely rendition of what has become a familiar entity, the nouveau bistro. Like many of these new restaurants that have hype, part of the charm of Chatomat is the slightly raffish neighborhood in which it is located--in this case, Belleville. Also receiving a great deal of interest is the Chinese restaurant Shang Palace in the Shangri-La Paris hotel. The decision to spend one of a limited number of Paris meals eating Chinese food is, of course, an individual decision. The Shangri-La, which had a gradual opening all year long and became fully operational this summer, is built in the old Bonaparte family mansion and is definitely worth visiting. If one wants to eat there, I prefer the more casual La Bauhinia.

I am not a clubgoer. The club Silencio, though, which opened this fall--designed by director David Lynch and named after a boite in his movie Mulholland Drive--feels not so much like a typical club as a salon or speak-easy. There are movie screenings, concerts, and performances by cutting-edge D.J.s. All these make Paris this winter especially thrilling to visit.

My wife and I checked into our hotel room. …