Décor Is Everything

photo: front dining room, chez omar

Omar's front dining room, as seen from the
rear of the bar.

Chez Omar Has It - and Couscous

Paris:- Wednesday, 30. August 2000:- In my neighborhood café, which has been remodelled from '50's nondescript to a 2000 version of the same thing, Dimitri and I talk about décors.

He has lent me a book titled 'Les Bistrots de Chez Nous' and it has a photo of one called the 'Ambassade d'Auvergne' on its cover. The rest of this café's signs say vins, restaurant, café, plat du jour and billiard.

If anything, our own bar survived its remodelling, in the sense that it is cleaner and a little roomier. It still has no 'billiard' though. This has attracted some new clientele - for its new tidiness I guess - and we are all paying a bit more for it too.

But otherwise, most of the clients are the regulars from before. Some may be business types but most are hand workers of some sort, from restorers like Dimitri to outright artists, plus a few Spaniards who do reconstruction.

This doesn't put it right because half the clientele are 'other categories,' such as the antique book trader or even, the Professor of Spanish.

This has always been pretty average for a café in Paris; this democracy. From the '30's, one eyewitness remembers that 'afterphoto: bar chez omar leaving work, men gathered in the cafés to give their wives room to do the cooking and take care of the children. They played belote.'

The bar in Omar's is fully originial, with a zinc top.

Given the generally small living quarters at the time, this excuse for having a few glasses on the way home, makes sense. The same witness also remembers that 'there were five or six times as many cafés as now,' and that they were full of 'an extraordinary life.'

The 'zincs' you see occasionally are the bar tops; and many of these disappeared towards Germany during the war, for recycling into airplane parts. The Nectoux firm still makes them, and so does Antoine Berc - both in the Paris area - but they cost a fortune.

Aside from the obviously recently redecorated, if you see a zinc bar top, you are probably in a fairly old café that was overlooked by the heavy-metal collectors.

As far as I know, despite all the guides to cafés and bars in Paris, there is none dedicated to the remaining places with original décors. These you find by accident anywhere in the city, but they are more likely to be found in areas where there is less remodeling going on.

Today, in the Rue Oberkampf, the Mécano is a fairly new bar located in an old shop. Just up the street, the Café Charbon isphoto: cash register, omar's a fairly old café - closed today - with a sign outside saying it is being renovated. For better or worse?

Also today, at the north edge of the Marais, in the Rue de Bretagne, I am supposed to have a look at the restaurant called Chez Omar.

Chez Omar's cash register - real or just period décor?

From its outside Chez Omar looks like any one of hundreds of café-restaurants in Paris; and I have certainly been past it dozens of times without paying it any attention.

This changes immediately after entering. To the right, there is the bar, running back into the café. To the left there is a large, well-lit dining area.

Once past the outside, what makes Omar's different is that the entire interior is essentially unchanged - except much cleaner - from the way it looked in the 1930's.

The bar's top is zinc. The floor is tiled and in places it is cracked. Behind the naturally well-lit dining area in front, there are dark wood dividers with glass panels. Behind these, there is another, more intimate dining area.

Going straight back along the bar leads to the kitchen and its pass-through, with an enamelled sign under it saying 'cuisine.' The stairs going down to the toilets are to the right of this.

Opposite the bar, there is a serving bar which has the desserts on it. At its far end there is an old cash register, the kind you would be lucky to see in a scrap-metal yard or in the Arts et Métiers museum.

Monsieur Omar is summoned by one of the waiters. He enters from a sunlit back door and we sit down near it, in the back dining room. It is about 14:00, and although the front dining area is not full, new customers are still coming in for lunch.

Omar tells me he's had the restaurant since 1979. He says he is a Berber, from southern Algeria. He says lots of Berbers are in the restaurant business. He calls for a café for me.

Before 1979 Omar had a restaurant in London. For some reason he had a choice of movingphoto: standing men, omar's either to New York or Paris; and Paris won.

Keeping the restaurant decor as it was - was what? I am not taking notes and I am not asking a lot of questions; we are just comparing stories a bit, because I had a choice like his once too.

I decline Omar's offer of lunch. I would like to have a good couscous at least once in my life, but I want to do a bit more drifting around the area because I am thinking of another story. I hadn't expected that Omar's restaurant would fit in with it, but it has.

These tiles are found throughout the restaurant.

Where the bar meets the floor tiles, its 'kick-plate' is made of marble. Marble that has been kicked a lot over a long period of time.

Since I think I may have interrupted Omar's siesta, I don't want to waste a lot of his time. While he takes a phone call, I take the photos. The interior light is wonderful to the eyes but I don't know what the camera will think about it.

Later I find that the camera liked the inside light; and mysteriously over-exposed the outside light. Most of the other outside photos are okay. I think there are just some subjects the camera doesn't care for - like ordinary exteriors.

I mean it when I say I want to have a good couscous at least once. About the time Omar arrived in Paris, some friends and I plotted on having a couscous feast.

There was a café at the end of their street where we had had occasional late drinks because it was the only open place around. It had couscous and all its other clients looked like they probably ate it.

One late night we talked it over with this café's owner. We told him we wanted it 'typical,' the best of whatever he had; and left the details to him and fixed a date for it.

During the week we phoned around to gather more recruits for this feast. A lot of peoplephoto: omar on phone, rear dining area got pretty excited about it. 'Our' guy was going to do it just for us. We kept him informed of how many we'd be.

Omar in his domain; in the rear dining area, with tablecloths and chairs.

The big night came and if some of our 'recruits' seemed to think the obscure location and the general aspect of the café looked unpromising, they didn't say so.

All I remember now is 'our' guy did his best, and we drank a lot of his 'best' wine - imported! - which is the kind of thing we did a lot of anyway. The total bill wasn't excessive and the wrangle about who was to pay what was usual.

This is why I think I'll go to Chez Omar some day when I have both time and money and try his couscous. I am not going to have any thé à la menthe though. I went off tea for good a long time ago.

Chez Omar, 47. Rue de Bretagne, Paris 3. Closed Sunday noon. Métro: Arts et Métiers. InfoTel.: 01 42 72 36 36. Chez Omar is also cited in theLeeds Good Value Guide to Paris Restaurants.

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