I’ve stayed in more than a dozen hotels in Paris, scattered across eight different arrondisements in all sorts of circumstances—with my family and by my lonesome, on a honeymoon and on a European book tour, as a sanity-restoring getaway from my life as an expat trailing spouse in Luxembourg, on a tight budget and a weeklong lease and one money-is-no-object night.
If you’re hoping that I’m about to reveal an inexpensive secret, I’m sorry to disappoint. All my low- and midrange hotels featured at least a few of the expected drawbacks, maybe even all of them.
On the other end of things, I’ve stayed in exactly one of those super-luxury grand hotels on the Right Bank that form a red-carpeted zigzag across the rue Saint-Honoré, from the Meurice at the Louvre out to the George V; they’re all similarly priced, these places, which is to say exorbitant.
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I was in Paris in the middle of a long book tour, and my wife was on business in Germany; we had the chance to meet for one night in the midst of not really seeing each other for nearly a month. So we converged upon the five-star Bristol, which presided over a stretch of well-guarded street lined with chauffeured cars whose alert drivers wore sunglasses and earpieces. The elegant, airy lobby flowed with chadors and bespoke suits, obsequious staff oozing from every nook. A silent bellhop carried our bags while a chic young woman carried our key, unlocking a room replete with fresh flowers and fine furniture, soft linens, a bathroom of practically McMansion proportions.
Everything was utterly luxurious. Yet everything rubbed me slightly the wrong way. It took the restaurant’s menu to put my finger on exactly what: the roast chicken cost 185 euros, which at that moment’s exchange rate was nearly $300. It was with truffles, this chicken. But still.
I love exquisite food. Even in my least solvent moments, I’ve always splurged on food, cooking duck in my crappy little kitchen instead of ordering it in a restaurant. I don’t shy away from mortal levels of culinary expense.
But to me, this outrageous level of price signals something beyond mere ingredient markup and staff-to-customer ratios and the high cost of real estate in the eighth. This is a statement: our restaurant caters exclusively to diners who are willing to spend $300 on a plate of chicken. Which is to say: people for whom money is no object whatsoever, for anything.
This, I realized, was the point of this place: to segregate the fabulously rich out from the merely well-off. And this made me uncomfortable, as if I were being forced to pretend to be an inhabitant of this insular world, buffered from the rest of humanity by marble and velvet and the black-suited bodyguards of Saudi princes. What I want out of a hotel isn’t being coerced into acting like a fraud. It’s not what I want, period, and certainly not when it costs me a small fortune.
What I wanted was across the river, at a fraction of the price.
The four-star hotel Relais de Saint Germain occupies one face of the busy triangular intersection called the Carrefour de l’Odéon, a block off the busy main boulevard in the heart of the sixth. This is my ideal location, a short walk from nearly wherever it is I want to be.
And a nonexistent walk from one of my favorite restaurants in the city, the hotel’s very own Comptoir du Relais, an immensely popular place where it’s virtually impossible to reserve a table—unless, that is, you’re a guest of the hotel, which itself may make the room worthwhile. The food is exactly what I love, at turns lusty and refined, punctuated by unconventional twists. The outdoor tables are the perfect courtside box for the great Parisian sport of people-watching, with space heaters and thick blankets to keep you warm. (By the way: the sidewalk terrace at Le Comptoir, though not ID’d by name, is where I set the final scene of my first novel, The Expats.)
Le Relais de Saint Germain doesn’t offer much of a lobby—not really a place to lounge, just a modest room to rest your feet while gathering your wits—and the elevator is the standard sort of cramped. But my room is perfect. The comfortable sleeping area is complemented by a well-appointed sitting area arranged in front of arched windows that preside over the carrefour. All the furniture is attractive without giving the impression that I’m going to ruin anything if I neglect to use a coaster.
But what I like best here is intangible: this hotel feels completely integrated with the Paris that’s bustling by outside, with this busy place in the middle of St-Germain, which itself is one of the most energetic quarters in this liveliest of cities. The small lobby, the restaurant whose tables are mostly outdoors, the open windows atop the narrow sidewalk, it all makes me feel like I’m inhabiting the very heart of Paris. I’m not insulated from humanity, not cut off from the life of the city. I am the life of the city.
Two days after I checked out, and moved to another part of town, I realized I’d left behind a beloved T-shirt. I presented myself to the front desk, explained my quandary. The clerk disappeared, and returned with a smile and the shirt, freshly laundered and neatly folded, perfectly pleasant without making me feel like I was being lied to. And at dinner, 185 euros buys you not just a single plate of chicken, but a three-course prix fixe meal for you plus two companions.
Le Relais Saint Germain, 9 Carrefour de l’Odéon, 75006 Paris, +33 (01) 44 27 07 97
Author Photo: © Nina Subin, isaxar/Shutterstock.com