Fly the Tricolore, and sound “La Marseillaise!” Bastille Day is here again, and there’s a thousand ways to celebrate. Whether you’re drinking champagne as you cheer on the French Maid Relay Race, or you’re spending the night in, drinking a good brandy while reading Rousseau, there’s truly no wrong way to celebrate. If you’re a Francophile, you’ve probably enjoyed this holiday before– we hope you enjoy our Best Bets just below, and maybe one of our boozy suggestions. If this is your first time celebrating La Fête Nationale, let’s start you off with a tiny history lesson…
Notes on Revolution
We Americans love to tout our Revolution, proudly proclaiming to anyone who will listen that America single-handedly kicked England’s ass (we didn’t), and is now a shining example of freedom, liberty, equality, and democracy. Ten days ago, I saw people decked from head to toe in red-white-and-blue, sporting bald eagle temporary tattoos, drinking like freshmen, shooting off fireworks into the streets, all the while shouting “FREEDOM, MOTHERFUCKERS!” It’s called the Fourth of July, and there’s no escaping it, sadly.
But it’s worth remembering the stark differences between our own revolution, and that of France. The American Revolution began with wealthy colonists who didn’t want to pay taxes without having a seat in the British parliament (i.e. “taxation without representation”). The French Revolution began with a starving population that suddenly realized a king has no more right to food than his people. It a much more complicated affair, and is still being played out. Still, in the days of Trump, Brexit, widespread nationalism, and fear, it might do us well to look to the French for a little bit of liberté, egalité, et fraternité.
For a closer look at the French Revolution, enjoy John Green’s Crash Course:
Yes, there are places in the world apart from France that celebrate Bastille Day. Edinburgh has a giant parade, commemorating the Auld Alliance. New Orleans has parties all over the French Quarter (go figure). But, lest we forget, our fair District of Columbia was designed by a Frenchman. There are several places to celebrate, each of them different, each of them delicious:
There are few things more delightful than watching ladies dressed in French maid outfits running a relay race. L’Enfant Café, the same folks behind that ridiculous brunching business you’ve heard so much about, are throwing a giant party on the 14th. The tradition of the relay race goes back to the ancient art of the Waiters Race, wherein tuxedoed gentlemen race back and forth with trays of drinks, like penguins with terrible OCD. The only thing to make a race like this more delightful would be champagne, which the café will pour all night. Go here for a wild party, if you like wild parties.
This place is a little more akin to an authentic bistro, if ever there were such a thing. The scene here is a little more laid-back, and a lot drunker. The food portions are out of control, and there’s really not much reason to order anything more expensive than the red table wine. It’s a wonderful spot, and the fête on the 14th will be a more laid-back affair than L’Enfant. Try the mussels.
Chef Michel Richard started cooking when he was seven-years-old. Almost seventy years later, he’s amassed a world of culinary knowledge, and done wise things with it, including passing the knowledge down to Chef David Deshaies. Central is Richard’s “American bistro with a French accent,” and they’re offering a $55 three-course menu for Bastille Day. Central has become one of the foremost French restaurants in the country, and this Bastille Day looks to be the best time to make a visit if you haven’t already.
The South of France is a lot like the South in the United States; things move slower, people rely more on oral tradition, and the food’s better. Chez Billy Sud is the smaller, Southern French sister to the Petworth bistro, and is a lot prettier. My advice would be to order the sausage, sit outdoors, and definitely stay for dessert. Also, bring a date.
French Drinks That Aren’t Rosé
I used to think pink wine was something a drunken aunt would drink at Christmas when she goes to re-fill her wine glass with white, but realizes there’s still half a sip of red in the bottom. Yes, I get it, everyone thinks pink wine is delicious. I still can’t get the image of drunken aunts out of my head, so I prefer to drink the harder stuff. Here’s the French stuff:
It’s green because it’s made of plants, you know. The kids at the Gibson turned me onto this stuff years ago. It’s made from a wine alcohol base, with plants herbs, and about 130 ingredients the monks won’t tell you about. It’s delicious in a cocktail, but I actually like it neat after dinner. It’s warm, sweet, herbal, spicy, and reminds me a lot of that point in the night when conversation gets genuinely interesting. Alternately, you can play “pass the torch” like the folks at Gibson. Ask Jake about the rules.
I have to thank my friend, and sister-in-the-Alps Meli for this one. It’s sweeter than Chartreuse, though slightly woodier in flavor, and is closely related to absinthe. Because it isn’t protected like Chartreuse under the EU’s geographical indication (the same kind of bylaw that prevents Hormel from thinly slicing a pig and calling it “prosciutto”), there’s a few different varieties to choose from. It’s tough to find the genuine article outside of the Alps, where the liqueur is made. Dolin makes a pretty reasonable bottle, which can be found at Irving Wine and Spirits.
Leave the Courvoisier on the shelf, and reach for this instead. Distilled wine can take on many different forms, but rarely is it ever this balanced with other nuances and flavors. If you’ve never ventured into the world of brandy, I’m going to shut up now for your benefit, and humbly suggest you try a glass. D’Vines in Columbia Heights has some in stock. If they don’t, ask for Devin to order you some.
When I stayed in Inverness, my four roommates at the hostel were all French. One night, they commanded me to come downstairs, and get horribly drunk with them. First, a bottle of white. Then, a bottle of red. Then, they broke the bottle of Ricard out, and all hell broke loose. Ricard is what the French call a pastis, which is a spirit mixed with water. The spirit comes out of the bottle clear, but when mixed with water, turns white. Oils in the anise, called terpenes, react with the water, and make it a lot more palatable. It’s heavy on the licorice, but sweet enough to keep the conversation going.
My sister and I went to the same weird French Immersion school in Montgomery County in our respective youths. She managed to actually make good use of her knowledge of French while in college at VCU, while I used it mainly to pick up girls. Caroline started volunteering for the annual French Film Festival at the Byrd Theatre in Richmond as a student, and is directly responsible for my adoration of French film. If you’d like to watch something other than Amélie, these films are for you.
It’s less a story about love, and more a story about what love means to someone young. This is a film that won screaming praise from the critics in 2013, and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. It’s an open and completely frank dialogue on sexuality and society. It’s a heavy film, and wonderful.
There’s something fun about being thrust headfirst into an imaginary and animated world. In Belleville, cyclists are kidnapped, a grandma goes on a quest, a dog is troubled by dreams of trains, and the mafia runs the wine business. It’s a fun world, and has almost no dialogue. This means you don’t have to speak French to be in on the jokes. The soundtrack is also phenomenal.
This film is an unflinching look at WWII-era France, told in a realistic, but not callous tone. What is most remarkable about the story of Julien, Jean, and Père Michel is that although this film is not based on a true story, it is rooted in hundred of stories just like it.
Micmacs is a story about a man who takes a bullet to the brain, survives, and teams up with a hodgepodge crew to take down the arms manufacturers behind responsible for the bullet. It’s heartwarming, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Slapstick is not dead. The French are working on perfecting it, and you can see their progress here.