When reminiscing on our La Petite Rose des Sables experience, two words come to mind: bizarre, and wonderful.
This gem popped onto the radar midway through our Paris stay whilst I was browsing the city’s top-rated restaurants as per TripAdvisor. Nestled between haute cuisine and Michelin stars was this peculiar little establishment, and the reviews immediately piqued my interest. There was mention of delicious food, yes, but the main attraction was overwhelmingly plain: the proprietors themselves. Reviewers spoke of an elderly French couple; they were short on English but abounding in warmth and hospitality. I excitedly hopped over to the restaurant’s website. It’s an admittedly sparse affair, but a trusty Google translation told enough: “We are open for twenty years. We try to share home cooking based on exchange and warmth. Feel free to visit us, we will try to have you as it should be, at home.”
Paying such a visit turned out to be a task in itself. The TripAdvisor reviews urged us to make a reservation – and so, not trusting our miniscule French to a phone conversation, we traipsed over to the tenth district in attempt to make contact with the famed Mr. and Mrs. La Petite Rose des Sables. Three times. In one day. My determination to eat at this restaurant was thoroughly foiled, mostly by our own incompetence in reading the very obvious sign on the door announcing that they were closed for a function. Over the following days our extraordinarily lovely Airbnb host, Cristina, repeatedly called to try and make a reservation on our behalf. Alas, this brilliant plan was also foiled. The phone rang unanswered – and on the one occasion someone did pick up, the conversation was incomprehensible even to French-speaking Cristina.
Mat and I tried one last time. We arrived at noon on our last day in Paris; we figured our best chance was to squeeze in for an early lunch sitting.
We pushed open the door of La Petite Rose des Sables to find it totally empty. The restaurant is tiny – five little tables for two clustered to the left, and a bar to the right. I offered a ‘hello?’ above the French jazz wailing from the radio, dearly hoping someone would appear from what I assumed was the kitchen at back.
A few nervous seconds passed before she materialised. Clad in a gingham apron and straw boater hat, an elderly lady hurried us inside and sat us down. Despite conveying our most apologetic “Je ne parle pas français”, she spoke in a constant stream of French as she prepared our table. She laid down menus and extended a handshake to each of us, then placed a hand on her chest. “Madame Zouzou.”
And so, this Madame Zouzou would be our most extraordinary host. Before we had even a chance to order food, complimentary plates of ‘tapas’ were brought to the table and she delighted in filling our glasses with her special ‘sangria’. ‘Welcome, welcome!’ she cheered as she topped us up, beaming and laughing and then shuffling away to tinker behind the bar. She talked perpetually and exuberantly – and whilst we obviously struggled a lot in understanding one another, it was quite amazing how much we were able to communicate despite the language barrier. She was thrilled to learn we were Australian, and equated this solely to Sydney. She told a very long story that had something to do with a couple from Sydney who had previously visited La Petite Rose des Sables, and a pregnancy that assumedly followed. As she motioned to an imaginary pregnant belly over her own stomach, she erupted in raucous laughter and shook her head in apparent wonder at her own tale.
We ordered the daily special: beef bourguignon. Madame Zouzou yelled the order into the kitchen. She looked back to us and motioned to the rear of the restaurant – “Big Boss,” she said, and cackled loudly again. We could only assume this ‘Big Boss’ to be her husband. She took an old, black and white photo off the wall and laid it on our table, pointing down at one of the faces amongst a group strapping young firemen. “Big Boss,” she said again, and waited for our impressed response. She then very much appeared to start talking endearingly to the photo itself, poking the image of her younger husband repeatedly before making several kissing motions right up close, laughing somehow even louder than before and then tottering away.
Mat and I were in the thick of the Petite Rose des Sables experience.
We were in fact the only ones in the restaurant for most of our visit. Cristina’s failed efforts to make a phone reservation were suddenly explained; Madame Zouzou seemed mainly annoyed by incoming calls and ignored them all. On the other hand she was ecstatic for us to meet ‘Big Boss’, who introduced himself as Christian whilst he briefly appeared to deliver our beef bourguignon. He was lovely, smiley and quiet. His food was rustic style, hearty and delicious in that wonderful home-cooked way. As we ate, Madame Zouzou busied herself preparing complimentary cheeses and a giant bucket of walnuts on our side-table. Her entire being seemed to be consumed with attending to every little detail – but in a doddering old grandma way. When she noticed I was chilly, she emerged from behind the bar with a souvenir Paris scarf, opened it up and draped it over my shoulders. ‘Welcome to Paris!’ she shouted, and then pulled out souvenir keyrings for us. She would later apparently deem that I still looked cold, because she opened yet another souvenir scarf to give to me. This time she gave Mat a beanie.
Our post-lunch espressos came with the cutest little fondant decorations and chocolate ‘Roses des Sables’ treats, which I had watched Madame Zouzou arrange with adorable attentiveness. I naturally took a photo, but not before she had launched in to style the table for maximum La Petite Rose des Sables marketing. She urged us to don novelty hats for any photos of ourselves, and made sure she changed into her ‘Paris’ apron before jumping in a picture with us.
It was just the most incredible, crazy affair. Madame Zouzou was hilarious, unabashed and beyond all, genuine. There was so much about the experience that, in any other circumstance, could verge on the tacky or touristy – but there is an honest warmth Zouzou and Christian have for travellers that simply transcends. It was a heartbreaking moment to realise it was time for us to go. As we prepared to leave, we were treated to Madame Zouzou’s last show of generosity: a pear liqueur digestif poured from a comically large carafe. “Aphrodisiac, aphrodisiac!” she loudly proclaimed, pointing at each of us. We laughed, she laughed and then she poured us both another. We paid the bill (outrageously cheap), offered our best ‘merci boucoups’ and were pulled in for double-cheeked kisses.
Another young couple had just taken a table; it was with full hearts and stomachs that we gave them knowing smiles on our way out. Boy, were they in for a treat.
La Petite Rose des Sables | 6 Rue de Lancry, 75010 Paris, France
Open | Lunch from 12.00pm, Dinner from 7.00pm. Closed Sundays.