For many British visitors arriving by Eurostar, the Terminus Nord will be the first great Parisian institution they encounter. The classic brasserie, opposite the Gare du Nord, has been established for more than 80 years. From London, it's far quicker to reach than restaurants in Devon or Cornwall, say, so this Art Deco brasserie – long popular with UK visitors – has become something of an annex of England. Thanks to the Terminus Nord, one British newspaper recently suggested, "your quest for the perfect restaurant begins the minute you leave the station". And "quest", in this sentence, proves to be no idle noun.
I arrive alone, around 8pm, and am given a table next to one occupied by two elderly ladies drinking champagne. For 10 minutes, nothing happens. Then a waiter arrives – brusque and distracted. "It's off," he says, when I order a main course.
"I'll have some water, a half carafe of red, and terrine as a starter; if I can have a minute to decide on the main..."
"The whole order has to go in together."
He doesn't go away.
"OK, I'll have..." I'm picking virtually at random... "salmon tournedos."
Another waiter whisks away my empty plate without speaking, and gives it to another diner who's ordered one of the Terminus's signature dishes, the vast choucroute. It looks like an autopsy.
The house wine is poorer than the "Good Ordinary Claret" you can buy at Waitrose for under £5 a bottle. As for the terrine and salmon, I can only resort to that term commonly avoided by seasoned restaurant reviewers: OK.
But I can't really concentrate on the fish because, next to me, a peculiar scene is unfolding. The younger of the two ladies has lost her credit card. The maître d' is standing over them, asking how they intend to pay. Returning the following morning is, he insists, not an option.
The younger woman is around 70; her mother, as I'll discover, is 95.
"Call someone," he suggests.
The bill (the Terminus Nord belongs to the FLO group, which has other prestigious establishments such as La Coupole) is €160 (£133). The women, here for Mother's Day, come from a working-class district in north-east Paris, and are clearly not wealthy. They look flustered.
"Listen," I tell the head waiter. "Take my card. I'll pay. They'll come back tomorrow."
"How do you know?"
"Do they look like criminals to you?"
The younger woman walks away and has a conversation with the maître d'. When she returns, she says she is permitted to go back to Aubervilliers for her chequebook, but has to leave her mother behind as collateral.
"Why don't you let me pay?"
She nods towards the head waiter. (I can't say whether he vetoed this proposal or it was just her pride.)
"Even al-Qa'ida," I suggest to him, "don't take 95-year-old women hostage."
No reply. The daughter leaves. Her round trip to Aubervilliers will take more than an hour. I stay with her mother, who is trembling slightly.
"What a treat this was," she says.
For an hour-and-a-quarter she tells me about her childhood in Ménilmontant, and her late husband, who worked in the market at Les Halles. I ask if she's been abroad. "Once. I went to Belgium. Do they treat old ladies like this in England?"
"I hope not."
Her glass of champagne is in front of her, warm and untouched.
The daughter returns. She waited for a bus but finally had to take a taxi. She and I have a couple of robust exchanges with the head waiter. Once he has the cheque, he puts complimentary glasses of champagne on their table. "Are you happy," I ask him, as they're leaving, "with the way you handled that?"
"If the Terminus belonged to me..."
"But who made the decision on how to deal with this?"
"I will never," the daughter said, "set foot in this place again."
Readmission to the Terminus Nord probably isn't an option for me either. If you go, I'd advise you to take a credit card, €200 in cash, or a woman in possession of a telegram from the Queen.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough,14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Terminus Nord, 23 Rue de Dunkerque, 75010 Paris, tel: 00 33 1 42 85 05 15 Lunch and dinner daily
Classic French fancies
40 Chalcot Road, London NW1, tel: 020 7483 4848
Retro-Gallic bistro cuisine has made a big hit of this convivial corner spot, where the (French) patron brings a surreal level of authenticity to the performance of being a French waiter
Le Petit Paris
38-40 Grassmarket, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 226 2442
A genuine Parisian feel distinguishes this ever-packed bistro, where classic dishes are prepared to consistently high standards, served at fabulous prices
Market Place, Lavenham, Suffolk, tel: 01787 247 431
The Crépy family's market square restaurant- with-rooms continues to enchant with its menu (which comes complete with a stunning cheeseboard and superb wines)
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.comReuse content