It’s a familiar story. An American comes to Paris, falls in love with the city and looks for a way to stay permanently. What are the job opportunities? Teach water skiing on the Seine? Open a miniature golf course in the Bois de Boulogne? While it’s true that American and French cultures mix about as well as oil and water, on one subject they are in total agreement: they both love to eat.
Craig Carlson was caught in just such a dilemma when he finish a television directing job in Paris a couple of decades ago. He had spent a year in Paris as a student before becoming a Hollywood screenwriter, and he wasn't ready to return to the States. Craig had his epiphany when he was served a plate of bacon, eggs and pancakes back in LA. He realized that a big American breakfast was the one thing he had missed when he was living in Paris. He vowed to open a diner in Paris that served his favorite meal.
Craig then began a process of searching for investors,negotiating with French contractors and sourcing the key ingredients that would make his diner credible: real New York Bagels, rasher bacon and Vermont Maple Syrup. He describes the torturous process of creating Breakfast in America in his bestselling book Pancakes for Breakfast. BIA opened in 2003, and there is now a second location across the river in Marais neighborhood.
I met Craig and his French partner when they visited Chicago’s Read It And Eat bookstore on a promotional book tour in the Spring and made a note to stop by the diner when I was in Paris in September. To my great surprise, the studio apartment I rented in the Latin Quarter facing the rue des Ecoles was directly across the street from the original BIA. I'm not making this up!
Both Breakfast in America locations have the look and feel of a 1950’s road diner with red leatherette seating upholstery, formica tabletops, black and white tile floors and weak coffee served in a mug with a spoon in it. (Excellent espresso is also available.) The waitstaff of young bilingual Americans is midwestern friendly. The food is what you would be served at a rural diner. The eggs I ordered were runny in the center, the bacon slices were crisp and the pancakes were fluffy.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that BIA is just a breakfast place or a refuge for homesick Americans. Both locations are open all day long. I remember seeing the lights on across the rue des Ecoles after 10pm. The menu includes every dish you’ve ever ordered in a diner, and then some.
At both BIAs there appeared to be a close to even mix of Americans and French. How could I tell the difference at a distance? The Americans picked up their burgers in their hands to eat while the French carefully cut theirs with knife and fork. In other words, everyone ate as if they were at home.