Dreaming of Paris Classics

PARIS - It's the way we like to dream of classic Parisian restaurants. A family starts a small, casual restaurant, makes a go of it and their children and grandchildren keep the dream alive, as generations of faithful followers have one happy meal after another beneath the familial roof.

In this modern day of nonrestaurants and chain restaurants and places where the word patron, or owner, is often no longer part of the vocabulary, it is a joy to return to two old-time favorites.

More than two decades ago, one of my first bistro meals in Paris took place on a brusquely cold day in February, when four of us tucked ourselves into the banquettes at Chez Georges, a classic turn-of-the-century bistro with ruddy-faced waitresses, copious help-yourself portions of sleek, shiny herring fillets, and an abundance of Beaujolais. I remember thinking then, ''This is it, this is for me!'' and it pretty much has been ever since.

The cozy bistro is long and narrow, like a railroad car. You place your coats behind you on a shelf or leave them on a coat rack at the door. You sit elbow to elbow with families, eager to dive into the perfectly golden, crisp and flavorful fries, the finely grilled steak with a thick Bearnaise sauce, the outrageously delicious pan-fried duck breast paired with wild cepe mushrooms.

And don't forget the curly endive salad with bacon and a perfectly poached egg. Or the baskets of baguettes from the Lebon boulangerie across the street. And then there is the Beaujolais, still flowing free and easy, turning sour days into sweet ones.

None of this simple bistro charm happens by accident. In 1964, a man named Georges Constant left the family place on Place des Victoires, Le Roi Gourmet, and took over this sturdy bistro, complete with mirrored walls and gothic columns and rows of moleskin banquettes. Years later, his son, Bernard Brouillet, took charge, rarely changing the menu and keeping the quality constant. Well, Bertrand has passed the baton to his 33-year-old son, Arnaud, who is keeping everything as it was, and should be. His youth gives hope that it will remain so for many years to come.

Brasseries - those gargantuan restaurants begun by breweries - remain typically Parisian monuments. They are monuments to size, decoration, platters of fresh fish and shellfish and, often, mounds of steaming sauerkraut and sausages. If you look around Paris today, almost all these special places are part of a chain, and though they remain beautiful, lively and ever successful, the anonymity factor looms large, and one often feels as though the food has been churned out, without much love, from a central kitchen.

Marty - a lively and recently refurbished brasserie at the edge of the fifth arrondissement - is different. The Art Deco treasure was opened by Etienne and Marthe Marty in 1913. Over the years, it has remained a trustworthy family brasserie known for its fish and shellfish.

Their grandchildren, Francois and Genevieve Perricouche, have taken over the 200-seat restaurant, carrying out a major restoration that has turned it into a jewel. The pair hired Thierry Colas, a chef with experience at La Tour d'Argent and Laperouse, to head the kitchens and Guy Legay, a former chef at the Ritz, as consultant.

The marriage seems to be working. Dinner there had that great old-time brasserie flair, with two floors of dining rooms packed with eager and satisfied diners. Little details - a freshly lighted candle at each table, silver finger bowls and giant mounds of fresh butter (no tiny pats here, please) - make one smile.

The menu is classic, with modern touches. Try the perfectly moist roasted filet of bar, served with a lasagna of spinach and mushrooms, a hearty and appealing wintertime dish. But it was the grilled sole fillets - so thick and moist and firm I could hardly believe it - that will get me to come back for more. When is the last time you had a grilled fish, with those endearing black grill marks, that didn't leave you with an unpleasant aftertaste - all those burned and rancid bits? This sole was the best I have ever tasted cooked in this classic manner. So what that it came with only two naked boiled potatoes and lots of lemon.

The oyster starters were divine. I choose the smallest oysters on the menu because I believe that they have a more intense flavor. So I opted for the Claire No. 4, and was not disappointed. They are big and meaty enough to offer true mouth-filling texture, but small enough to serve as an elusive tease: You want more of that icy freshness and mineral rich flavor. The rye bread was delicious and everything went down just fine with the Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, just one of several New World wines on their list.

Chez Georges
1 Rue du Mail
Paris 75002
tel: 01-42-60-07-11.
Closed Sunday, holidays and three weeks in August. Credit cards: American Express, Visa; a la carte, 250 to 300 francs.

Restaurant Marty
20 Avenue des Gobelins
Paris 75005
tel: 01-43-31-39-51
fax: 01-43-37-63-70.
Open daily. Credit cards: American Express, Visa; 200-franc menu weekdays; 263-franc menu with a small pitcher of wine; a la carte, 300 to 400 francs.