The median age of my customers was getting older, but that was no surprise because I was getting older, too. Restaurant owners age with their clientele.
When Breakfast in America first opened in 2003, most customers were students in their twenties—and of those 70 percent were American. Within a couple years, it had completely flipped and 70 percent were français. And thanks to “regulars” who’d been frequenting the diner for nearly two decades, the average age was now 30 to 35.
That said, it was rare to get anyone over 60, unless they were dining with their extended family or babysitting their grandkids. And seniors over 70—almost unheard of. That’s why I was so excited when our 86-year-old neighbor said she’d never been to an American restaurant and wanted to try mine.
I first met Mme. Hubert on the fifth floor of her apartment building while the two of us were waiting for the elevator. It was 2005. I’d just purchased my very first property, a 9.22-square-meter pied à terre (roughly one hundred square feet—or about half the size of a standard room at a Motel 6).
Although too small to live in full-time, the tiny space was meant to guarantee that, should Breakfast in America fail, I’d never be homeless. Fortunately, business was doing well enough for us to open a second location in the Marais. And since the pied à terre was only a couple blocks away from BIA #1, I decided to convert it into an office.
Mme. Hubert lived at the opposite end of the hallway from my bureau/safety net. Built in the 1930s as a “workers hotel,” all the apartments in the eight-story building (unusual for Paris, where most topped off at six floors) were the same tiny size as mine—except for “double units” at the end of each floor, which included Mme. Hubert’s place.
Adding to the building’s “old world charm,” most residents didn’t have an indoor toilet. Instead, there were two “shared WCs” on each floor, which Mme. Hubert unabashedly used. (I, on the other hand, would wait until the hallway was empty—then sneak in.)
After the customary exchange of bonjours, Mme. Hubert and I squeezed into the tight, phone booth-sized elevator so common in Paris’s older buildings. Slightly hunched over and supported by a cane, Madame wore her silver hair pulled back into a chic ponytail that spilled onto her iconic Burberry trench coat and matching cashmere scarf. I’d first become aware of this stylish ensemble as an exchange student in Rouen, where bourgeois women seemed particularly fond of wearing it.
Mme. Hubert looked at me through her thick black-framed glasses (also stylish, bien sûr) and launched into a fascinating analysis of the president at the time, Jacques Chirac and his likely successor, Nicolas Sarkozy. She spoke very quickly and passionately—and in the most eloquent French I’d ever heard—incorporating a deep knowledge of history, psychology, and culture into every subject she approached. Although I could barely keep up, I was thoroughly enthralled.
A former university professor, Mme. Hubert reminded me of Simone de Beauvoir. They were both French intellectuals of the highest order—a time-honored tradition in France that was becoming more and more rare. Until meeting Mme. Hubert, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed such sophisticated, witty repartee and verbal sparring. But that wasn’t the only thing I missed.
Mme. Hubert was a member of the last generation often referred to as la Vieille France, the kind of older woman I used to see riding on the métro back in the ’80s. Fearless and principled, these matriarchs weren’t shy about telling young people to take their feet off the seats.
Or to turn down their boom boxes because, “Just who do you think you are, disrupting the tranquility of others?”
Nowadays, though, I rarely saw any older women riding on the métro. And when I did, they never lectured anyone, but rather stared ahead, clutching their purses tightly.
Since Mme. Hubert was a direct link to a nostalgic time long since gone, I soon found myself looking forward to our elevator rides together. However, one interesting thing about the Vieille France generation: they could paradoxically be awfully reserved. Despite our fascinating discussions on a myriad of topics, it took Mme. Hubert years before she dared to broach a subject that was considered highly personal in France.
“I can’t help but notice your charming American accent,” she said one day on the elevator ride up to the fifth floor. “At the risk of being rude, may I ask what you do for a living?”
“Je vous en prie, Madame” (please do), I said. “I own a couple of traditional American restaurants.”
“Ah, bon! And where may I have the opportunity to see these restaurants?”
“Actually there’s one just two blocks down the hill, on rue des Écoles. Right next door to the piano shop.”
“Hmm, I’m familiar with that shop, but I’ve never noticed yours. I will have to make a point of investigating it the next time I’m down that way.”
A few months later, as I was serving customers inside the diner, I noticed Mme. Hubert standing outside wearing her Burberry ensemble. I stepped out to join her.
“Bonjour Madame,” I smiled. “I see you found us.”
“Effectivement” (indeed), she said. Balancing herself with one hand on her cane, she gestured with the other toward the red neon DINER sign hanging above the striped awning. “What is this, ‘dee-nay, dee-nay?’”
By now, I was used to French people pronouncing diner like the word dîner, en français, which of course meant, “to dine or eat dinner.”
“It’s a type of American restaurant,” I explained to Mme. Hubert. “But we pronounce it ‘daïneur.’”
“Ah, bon!” she said, intrigued. “And what do you serve at this daïneur? ’Amburgers, I suppose.”
“Among other things,” I grinned. “I’d love to invite you so you can see for yourself. My treat!”
Mme. Hubert looked at her watch. It was a little after 4:00 P.M. Too late for lunch and too early for diner. “I would like that,” she said. “A la prochaine.” (Until next time.)
With great care, Madame pivoted around on her cane and made her way toward the crosswalk. My first instinct was to assist her, but every time I’d offered to accompany her in the past, she’d refused my help, saying she was fine. “I’m in no hurry.”
Sure enough, it took Mme. Hubert three cycles of red lights to cross the street. The whole time she stayed calm and focused—even as she stopped traffic and certain impatient imbéciles started blaring their horns at her.
Ironically, as time seemed to slow down for Mme. Hubert, it had the opposite effect for me. Months flew by but somehow Madame and I never managed to set a time for her to come have a meal at my diner. I began to worry that it might never happen.
One day, the elevator in our building was “en panne” (out of order). As I headed down the stairwell, I came across Mme. Hubert just below the fourth floor. She was making her way up the stairs one slow and excruciating step at a time. She was sweating profusely, her face bright red.
“Are you okay, Madame?” I said, worried that she was going to have a heart attack.
As usual, Mme. Hubert never complained. “Oui, oui, ça va!” she said between pants, slowly catching her breath. She looked at me through her thick glasses, her eyes more lucid than I’d ever seen. “Nature’s got it right!” she said, thumping her cane for emphasis. “The body starts to give out at just about the same time as one’s desire to live. I used to love playing tennis. Now I can’t. But I no longer want to, either. See how perfect that is?”
“Allez, madame,” I said. “Don’t go anywhere just yet. I still have to treat you to my daïneur.”
“Et oui! Effectivement!” she chuckled, her shoulders bobbing up and down.
Mme. Hubert and I knew each other well enough now, I felt comfortable telling her an off-color joke as I helped her up the stairs. “You see, Madame, the way it usually works is: People have a heart attack after eating greasy American food. Not before.”
Mme. Hubert let out a deep guttural laugh that echoed through the stairwell. “Quelle fripouille vous êtes!” (What a scoundrel you are!)
Once we’d reached the fourth floor, Mme. Hubert let go of my arm. “Merci, but I can take over from here,” she said. “I’m in no hurry.”
After the scare in the stairwell, I saw less and less of Mme. Hubert. Each time I went by my office, I would glance at her door, hoping to see her come out. But for weeks on end, she never did. I found some solace whenever I’d hear her favorite radio station—France Inter (similar to NPR)—blasting through her door, the volume set to the max.
It reminded me of when I was a paperboy and used to deliver the daily news to an “independent living” retirement community on the outskirts of Frenchtown. Most of the residents back then were World War II vets and hard of hearing. Their radios would always be cranked up really loud, tuned into twenty-four-hour news programs.
Decades later and a half a world away, I wondered if any of those vets from my paper route had ever crossed paths with Mme. Hubert. Turns out, she’d grown up in Normandy and had witnessed D-Day firsthand.
“It was the scariest time of my life,” she told me.
After hiding in bomb shelters for days, her family emerged to find most of their village in ruins. As allied forces rolled through town, a tank stopped in front of her and her siblings. The portal opened and out popped an African American soldier. For Mme. Hubert, who was a little girl at the time and had never ventured further than twenty kilometers from her home, the GI was the first person of color she’d ever seen.
“He and his fellow troops were so kind to us children,” she smiled. “They gave us candy and bubble gum!”
“That’s an amazing story,” I said. “I wonder if those soldiers were part of the 320th Brigade!” I was referring to the famous African American contingent, which was still fresh on my mind since I’d recently read the bestseller, Forgotten. It told the story of how these courageous men had been excluded from so many history books.
To think: Mme. Hubert had been there. And now she was my friend, a direct link to the past. History at my doorstep, I thought, feeling grateful as I left my office and headed toward the elevator.
Just as I pushed the down button, Mme. Hubert’s door opened. It was dark inside as Madame’s in-home nurse stepped out. She took care of Mme. Hubert several days a week, thanks to the humane and generous health care system in France.
“Is Madame all right?” I asked the nurse.
“Oui, oui,” she answered. “Elle est juste un peu fatiguée.” (She’s just a little tired.)
“Please tell her that her American neighbor said ‘bonjour’—and that I’m counting on her to get back en forme soon so we can have lunch together.”
The nurse nodded. Then the two of us squeezed into the elevator and rode the whole way down in silence.
As I anxiously waited for Mme. Hubert to get her mojo back, a strange coincidence happened. I received an email from a young French filmmaker, Joël. He was directing a documentary about his grandmother, Liliane, who was in her nineties and came from the same generation as Mme. Hubert. According to Joël, his grandmother had lived an incredible life. Most notably, she’d fought in the Resistance against the Nazis during World War II and later was a pioneering crusader for women’s rights.
“My grandmother has lived her whole life in the service of others,” Joël wrote. “But now it’s time to take care of her.”
Ever the adventurer, Liliane wanted to spend her remaining years doing things she hadn’t had the chance to do before. As she and her grandson were putting together a kind of “bucket list,” they discovered that in her ninety-plus years, Liliane had never tried a hamburger. That’s where BIA came in.
“For the sequence in the film where my grandmother eats the first hamburger of her life,” Joël wrote, “I’m looking for a landmark location that represents American culture. I visited your establishment and was won over by it. I’d like to see if it would be possible to shoot this touching scene chez vous.”
I was flattered. Of all the words that could be used to describe the scene of somebody eating their first hamburger, “touching” had never crossed my mind.
Of course, Mme. Hubert would have had a field day with this. Ever the intellectual, she had no patience for gauzy sentiment, especially when it came to the biggie: amour.
“Love is so overrated!” she said one day as we waited for the elevator. “I was married for fifty years and neither my husband nor I had the patience for such nonsense. ‘Je t’aime chéri, je t’aime!’” she said mockingly. “Bon sang! We’re reasoning adults—not impetuous children!”
Of course, I was much more sentimental than Mme. Hubert, convinced that it was quite possible to film a scene of somebody having their first burger that was so touching, it would move an audience to tears.
“Bien sûr, you can shoot in my diner,” I wrote back to the young filmmaker. “But only during the slow times, between 3:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M., Tuesday through Thursday. And only if you promise to not disturb any of my customers.”
I may have been an old sap, but I was also a ruthless businessman.
On the day of the shoot, Joël arrived at the diner with a surprisingly large crew in tow. As a former filmmaker, I could tell right away from his fancy equipment and three-camera setup that he had deep pockets. All that footage for just one scene? I thought as I looked at the three cameras. At that rate it’ll take him forever to edit his film.
After Liliane settled into a booth, I went over to introduce myself. She was quite spry for someone in her nineties, having no need for glasses or a cane. “It’s an honor to meet you, Madame,” I said offering my hand. Like most true heroes, the former Resistance fighter gave me a humble look, as if to say, “Why? What did I do?”
I hung around the diner for over an hour, hoping to witness the big moment. But Joël and his crew were still busy doing sound checks and futzing with the cameras.
“Do you have a rough idea when your grandmother’s going to eat her hamburger?” I asked Joël.
“Actually, she’s not hungry right now,” he said. “But it’s okay, she’s used to hanging around on the set.”
That was my cue to scram-ez. (I’d forgotten how tedious film shoots could be.) On my way out the door, I turned to my newly promoted assistant manager and said, “As soon as the nice lady starts eating her burger, please take a bunch of pictures. I want to post the historic moment on our social media.”
“You got it!”
A couple hours later, I called the diner back. “Well, how did it go?”
“They’re still rehearsing.”
“For a documentary?”
“I guess so. They’re just sitting around chitchatting.”
“Okay, but remind them that if the place starts to fill up with customers, they’ll have to wrap it up and come back another day.”
“You got it!”
By ten o’clock, I still hadn’t heard back from the assistant manager. I figured it must have gotten busy, so I decided to swing by. Au contraire, the diner was mostly empty, the film crew long gone.
“Well?” I said excitedly. “Can I see the pictures?!”
“I didn’t take any.”
“The old lady chickened out and ordered an omelet instead.”
As it turned out, Liliane could fight Nazis and champion women’s rights—but to eat a hamburger? That was just crazy!
Although I was a little disappointed, I still longed to see Joël’s documentary, especially the climactic moment when Liliane decided to forego her burger, concluding that perhaps her bucket list wasn’t so important after all—and that, really, what did she have to prove? (Four years hence, I asked Joël if I could see the scene, but he said they still hadn’t finished filming yet. On the plus side, that meant Liliane was still alive and kicking.)
I hoped to say as much for Mme. Hubert. “You never know how much longer she’ll be around,” Julien said over lunch. “You should go see her and set up a date. You don’t want to have any regrets, n’est-ce pas?”
That night, I hopped on my bike and raced over to Mme. Hubert’s apartment. Just as I was locking up my bike, I heard a familiar voice from behind. “Can you believe Président Macron and his four-hour-long speeches?” I turned around to see Mme. Hubert standing there in all her Burberry glory, a baguette tucked under her arm. “Oh-la-la, sérieusement! The human brain can only handle so much!”
“Mme. Hubert, am I glad to see you! When can we do lunch?”
She shrugged. “Vendredi?”
“Vendredi it is! I’ll come by and pick you up.”
That Friday, it felt so good to ride the elevator with Mme. Hubert again. And this time, she let me hold her arm as we made the three-block trip down the hill from her apartment to the diner. Although she was psychologically back en forme—and sharp as a tack—her body had trouble keeping up.
After seating Mme. Hubert in my favorite booth, I handed her a menu. Recalling what had happened with Liliane, I pointed out all the different dishes available. “As you can see, we serve a lot more than just hamburgers here, so order whatever you want.”
“Non, non, non, allez!” she said. “We’re in an American daïneur, so let’s go all the way! Bring me a ’amburger!”
Mme. Hubert looked stumped. “You mean, there’s more than one?”
“Ah, oui!” I smiled. “There’s like, fifteen.”
“D’accord,” Mme. Hubert said, pointing to the first burger on the menu that caught her eye. “How about this one?”
“The ‘chili con carne’ burger?” I asked. “Hmm, I’m not sure; that one’s kind of spicy.”
Usually when I say the word “spicy,” French people recoil, since they generally have a very low tolerance for fiery food. But not Mme. Hubert. She was ready to try it all. (Except for her side; she ordered a “sensible salad” instead of French fries.) I, of course, ordered breakfast—a “lumberjack breakfast” to be precise.
As we waited for our food to arrive, Mme. Hubert unfolded her bright red napkin and tucked it into her yellow velour shirt, turning the napkin into a bib. What a contrast to how she’d grown up, I thought, recalling the stories Mme. Hubert had told me of dinners with her bourgeois family in Normandy. Not only did everyone have to dress up every night, there were so many utensils laid out on the table in front of them—different ones for each course—it was hard to know which one to use when.
But at Breakfast in America there were just two utensils: a knife and a fork. Mme. Hubert subsequently used them to attack her chili burger—a classic cheeseburger with a mound of chili on top—doing so with the same gusto she’d seized life with for the past eighty-six years. Before you knew it, kidney beans and chili sauce was flying everywhere. At one point, an errant bean ricocheted off her bib, knocking it off. Unfazed, Mme. Hubert kept going until she’d completely polished off her plate.
As I proudly watched Mme. Hubert take her last bite, I could feel a tear bubbling up in the corner of my eye. How touching, I thought. Where’s a film crew when you need one?
“How was it?” I asked.
“Pas mal. Pas mal du tout.” (Not bad. Not bad at all.)—which I’d learned after all these years was French for “fan-f*ckin’-tastic!”
“Any room for dessert?” I asked.
“Non, non, non! Juste un café.”
Of course, I couldn’t resist taunting Mme. Hubert, to see if she really was willing to go all the way. “Do you mean an American coffee?”
“Hah, you must be joking! Jus de chaussettes?! Sérieusement?!”
After letting out a hearty chuckle, the former professor broke into an in-depth dissertation about the origins of the term, “sock juice.” According to her, some historians speculate that the French thought American coffee tasted so bad, it was like drinking the liquid squeezed out of wet socks. But most believe that soldiers during wartime didn’t have filters to make their coffee, so they had to use their socks instead.
I held up the pot of sock juice and waved it temptingly in front of Mme. Hubert. “Well . . . ?” I smiled. “Are you ready for ‘le total?’” (the works)
Mme. Hubert shook her head. “World War II is over,” she said. “Give me an espresso!”
Excerpted from the book Let Them Eat Pancakes: One Man's Personal Revolution in the City of Light by Craig Carlson. Reprinted by permission from Pegasus Books.