After spending his junior year in Paris as a student at the University of Connecticut in 1985, Craig Carlson fell in love with the city and all things French. Though he moved to Los Angeles to begin a career as a screenwriter after graduating, he eventually drifted back to France in 2001 for a second stint working on a TV show. Back in Los Angeles seeing friends, pals asked what he had missed most during his time away.
“Breakfast!” he said without hesitating. “Can you believe it? It’s impossible to get an American breakfast in France.”
At that moment, an idea came to him. He would return to Paris yet again — and despite having no experience in the restaurant industry, he would start an American diner.
He returned to the City of Light and in 2003, Breakfast in America, or BIA for short, was opened in The Marais district. It was the first American diner in Paris, and the first restaurant to introduce Parisians to Lumberjack Specials, or the P’tit dej du Bucheron: two eggs any style, two bacon, two sausages, ham steak, French toast, grilled tomatoes, home fries and toast, all for about $16. He also served up the concept of Breakfast All Day, which was nothing short of revolutionary in a country that adheres strictly to certain meals at certain times of day.
“When I first opened in 2003, only young people were into trying it. People older than 40 were not. The idea of breakfast at any time was suspect. ‘There’s an hour for this and one for that,’ ” Carlson says. “Now, sometimes I’ll see [French] kids dragging their grandparents in, trying to show them to grab the burger with their hands, and you’ll see grumbling. If we’ve won them over by the end, you see them have a sense of freedom. We have regulars — Parisian women in their 70s who will come in for a burger and a beer.”
(One special woman was Madame Hubert, a neighbor who grew up in Normandy and witnessed D-Day firsthand — and who, for her first burger ever, opted for a chili con carne burger with a “sensible salad.”)
The second location of BIA opened in 2006 in the Latin Quarter. And now Carlson has released a book, “Let Them Eat Pancakes: One Man’s Personal Revolution in the City of Light” (Pegasus Books), a sequel to his “Pancakes in Paris,” hilariously recounting his experiences of running a down-home all-American diner in a country where patrons often prefer to eat their hamburgers with a knife and fork.
In addition to the menu, which serves only American food, introducing French customers to diner traditions — bottomless cup o’ joe, anyone? — is half the fun.
“We had this one French customer and he brought his two French friends and he was talking them through the whole thing,” says Carlson. “He was like, ‘Now you hold up your mug and they will keep bringing you more and more coffee.’ ”
When the coronavirus pandemic lockdown began in Paris in mid-March, the apartment Carlson shares with his French husband, Julien Chameroy, was in the midst of being renovated. So they camped out on an air mattress in the office space above their Breakfast in America diner in The Marais.
He admits there are worse places to spend a lockdown.
“There was lots of food stocked up there — bagels, blueberry muffins, eggs,” Carlson says. “We had a field day. Of course, after a month or so, the novelty wore off.”
As life has slowly crept back to normal, Parisian restaurants have cautiously resumed business, with 30 percent seating capacity inside, 40 percent outside and new outdoor terraces allowed in former parking spots. One of the biggest boosts during this time, Carlson says, are the generous partial unemployment benefits from the French government.
“None of the staff got laid off. They got 85-100 percent of their salary. That has allowed me to ease back into my business,” he says. “I can have the cooks work two days instead of five, and the government pays for everything else.”
He says there has been a great neighborhood camaraderie between restaurant and cafe owners in The Marais.
“We’ve all been looking out for each other,” he says. “When they first allowed the terrace on the road, we had to battle with cars trying to park. So a nearby cafe let us borrow all their plants and would block off space in the road for us. The other day we brought over pancakes to thank them.”
Still, the situation is far from rosy, with many restaurant and cafe owners anticipating a slow summer. At the Latin Quarter location, which draws a larger percentage of tourists (the location in the Marais draws about 70 percent French customers), business is slow.
“Without the tourists in Paris, we don’t know,” Carlson says. “We’re really concerned about the business. If there are no tourists and no Parisians, we might close down one of the [locations] for August.”
While indoor seating will not be allowed in New York City’s Phase 3 of reopening, many city restaurants and cafes now have temporary outdoor seating. Carlson offers this advice: “This has been a way for us to reintroduce us to our customers. Every single person I walk up to and say, is this your first time with us? And I thank them for their support.
“So many customers have told us how happy they are to see us. We have the 60-year-old guy who comes for his bacon cheeseburger who was like, ‘Oh, three months, I didn’t think I was going to make it!’ Getting back to the connections you make in this business, it’s a wonderful thing.”
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