July is a big month for Americans, what with Independence Day, but it’s also a time of celebration for the nation that gave us the Statue of Liberty—France. The Tour de France commences on July 7 and Bastille Day is celebrated on July 14. Both events have become très popular in Boston as restaurants create special menus and people dance in the street to celebrate and commemorate. And those celebrations are really just the tip of the iceberg—from French films, festivals and art exhibits to gourmet restaurants and chic boutiques, French culture abounds in Boston all year-round, if you know where to look. So, if the Francophile in you is aching for a fix, revel in these French-centric events and indulge in a little joie de vivre!
THE CENTER OF IT
Anyone seeking French culture in Boston would be advised to start the search at the French Library and Cultural Center (53 Marlborough St., 617-912-0400). If someone within the city limits is baking a baguette or paying musical tribute to Edith Piaf, it’s the French Library’s raison d’etre to know about it and share the info with the community.
The library itself is a tremendous resource for lovers of all things French. Incorporated in 1945, and lovingly nurtured by expatriate General Georges Doriot and his American wife Edna throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the library houses 25,000 books—the largest private collection of French literature in the U.S. It also offers French language classes for adults and children, cooking seminars, lectures by visiting French dignitaries, and, for some, a haven to connect or reconnect with French heritage.
For one day a year, the library throws one heck of a fete in celebration of Bastille Day, the national French holiday honoring French freedom, with the streets surrounding the building closed off for an old-fashioned block party with food and entertainment. This year’s 32nd annual celebration takes place July 13 from 6–11 p.m., and features food from some of Boston’s foremost French restaurants, including Brasserie JO, Garden of Eden and Sel de la Terre, and live music from Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca, Emeline Michel and Ousmane Touré. Refer to special events listing.
EAT, DRINK AND
The casually upscale Back Bay eatery Bouchee (159 Newbury St., 617-450-4343) hosts a decadent three-course prix fixe dinner to celebrate Bastille Day, treating diners to crab beignets with warm olive tapenade, poached halibut with confit tomatoes and English pea-potato Veloute, and financier with cherrie syrup and vanilla ice cream as the piece de resistance. Priced at just $45, or $65 with wine, the dinner is a chic, affordable treat.
Meanwhile, over at popular Brasserie JO (refer to restaurants listing), diners can celebrate the Tour de France with a menu by Chef de Cuisine Olivier Rigaud that changes daily to celebrate the region the race is passing through at that time. From July 7–29, everything from carbonade de boeuf flamande from Dunkirk to Bourg-en-Bresse poulet de Bresse fricasse are featured.
And, across the river (the Charles, though you can pretend it’s the Seine if you want) Sandrine’s Bistro (8 Holyoke St., 617-497-5300) acts as the epicenter of Cambridge’s Bastille Day festivities, complete with a street fair outside the bistro. From July 13–15, a special Bastille Day prix-fixe menu boasting dishes like chilled watermelon soup with mint cream and fresh blueberries and an entrée of pan seared salmon with couscous tabbouleh salad, will be offered for $25 per person, while those who prefer lighter fare can enjoy a Tour de France cheese plate for $11, featuring fromage from all the regions the race passes through.
Jetting off to Paris for a shopping vacation is any girl’s dream, but with all the quality to be found in Boston’s French boutiques, a shopping excursion here can almost rival the Left Bank. Check out French designers Chanel (5 Newbury St., 617-859-0055), Dior (Copley Place, 100 Huntington Ave., 617-927-7577), Louis Vuitton (81 Newbury St., 617-425-5317) and Givenchy (Copley Place, 100 Huntington Ave., 617-385-3300) for some haute couture, or Lavender (173 Newbury St., 617-437-1102) for handmade French tableware, in the Back Bay. Meanwhile, in the South End you can pick up delicious French cheeses, chocolates and other delicacies at South End Formaggio (268 Shawmut Ave., 617-350-6996), or visit Nami Spa (12 Clarendon St., 617-267-6264) to pick up Roger and Gallet beauty products to help you emulate those chic Parisians.
Longing for subtitles and a few bon mots? Stop by the 12th annual French Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts beginning July 12 and take in a feature: My Best Friend, a film by Patrice Leconte, kicks off the festival, and other films to be screened include The Man of My Life, The Singer and The Very Big Apartment, among others. (Visit www.mfa.org for a complete schedule of screenings). Beyond the festival, a few French-themed films are debuting in theaters this summer. From Ratatouille, a Pixar animated film about a gourmand rat desperate to become a chef in Paris; to La Vie en Rose, the story of songbird Edith Piaf’s life and career (playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, refer to film listing); to Paris, Je T’aime, a collection of vignettes about the City of Light from various renowned international directors (playing at the Kendall Square Cinema, 1 Kendall Square, 617-499-1996), the summer of 2007 is looking like a big one for France on film.
SHOW ME THE
If French art is your thing, Boston boasts Gallic masterpieces to rival the Louvre. The Museum of Fine Arts displays an impressive collection of French Impressionists (including Monet and Renoir), as well as some Post-Impressionist and French Barbizon pieces. Like the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum also features works by several French Impressionist masters, such as Degas, Manet and Matisse. Or, if contemporary art strikes your fancy, head to the new Institute of Contemporary Art for an exhibition of works by famed French-born feminist and artist Louise Bourgeois. Her work spans six decades and includes everything from sculptures to drawings to paintings. The Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge features an installation of French works in their permanent collection called 17th Century French Painting and Sculpture. Finally, visit the Galerie d’Orsay (33 Newbury St., 617-266-8001), a gallery fully dedicated to French artists which exhibits The Art of “La Belle Époque” through July 6 and, beginning July 8, the new show Impressionists and their Inspirations. Refer to museums listings.
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Bostonians and visitors to the city are spoiled for choice when it comes to French restaurants. Here’s some of the best the Hub has to offer:
Aquitaine, 569 Tremont St., 617-424-8577. This South End bistro is perfect for a romantic pre- or post-theater meal, or just to sample selections from their top-rated wine list.
Aujourd’hui, refer to restaurant listing. This perennial AAA Five Diamond Award winner in the Four Seasons Hotel offers gourmet French cuisine and wines from a 1,800-bottle library.
Clio, refer to restaurant listing. French-American fare with Asian influences in a setting styled after Parisian supper clubs. Chef Ken Oringer is a past winner of the James Beard Award.
L’Espalier, refer to restaurant listing. Boston’s other Five Diamond winner, L’Espalier is a world-class restaurant consistently ranked in Zagat Boston’s top 5 and lauded by critics nationwide for its culinary excellence.
Hamersley’s Bistro, refer to restaurant listing. Pioneers of the French cuisine scene in Boston, husband-and-wife team Gordon and Fiona Hamersley continue to receive raves.
The Hungry I, refer to restaurant listing. Located in Beacon Hill, specializes in French country cuisine and boasts a picturesque patio for outdoor dining.
La Creperie, refer to restaurant listing. Duck into La Creperie for savory and sweet crepes alike. Don’t forget to ask for extra Nutella or to try a crepe with melted Brie—you’ll forget you’re not in Paris.
Radius, 8 High St. 617-426-1234. No list of acclaimed Boston restaurants would be complete without Chef Michael Schlow’s modern nouveau French establishment.
Sel de la Terre, 255 State St., 617-720-1300. This expanding local chain hosts Wine Wednesdays and Sunday Night Dinner Series, appropriate for connoisseurs and novices alike.