Last year a French knockoff came to Washington. The café Paul offered up crusty bread and delicious soups at fast-food speed and prices, and the comic specter of American wait staff greeting you with ridiculously accented “Bonjour.” It made you snicker. But the food was good – my colleague Kyle turned me on to the incredible tomato basil bisque, which came with the requisite crusty roll. The bread and pastries were definitely a cut above any other French wannabees in the USA (you know who you are).

Then we traveled to France recently, and found actual Paul cafés here and there. My goodness, the French, who have boulangeries and patisseries on seemingly every other block, apparently don’t mind a fast-food version of their cherished cuisine!

On the flip side was the American invasion of France. We saw billboards everywhere for McDonald’s, advertising Charolais beef burgers (pictured) on un pain roll with béarnaise sauce for 2.90 euros, about $3.80. It started as a running joke with CRR but by the end of our trip to France, I was seriously considering a deviant act in France.

Charolais Burger

Charolais Burger

Really, this is what a Mac burger looks like in France: “Discover the new recipe Charlolais McDonald’s, savor the delicious hamburger Charolais, its melted Emmental and inimitable sauce béarnaise.” Are you kidding me? We Americans get crappy processed cheese slices and a “special sauce.” The French get Emmental cheese and classic béarnaise sauce. I hope you French people understand what lengths McDonald’s has gone to woo your business.

Back to Paul. Now I go there with a newfound appreciation for truly French-style food – all the bread is crusty and wonderful, the soups extraordinary, the pastries exceptional. Un pain chocolat? Petit croissant? Un pain aux figues?  A little slice of France, a memory, just two blocks from my office.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.