The year was 1993. I was in France, visiting old friends and making new ones, in a tour de force across the country. We'd left Marseille and gone east, following the coast, until the sun had set when my companion, a student from Lyon whom I had met there and who was on her break from school and not extremely creeped out by the idea of driving around the country with a stranger, suggested we stop and eat at a restaurant she'd been to a few years back.
We parked near a cliff and descended down a small pathway, the waves crashing underneath us, the roped off path cut into the stones many decades ago and lit only by a few lights. We turned around another bend, and below us was a cove, lit by the moon above and burning oil lamps. Protected from the tides, there was a small restaurant, music coming from its patio, a flickering fire pit throwing shadows against the cliffs. We entered and the dining room was about the size of my living room at home, three communal tables had an assortment of old, weathered, men and young couples on it.
We sat down at one of the windows, and an elderly matron came over and brought us red wine, a steaming warm loaf of bread, and two deep bowls of bouillabaisse.
The still warm, salty, air came in through the open window, there was laughter outside and the smell of burning wood, a man played the harmonica and sang chansons about la guerre and la mer, and whenever I thought we were finally done with our dish, the matron brought more bouillabaisse and more bread.
After dinner, which cost less than an appetizer these days, we retreated to the patio, looked at the moon, listened to an old man telling tall tales about the day he almost caught “Le Grand“, the Big One, and fell in love. I felt so incredibly welcome, protected, and amongst good people, there, the food was extraordinary, and the night was nothing short of magical. The intense majesty of the ocean, the sound of the waves, the warm air and moonlit cove, it all conspired to create the, perhaps, only true moment of total peace I would ever feel. We left hours later, leaving the laughter and lights behind, already longing to go back and stay forever. That night we didn't get two rooms.
I spent the next year driving seven hours each direction to see her every chance I had, sometimes just for a coffee and dinner. After a while we drifted apart, be it because we never again experienced the same magic as that one night in a cove east of Marseilles, be it the distance. I don’t know what became of her, and I am not sure she even thinks about me much, but I will always remember that one, perfect, dinner, the best meal I ever had.
I've learned a lot from that night. That “best dinner” isn't measured in Michelin stars or what’s on the menu. That it has nothing to do with stiff waiters and six-week reservations. That it doesn't matter what my friends or anyone else thinks of me for eating there, all that counts is to feel at home and be in the best company one could be in at that very moment.