Brasserie Zedel ran a promotion this year on Bastille Day offering a free dinner to anyone who showed up in a striped blue-and-white Breton shirt and a beret. My neighbours Paul (of Pootling Around fame) and Hannah and I decided that we couldn’t possibly miss this opportunity to express our Francophile tendencies (not to mention free dinner) so we obtained the necessary materials.
It turned out that berets were expensive, so we decided (actually Paul decided) to make our own handcrafted felt berets. Paul diligently found patterns and made paper templates for us, then we experimented a little here and there and soon voila! Handmade berets.
Our diligence paid off and we soon found ourselves surrounded by a sea of beret-clad patrons in the lush environs of Brasserie Zedel, with Marie Antoinette and Napoleon swanning about amongst us peasants. There were the occasional parties dotted about who had clearly booked in advance without realising what day it was and had consequently left their Breton uniforms at home. The shame of being beret-less rolled off these tables like vaporous clouds, though you could see they were trying to bear up with quiet dignity.
In fairness, we did have several extra berets that we could have offered to share around with the less fortunate. As it happened, once Paul started making berets it was basically impossible to stop him. He’s the beret-making equivalent of those marching broomsticks in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. If left to his own devices nothing’s going to stop him from setting up his own tiny beret factory in their living room, preying on Hannah for slave labour. Luckily she’s too sensible to be exploited by beret slaving, so the beret salesmen of London need not fear the market being flooded by cheap Wapping-made berets.
During our beret-won meal we were sat right next to the accordion player and thus treated to a range of jaunty French tunes throughout. My pride in our handcrafted berets resulted in a slight tendency to boastfulness—I told every person we passed that we’d made our own berets and they were all very impressed. As were we, by the delicious food and the typically gracious Zedel service.
After eating we repaired upstairs to the street-level bar and watched all the patrons. We started playing a game called ‘A Flat Cap Turned Sideways is Not a Beret,’ which involved commenting snarkily on anyone who arrived wearing an item that was similar but not exactly like the attire specified for claiming the free meal. We saw people in checked shirts, we saw multi-coloured stripes rather than the blue-and-white Breton variety, and most of all, we saw lots of people not wearing berets. Straw hats, bowlers, tam-o-shanters, and a multitude of other non-beret headgear passed us and wended down the stairwell towards the brasserie. There were a number of parties where only a few or even one of the group had gotten into the spirit of the thing with everyone else apparently trying to pretend it wasn’t happening by assuming an attitude of studied nonchalance.
Our favourite people, though, were those who clearly hadn’t got the memo about Bastille Day and were just wandering in off the street to see what Brasserie Zedel was like. When they noticed that roughly half the people in the bar were got up in striped shirts, berets and an assortment of false mustaches, reactions ranged from genial double-takes to sudden, precipitous retreats. One person didn’t even turn around, they just walked in, took one look, and backed out the way they’d come. Not everyone has the hearty spirit required for Bastille Day hijinks, but Alors! we were glad to be among those who were.