nce you’ve made a reservation at Paris’s first nudist restaurant, you find –yourself neurotically broadcasting this bit of news to anyone who will listen. While vacationing in France’s capital recently, a visitor from New York City approached the front desk of his hotel and told the thoughtful-looking employee seated there, “Tonight, we will be eating at the naturist restaurant, O’Naturel. In addition to our clothing, we will also be surrendering our phones, so between eight-forty-five and eleven o’clock we will be unreachable.” The desk clerk nodded gravely.
O’Naturel is situated on a residential street in the Twelfth Arrondissement, a stone’s throw from a nursery school. The restaurant’s co-proprietor, smiling and fully dressed, buzzed the visitor and a friend into a tiny, curtained-off lobby. “New York City!” the co-proprietor said, glancing at his reservation book. “A woman from there is eating with us tonight as well!” The visitor murmured to his friend, “Probably Maureen Dowd.”
The co-proprietor showed the two guests to a small changing room lined with wooden lockers, and handed them each a pair of white terry-cloth slippers. A horizontal wall mirror hung, cruelly, at waist level.
Once undressed, the guests gathered the courage to perform the evening’s chief bit of bravery: entering the dining room. Forward the duo marched. The phrase “surgical strike” does not begin to describe the dispatch with which they moved toward the table that the co-proprietor had picked for them—nor the speed with which they put their napkins on their laps. The room, which seats forty and is largely devoid of decoration, is lit with the rousing brightness of a bank manager’s office and not the caramelly glow of a Monet haystack.
Reading the menu, the two New Yorkers clucked approvingly at the absence of hot soup or bubbly raclette dishes. If there is a gleam of joy on the face of the woman at the center of Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” it likely results from the fact that she is not dining at Benihana.
Once the visitor and his friend had ordered, they summoned the nerve to look around at the other customers. They saw two other couples—a French-speaking man and woman in their fifties, and two female Anglophones in their twenties. Dotted around the room were four solo diners: non-creepy-looking men in their thirties or forties, each wearing glasses. Settling in, the visitors reminded each other that the restaurant’s Web site had explained how the black slipcovers on the dining chairs are changed after each seating, and that the law prevents the waiters (the two co-proprietors, who are brothers) from going about their duties in the altogether.
Gradually, the two diners’ shoulders relaxed. The co-proprietor’s ebullience helped, as did a bottle of wine and the not-bad coquilles St. Jacques with salsify. It was heartening to overhear the other two couples, unknown to one another, start to talk à quatre—even if their conversation focussed on how awkward it is to talk to strangers in nudist restaurants.
The visitor now faced two challenges. First: Could he pick up his napkin from the floor without alarming the other diners or projecting a mid-level degree of skeeviness? He found that he could. Then: Could he nonchalantly walk, sansnapkin, fifteen feet to the rest room? Benjamin Franklin wrote that he liked to take “baths” of air by rising early and sitting before an opened window “without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season.” A trip to the O’Naturel rest room, the visitor feared, would feel like a Franklin bath on the hoof. But he found the mettle to stand up and walk, evidently inspiring six of the evening’s other nice diners, who ended up making the same trip. Emboldened by his intra-restaurant wandering, the visitor, when he returned from the rest room, chose to leave his napkin on the table.
When the pair finished dinner, they found themselves alone again in the cloakroom. They avoided looking in the waist-high mirror. After opening their lockers, the visitor watched his friend approach the heavy curtain that separates the space from the dining room and pull it an inch to the right, so that it was closed all the way. The visitor asked, “Are you concerned that the other diners are going to see you getting dressed?”