Jim Haynes would like to have you over for dinner—if you don’t mind sharing the guest list with 100,000 other people
Author Deb McCoy
PARIS—The 20-something American in his Sunday best opens the garden gate with caution, only to be met with a cloud of smoke and a hail of chatter. Once inside, he is immediately surrounded by women of a certain age, all jostling to lead him along the cobblestones with cigarettes in hand.
The owner of this garden, located in Paris’ 14th Arrondissement, is a 79-year-old American named Jim Haynes. Every Sunday night for the past three decades, the former bookseller and theater impresario has invited strangers into his home for dinner, with arrangements made these days via his website (he suggests a 30-euro donation but will “happily accept more, or less”). Haynes estimates that he’s hosted about 1,500 dinners and 100,000 guests over the years.
Tonight, 50 or so people are waiting in a kind of receiving line. Perched atop a kitchen stool in his atelier, which is adorned with tasteful nude photographs, Haynes greets each visitor before directing them to a large table. As this week’s visiting chef serves the entrée—a casserole with pickled greens—the guests exchange pleasantries in a muddle of languages. “Exactly what is the meat in there?” a diner asks. “Je ne sais pas,” the woman beside him replies.
In the 1960s, Haynes was a player in London’s countercultural scene—his online bio is filled with entries like “Am invited to dine with The Beatles.” But if tonight’s company isn’t quite as illustrious, Haynes doesn’t seem to mind. He chats with every guest, and reveals an uncanny knack for remembering names. “I don’t care what you do,” he says to an American woman who asks to take his picture, “as long as you talk to each other.” As if on cue, another guest starts grilling the woman about the joys of having a French boyfriend at the ripe age of 50.
One of Haynes’ conversational rules is that there are no rules. He’s even willing to discuss his recent heart attack, which threatens to bring to an end to his ragtag salons— and which could easily put a damper on this one. “I’ve had some health issues,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if I would be here tonight.” At that, the woman with the French boyfriend sidles over to Haynes and starts flirting. “Well, I don’t plan to stop yet,” he says, clearing his throat.