Everywhere you look in Paris, someone is doing their best to ruin your waistline. Boulangeries (bakeries) with buttery croissants and decadent pastries lurk on every street corner, open-air markets tempt the senses, and terrific restaurants with intriguing menus sprout up on every block. Below is just a sampling of Paris’s gourmet delights. The best cafes, tearooms, and other places to find sinful sweets are listed at the end of this chapter.
In France, food is not a pastime; it’s an art. Eating and drinking is a topic of serious discussion, the subject of radio shows, newspaper columns, and even feature films. So it’s not surprising that Paris, navel of the French universe, should boast some of the best food on Earth. Fortunately, you don’t have to have a king-size budget to dine like royalty. But you do have to choose wisely. Once upon a time, you could wander into just about any restaurant in Paris and sit down to a good meal; today, this is no longer the case. Try not to notice all the fast-food places that have popped up around the city, and don’t even think about eating in one of the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants that serve a bland version of this marvelous Asian cuisine.
Fortunately, the guardians of good food are fighting back. Sick of the pressure and fuss of the temples of haute cuisine, about 10 years ago a bunch of famous chefs like Christian Constant and Yves de Camdeborde started what is now known as the “bistronomy” movement, opening dressed-down bistros that serve modern versions of traditional worker’s cuisine at prices that a worker might be able to afford (at least, for a night out on the town). Since then, a plethora of “neo-bistros” have opened up all over town, serving classic bistro dishes with a dash of contemporary je ne sais quoi. While not exactly cheap, in general these restaurants are affordably hip, and serve excellent food. One outgrowth of this movement is the obsession with “noble” ingredients, such as, high-quality, regional produce or products, often from a specific small-scale farm or artisan, sometimes organic, but always in keeping with the oldest and best traditions.
A French version of the Spanish tapas bar has recently appeared on the Parisian scene, where the tapas often come with a southwestern or Basque accent. And pourquoi pas? As lunch is usually the big meal of the day, Parisians are happy to nibble something light at night, especially with a nice glass of wine.
There’s also a puzzling interest in American food. Gourmet hamburgers are ubiquitous on bistro menus, and you’ll find bagels and smoked salmon at “le brunch.”
Eating Hours & Annual Closings
In Paris, unless you see a sign that says service nonstop, meals are usually severely restricted to set hours. This is one of the reasons it’s a good idea to reserve, if you can (the other is that dining rooms tend to be small). Don’t expect to wander in someplace for a bowl of soup at 4pm. Lunch is generally served between noon and 2pm (sometimes 2:30pm), and dinner is served from 7:30 to 10:30pm (sometimes 11pm). Many restaurants are closed on Sundays and/or Mondays; some have started serving brunch on Sundays, which is served from 11am to 2pm. Cafes and restaurants with a bar tend to stay open between mealtimes serving drinks and coffee; if you are starving, you can usually order a light sandwich, or a croque-monsieur (a French take on a grilled ham and cheese sandwich). Some brasseries serve late into the night. Many restaurants close in August, and some between Christmas and New Year’s; see listings for details. Tip: If you didn’t reserve and you want to avoid waiting in line, try to arrive at the very beginning of the service, noon or around 7:30pm. Most French people eat later than that, so you’ll avoid the rush.
To Tip or Not to Tip?
In France, waiting tables is a time-honored profession, one that comes with paid vacation and retirement benefits. That said, no one gets rich being a French waitperson. Tipping is not required, or even expected, but it is a nice thing to do, especially if you’ve been at the table for several hours, or enjoyed good service. While the price you see on the menu includes tax and service, if you feel so inclined, leave a small tip (about 50[ce] for drinks, a euro or two after meals in mid-range cafes or restaurants). Of course, no one will mind if you leave more.
Most restaurants in Paris are small, so if you have your heart set on eating at one in particular, reserving ahead, even if it is the same day, is essential. If you are looking to dine at one of Paris’s hip neo-bistros or famous gourmet temples, you may have to reserve even months in advance. Ask your hotel receptionist to help if you can’t manage the telephone, or try reserving online through www.thefork.com (which also offers discounts). Otherwise, you can often reserve on the restaurant’s site via e-mail.
Useful Websites for Foodies
* Paris by Mouth (www.parisbymouth.com) provides insider information (in English) on dining in the capital.
* The Fork (www.thefork.com) allows you to reserve restaurants online for free (according to area and type of food), and supplies a list of restaurant promotions—sometimes up to 50 percent off (check restrictions before you book).
* Le Fooding (www.lefooding.com) has a terrific list of Parisian restaurants as well as food-oriented events and news. French, with some English translations.
* David Lebovitz (www.davidlebovitz.com) is a pastry chef and cookbook author who has a rocking website that discusses everything from restaurants and recipes to shopping and travel tips. A personal favorite.
Dejeuner sur L’Herbe (Picnics)
Although restaurants are all very well and good, there’s a lot to be said for a quick and easy outdoor meal in one of Paris’s many lovely parks and squares. Picking up picnic ingredients is a pretty easy affair, though there’s a bit of terminology you should be familiar with. For good takeout food, look for the nearest charcuterie (these specialize in smoked meat, pâtés, and other pork products) or traiteur (a store that sells prepared takeout dishes and salads). At almost any boulangerie (bakery), you can find what may well be the best lunch bargain in the city: their lunch “formule,” or set menu. For around 7€, you can get a long sandwich (usually half a baguette), amply filled with chicken, ham, or tuna and crudités (tomato, lettuce, and other saladlike items), a drink, and a fresh pastry. Often you can substitute a slice of quiche for a sandwich. Formules and sandwiches are usually only available from 11am to 2pm. Eric Kayser (www.maison-kayser.com) and Paul (www.paul.fr) are standout local bakery chains, serving delicious salads, sandwiches, and even hot dishes. But your best bet is to use your nez and find a place on your own. Just be careful in tourist areas, like the Eiffel Tower, where you might find a dud.
Choosing a Restaurant
We've included here a very selective list of restaurants, wine bars, and tearooms that serve good, honest food. But seeing as how there are thousands of restaurants in Paris, you just might wander into something wonderful and unexpected on your own. Finding a good restaurant is extremely subjective, taking into account any number of variables and a good dose of what the French call “le feeling.” That said, I recommend you take some precautions. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to waste time and money on tourist restaurants that shovel out food that is at best, unmemorable, and at worst, indigestible. Look for the places that are full of happy customers, where there’s a line even. Or maybe just follow your nose, and let yourself be tempted by those delicious smells coming out of the kitchen.
Expensive Main dishes 30€ and up
Moderate Main dishes 15€–30€
Inexpensive Main dishes under 15€
Rude Waiters—Myth or Reality?
When people ask me about the legendary rudeness of Parisian wait staff, I have to fight the urge to do the French shrug. It really depends. As in most places in the world, in tourist restaurants you will not find the best service. On the other hand, there is no denying that Parisian customer service can be particularly frosty. Here’s the way I see it: With Parisians, you are guilty until proved innocent. If you can weather the initial chilly blast and show them you are not easily flustered, they’ll usually warm up, and before you know it they will be charming your socks off.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.