The Parisian's reverence for fine cuisine is almost religious. It is part of his or her heritage. Whether it's choucroute from the Alsatian region or agneau de lait Pyrénés rôti from the Southwest, it is quintessentially French, and it is all fabulous. The Parisian knows this--and now more than ever. The millennium seems to have ushered in a renewed excitement in French dining, ignited by some star chefs, including the Costes Brothers whose flagship restaurant at their eponymous hotel is thriving, along with Georges and L'Esplanade, to name a few of their spots. Michelin star Alain Ducasse has brought reputation to trendy restaurants like Spoon, Food, and Wine, where he offers a variety of "cuisine internationale" and boasts an extensive foreign wine list. And of course, there are the more low-key, traditional chefs--like Thierry Breton of Chez Michel and Philippe Tredgeu of Chez Casimir--who are more interested in classic French dining, assuring the Parisian and tourist alike that traditional--and excellent--French fare will never die out.
It is true, the French are reserved, and nowhere is this more evident then when you are in one of their holy places: a restaurant. This can make the French dining experience daunting, but don't be intimidated; it's all part of the act, and your waiter is just playing his role. To open a dialogue simpatico, smooth your way with such phrases as "Bonjour, Monsieur." It's a little bit of politesse that works like "open sesame." Do not address your server as garçon. Remember, behind your server's protective mask lies a well of passion, knowledge, and pride, because he is your liaison to the most sacred cathedral of all--La Cuisine.
For the French, dining is an art, and they give it due respect. So whether they're lunching at a family brasserie or a place that serves haute cuisine, the French will take time to eat their mouthwatering Feuilleté au Fromage and confit de canard. Honoring this tradition, most shopkeepers close their stores from 1 to 3pm to savor their own noontime repast (and perhaps take a snooze after a good meal).
While lunch is important, dinner is le plus important, so if you were galloping through the Louvre all day and grabbed a crêpe on the street for lunch, unwind during dinner at a leisurely French pace. Even if you're not feeling flush, you can find a restaurant that offers a wonderful meal at an affordable price, particularly since so many places offer a fixed-price menu called formule or menu du jour; often these are very good deals. The many ethnic restaurants in Paris are often inexpensive and worth trying for some spice in your life. Think couscous!
With so much emphasis on cuisine, it may be surprising that you find a slender population here. That is because French chefs use only the freshest ingredients and portions are sensibly small. But even in the unlikely event that you have leftovers, don't ask for a doggie bag unless you want to suffer under an imperious French gaze.
If you're feeling a bit bohemian, be creative; picnic! Go to a fromagerie for cheese, a boulangerie for a baguette, and a charcuterie for some paté, sausage, or salad. Add a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, and head for the Pont des Arts; nothing is more romantic than toasting the most beautiful city in the world on this magnificent bridge under a moonlit sky. Bon appétit!
Best Affordable Restaurant Bets
Best View: In good weather, you'll have one of the loveliest views in Paris from an outdoor table at the Restaurant du Palais-Royal, 43 rue Valois, 1er (tel. 01-40-20-00-27). The restaurant is in the Palais-Royal, so you'll overlook its beautiful, peaceful gardens while dining on fine dishes like grilled sole with a garnish of carrots, parsley, red pepper, and baby squid.
Best Places for a Celebration: If you want a glamorous night on the town with friends, try Brasserie Flo, 7 cour des Petites-Ecuries, 10e (tel. 01-47-70-13-59). The handsome turn-of-the-20th-century dining room is unfailingly convivial--you'll likely see the waiters gathered around a table singing "Happy Birthday" at least once during a meal.
For something more chic, if trendy, head to Georges, Centre Pompidou, 6th Floor, rue Rambuteau, 4e (tel. 01-44-78-47-99; www.centrepompidou.fr). The creation of the famous Costes Brothers (of Hotel Costes) is one of the hottest spots in Paris with a 360° view to kill--and its prices are surprisingly reasonable.
Most Typical Parisian Bistro: Every Parisian has his or her pick, but almost everyone agrees that Chardenoux, 1 rue Jules-Valles, 11e (tel. 01-43-71-49-52), belongs in the top 10. It's a small place in an out-of-the-way location, but the food is excellent and the Art-Nouveau setting gloriously, eternally Parisian.
Best Modern Bistro: You'll have to book the minute you get to town if you want to sample the wonderful food at the almost hopelessly popular Chez Casimir, 6 rue de Belzunce, 10e (tel. 01-48-78-28-80). It's worth the trip to this treasure close to the Gare du Nord, where you'll find traditional French cuisine with a twist, served in an animated setting.
Best for Business Meals: Bofinger, 5-7 rue de la Bastille, 4e (tel. 01-42-72-87-82). It's one of the prettiest restaurants in Paris, with a gorgeous domed stained-glass ceiling over the main dining room. It became part of the Brasserie Flo chain in 1996, and the food has never been better.
Best Brasserie: For a taste of the real thing, go to Brasserie Ile St-Louis, 55 quai de Bourbon, 1er (tel. 01-43-54-02-59), the last independent brasserie in Paris. Far from the manicured, polished restaurants that masquerade as true brasseries, this one has as its heart old Paris.
Best Place for a Late-Night Meal: You can always wander into one of the all-night brasseries along rue Coquillière (on the northern edge of Les Halles) without a reservation. For a Parisian experience with a splash of American literary history, head to Closerie des Lilas, 171 bd. du Montparnasse, 6e (tel. 01-40-51-34-50). Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises here, and in his off time he hung out here with John Dos Passos. You'll need reservations. For a change of pace, try the bustling, bawdy La Tour de Montlhéry, 5 rue des Prouvaires, 1er (tel. 01-42-36-21-82), open nonstop from 7am Monday to 7am Saturday. It's known for huge cuts of excellent meat and good house wines. Reservations are always required.
Best for Mingling with the Locals: Parisians are avid bargain-hunters, which explains the huge popularity of moderately priced new bistros. Two recent favorites are Dame Jeanne, 60 rue de Charonne, 11e (tel. 01-47-00-37-40), and Restaurant Paul, 15 place Dauphine, 1er (tel. 01-43-54-21-48). Both restaurants, in off-the-beaten-track locations, are run by young chefs and owners who pride themselves on their modern bistro cooking.
Best Breakfast: The day sometimes starts with mealy croissants and watery coffee in budget accommodations; if you make the effort to come here, you'll wish that Angelina, 226 rue de Rivoli, 1er (tel. 01-42-60-82-00; www.angelina.fr), was next door to your hotel. This Belle Epoque palace with gold-trimmed mirrors serves delectable buttery pastries and hot chocolate you'll never forget.
Best Afternoon Tea: For a delightful timeout during an ambitious day of sightseeing, head to Mariage Frères, 30-32 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, 4e (tel. 01-42-72-28-11; www.mariagefreres.com). The Mariage family entered the trade in 1660, when Nicolas Mariage began importing tea from Persia for King Louis XIV. Take your pick from more than 475 different teas in the attractive colonial-style salon at the back of the shop.
Best Sandwiches: Italy is the inspiration for the focaccia-style bread and scrumptious fillings at Cosi, 54 rue de Seine, 6e (tel. 01-46-33-35-36). To accompany the freshly baked bread, you can choose from an assortment of specialties, including arugula, mozzarella, Parmesan, Italian ham, roast tomatoes, and tapenade.
Best Picnic Fare: Two excellent places for one-stop shopping are La Grande Epicerie, Bon Marché, 38 rue de Sèvres, 7e (tel. 01-44-39-81-00; www.lagrandeepicerie.fr), and Lafayette Gourmet, 52 bd. Haussmann, 9e (tel. 01-48-74-46-06). The quiche from the Grande Epicerie Alsatian deli counter is a special treat.
Best Spot for a Family Meal: The Batifol chain, with locations all over Paris, offers quality bistro cooking in attractive surroundings at reasonable prices. The fixed-price menu is only 11.40€ ($12.30), and the children's menu runs 6.85€ ($7.30). There are branches at 78 av. des Champs-Elysées, 8e (tel. 01-45-62-64-93), and 1 bd. St-Germain, 5e (tel. 01-43-54-49-05). (See "The Best of the Budget Chains" below.)
Best Wine Bar: For excellent Rhône Valley wines and generous plates of cold cuts and cheese in a lively little dining room, visit A la Cloche des Halles, 28 rue Coquillière, 1er (tel. 01-42-36-93-89). Cloche means "bell," and the name refers to the bell that tolled the opening and closing of the city's main market when it was nearby. Some old-market atmosphere survives here, including an interesting mix of people and a high level of conviviality. It's a great place for a light, very French lunch.
Best Cafe Food: Although cafes all over town serve salads and omelets, the staff makes an extra effort at La Chaise au Plafond, 10 rue Trésor, 4e (tel. 01-42-76-03-22), on a side street in the heart of the Marais. The offbeat decor--park benches and a ceiling painted black and white to resemble the markings on a cow--attracts a young crowd that delights in the big, fresh salads and thick tartes.
Best Foreign Meal: Paris abounds with excellent North African and Vietnamese restaurants, but a meal at Le Manguier, 67 av. Parmentier, 11e (tel. 01-48-07-03-27), may be the only chance you'll ever have to try West African cooking. Among the better dishes are chicken yassa with lemons and onions, and requin fumé (smoked shark), if you're feeling adventurous. This lively place also serves potent, mostly rum-based cocktails and plays African music.
Best Student Hangout: Parisian students have a keen eye for bargains, skimping on food so they can spend their parents' money in salsa bars. At Restaurant Perraudin, 157 rue St-Jacques, 5e (tel. 01-46-33-15-75), in the heart of the Latin Quarter, students and professors get comfortable home cooking at rock-bottom prices. The 11.90€ ($12.80) lunch menu is hearty enough to see them through an afternoon of classes and an evening of carousing.
Best French Regional Restaurants: Regional cooking has been enjoying a new vogue in Paris. Three of the best places to dine in the provinces without leaving town are: Chantairelle, 17 rue Laplace, 5e (tel. 01-46-33-18-59; www.chantairelle.com), to sample the sturdy fare of the south-central Auvergne region; and Vivario, 6 rue Cochin, 5e (tel. 01-43-25-08-19), the oldest Corsican restaurant in Paris, which serves hearty specialties from Napoleon's birthplace.
Best Deals: The 18.30€ ($19.70) seasonal menu at the modern bistro Dame Jeanne , provides the kind of adventurous cuisine you don't often see at this price. The tasty two- and three-course lunch menus at Le Galopin, 34 rue Ste-Marthe, 10e (tel. 01-53-19-19-55), can't be beat.
Cheap Streets: The Lowdown
Rue des Rosiers, in the Marais. People have been known to trudge across town for the two-fisted pita-bread sandwiches sold on this street. Stuffed with falafel, eggplant, and salad, then topped with your choice of sauce, this must be the best 3.80€ ($4.10) meal in town.
Avenue d'Ivry and Avenue de Choisy, 13e. Far off the tourist track, the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai restaurants along these avenues cater to the local Asian population. Prices are low and quality is high.
Métro Belleville, 11e. The streets radiating out from this station are the northern headquarters for Asian cuisine. Whether at an unassuming little spot or a large Chinese-style brasserie, you can usually slurp down noodle soup at any hour of the day and into the night.
Boulevard de Belleville, 11e. You'll find a lot of couscous places, reasonably priced and fine, if not outstanding. Middle Eastern snacks, pastries, and a glass of mint tea make an exotic and inexpensive meal.
Rue de Montparnasse, 14e. The street between boulevard Edgar Quinet and boulevard du Montparnasse is a Crêperie Row of inexpensive Breton eateries. Whether sugared with syrups and jam (crêpes) or stuffed with vegetables and meat (galettes), they make a tasty light meal for less than 60F ($8.60).
Rue Ste-Anne, 9e. Sushi is expensive in Paris, but because this street lies in the same neighborhood as many Japanese businesses, you'll find the freshest fish and most authentic dishes at prices that are more moderate than elsewhere.
The Best of the Budget Chains
Paris has several good chains, the best of which is the Chez Clément group (www.chezclement.com). The specialty is spit-roasted meat, with sweet spices, honey, or dried fruit. The Grand Rotisserie--salad, beef, pork, chicken, and mashed potatoes for 11.95€ ($14)--is a good deal. There are eight branches, including 123 av. des Champs-Elysées, 8e (tel. 01-40-73-87-00); 17 bd. des Capucines, 2e (tel. 01-53-43-82-00); and 21 bd. Beaumarchais, 11e (tel. 01-40-29-17-00). All are open daily to 1am.
Batifol is a chain that serves good food at very fair prices--the standard fixed-price menu is 11.40€ ($12.30). There are a dozen or so locations, including one on the Right Bank at 78 av. des Champs-Elysées, 8e (tel. 01-45-62-64-93), and one on the Left Bank at 1 bd. St-Germain, 5e (tel. 01-43-54-49-05).
You'll see the red awnings of Hippopotamus all over town. These places prepare decent red-meat dishes accompanied by fries and salad and served in a pleasant atmosphere. The extended hours are a convenience as well--you can get a hot meal here when most other places are closed. Try the one at 9 rue Lagrange, 5e (tel. 01-43-54-13-99; Métro: Maubert); it's open Sunday to Thursday 11:30am to 1am, Friday and Saturday 11:30am to 1:30am.
Oh! Poivrier! ("Oh! The Pepper Mill!") features light fare, moderate prices, and long hours. A salad or sandwich with duc, prosciutto, or cheese makes a pleasant lunch or supper; you'll find a branch at 60 rue Pierre Charron, 15e (tel. 01-42-25-28-65; www.ohpoivrier.com, Métro: Franklin-D-Roosevelt). Lina's Sandwiches packs an assortment of fillings onto whole-meal bread and rolls in American-deli style. Add a soup or salad and finish with a brownie. Among its locations are 30 bd. des Italiens, 9e (tel. 01-42-46-02-06; www.linascafe.com Métro: Opéra), and 7 av. de l'Opéra, 1er (tel. 01-47-03-30-29).
Léon de Bruxelles, Belgium's answer to TGI Friday's specializes in steamed mussels rather than fries and burgers. The chain serves 13 styles of the crustacean, all with frites, in a cavernous environment that echoes with rounds of "Joyeaux Anniversaire" ("Happy Birthday") sung at party tables. There is a branch at 63 av. des Champs-Elysées, 8e (tel. 01-42-25-96-16; www.leon-de-bruxelles.fr, Métro: Charles-de-Gaulle-Etoile).
Though the ambience can be uninspiring, some cafeterias offer good food at moderate prices. In the Les Halles neighborhood, try Flunch-Fontaine Innocents, 5 rue Pierre Lescot, 1er (tel. 01-42-33-54-00). Near the Arc de Triomphe there's the modern Empire State, 41 av. Wagram, 17e (tel. 01-43-80-14-39). In the Carrousel du Louvre, Universal Restaurant, 99 rue de Rivoli, 1er (tel. 01-47-03-96-58), offers a grab bag of French and ethnic food .