Everywhere you look in Paris, someone is doing his or her 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. What follows here is a mere 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. 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 reheated in microwaves.
Fortunately, the guardians of good food are fighting back. Sick of the pressure and fuss of the temples of haute cuisine, about 15 years ago a clutch 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 dressed-up versions of traditional workers' cuisine at relatively reasonable prices. Since then, a plethora of “neo-bistros” have opened all over town, serving classic bistro dishes with a dash of contemporary je ne sais quoi. In general, these restaurants are affordable, 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.
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? Since 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.
You’ll also find a puzzling interest in American food. Gourmet hamburgers are ubiquitous on bistro menus, and you’ll find bagels and smoked salmon at “le brunch,” a new-fangled meal (for the French) that is currently all the rage.
Eating Hours & Annual Closings
In Paris, unless you see a sign that says SERVICE CONTINU, meals are usually 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 from 7 to 10:30pm (sometimes 11pm). Many restaurants close on Sundays and/or Mondays, though some have started serving Sunday brunch, generally from 11am to 3pm. 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. For late-night dining options.
Many restaurants close in August (normally for the first 2 weeks), and some shut down 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 have a better chance if you avoid the rush.
Not many restaurants stay open until the wee hours of the Parisian night, but a few stalwarts are around Les Halles. Le Tambour, 41 rue de Montmartre, 2nd arrond. (01-42-33-06-90; Métro: Les Halles), serves reliable dishes like steak-frites (main courses 16€–20€) daily noon to 5:30am in a dining room filled with kitschy Paris memorabilia. Nearby, Au Pied de Cochon, 6 rue Coquillière, 1st arrond. (www.pieddecochon.com; 01-40-13-77-00; Métro: Les Halles), is a brasserie open 24/7 that specializes in pork and more pork (main courses 22€–50€). Au Pied de Cochon also has some good seafood dishes, and a restorative onion soup is ideal at 4am after a night on the town. For a late-night beef fix, head to La Tour de Montlhéry–Chez Denise; open until 5am), where the steak is as juicy as it is huge. Or try La Poule au Pot; open until 5am), where post-party crowds and a spattering of celebs come in for late-night poached chicken and and other bistro classics.
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€ 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 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 excellent insider information (in English) on dining in the capital.
* The Fork (www.thefork.com) allows you to reserve restaurants online for free and supplies a list of restaurant promotions—sometimes up to 50 percent off (check restrictions before you book).
* Le Fooding (www.lefooding.com) compiles a list of the city’s most innovative restaurants, including establishments that make up the bistronomy movement (gourmet comfort food). French, with some English translations.
* David Lebovitz (www.davidlebovitz.com) is a pastry chef and cookbook author with a rocking website that discusses everything from restaurants and recipes to shopping and travel tips.
Good Healthy Meals to Go or to Stay
Over the past few years, many sandwich bars have popped up all over town:
* Cojean (21 locations; www.cojean.fr . These airy, modern boutiques serve fresh, healthy food, including innovative salads, quiches, sandwiches, and fresh-squeezed juices. Many veggie options. You can eat on-site at comfortable tables. Most locations open until 4 or 5pm.
* Exki (16 locations; www.exki.com. This Belgian chain (pronounced ex-key, like the French word for “exquisite”) offers a terrific array of healthy sandwiches, soups, and desserts (including vegetarian choices). They use lots of organic, free-trade ingredients and have a low ecological footprint. Most locations open until 6pm.
* Boco (2 locations; www.boco.fr . This one is almost too good to be true: organic takeout by Michelin-starred chefs for under 15€. Hot food, cold food, light meals, and desserts until 8 or 10pm. Main dishes cost 7€ to 10€.
Eating Vegetarian in Paris
Though the French still love their meat, times are a-changing and an increasingly large number of Parisian restaurants now cater to vegetarians, offering at least a couple of appropriate dishes on the menu. Even basic cafes will usually serve salades composées, meal-size salads that often come in meat-free versions. If you eat fish, most restaurants offer at least one or two pescatarian selections too. And, of course, Paris does have vegetarian restaurants. We’ve listed a few (Bob’s Juice Bar; Le Potager du Marais Noglu; and Jardin des Pâtes, but space limitations for this book make it hard to go into depth. For more options, visit the Happy Cow (www.happycow.net), a veggie online network with extensive listings for Paris.
Choosing a Restaurant
Below is a selective list of restaurants, wine bars, and tearooms that serve the type of excellent food you came specifically to Paris to try. But seeing as how the city has thousands of restaurants, you’re bound to 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 if you go beyond the suggestions in this guide. Unfortunately, Paris has many restaurants geared solely to tourists that shovel out food that is at best, unmemorable, and at worst, indigestible. Shun places that advertise English menus and look instead for places that are full of happy customers speaking French. And don’t avoid places with lines out front (that’s a good sign). Final strategy: Follow your nose. If there are delicious smells issuing from the kitchen, it’s likely the food will be good (restaurants lacking in appetizing aromas may be relying on pre-packaged foods and microwaves).
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, it is undeniable that Parisian customer service can be frosty. Here’s the way I see it: With Parisians, you are guilty until proven 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 they will be charming your socks off.
Let’s Do Lunch
Many restaurants in Paris serve a set-price menu at lunch that is considerably cheaper than the same food served at dinnertime. It is not unusual to find a two- or three-course lunch prix-fixe, called alternately a formule, or a menu for 17€ to 28€. The only downside is that your choice of dishes will usually be limited on the formule. Note: Set-price lunches are usually only served Monday through Friday.
The Top Tearooms
It may surprise you to know that despite their famous cafe culture, many French people are closet tea fanatics. Thus, it is only fitting that some of the world’s loveliest tearooms are in Paris.
You are wandering around the streets near the Opéra, when you take a sharp turn onto the rue Ste-Anne. Suddenly, everything is in Japanese, with noodle shops everywhere! Plunge into a bowl at one of these restaurants:
* Udon Jubey, 39 rue Ste-Anne, 1st arrond. (01-40-15-92-54; Métro: Pyramides), makes some of the best udon in town; slurp at the counter or grab one of the limited number of tables.
* Higuma, 32 bis rue Ste-Anne, 1st arrond. (www.higuma.fr; 01-47-03-38-59; Métro: Pyramides), features an open kitchen, ramen soups, and a long line out the front door.
* Aki Boulangerie, 16 rue Ste-Anne, 1st arrond. (http://akiboulanger.com; 01-40-15-63-38), is a bakery-tearoom run by the same management as the restaurant (described above). Excellent Japanese teas and savory goodies, as well as terrific Franco-Japanese pastries, such as adzuki bean tarts and matcha tea éclairs, are all on offer.
Paris actually has two Chinatowns: the more established one, among the ugly apartment towers between avenues d’Ivry and Choisy in the 13th arrondissement (about a 5-min. walk from Place d’Italie), and another newer one in Belleville in the 20th. Neither Chinatown is strictly Chinese—the population also includes communities from Vietnam, Cambodia, and other Asian countries. The 13th’s Chinatown has dozens of good restaurants. A couple of my favorites for Chinese food are Imperial Choisy, 32 av. de Choisy, 13th arrond. (01-45-86-42-40), and across the street, Likafo, 39 av. de Choisy, 13th arrond. (01-45-84-20-45), for great shrimp ravioli soup.
Expensive: Main dishes 33€ and up
Moderate: Main dishes 18€–32€
Inexpensive: Main dishes under 18€
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.