My recent trip to Paris was far from my first, and by now I’m not too dazzled to take a good, hard look at one of the city’s most-fêted (and faulted) features: the food.
During the initial euphoria of a Paris visit it’s easy to get carried away with the food. After all, things that are luxuries in the States are commonplace in France. You can buy crêpes from street carts, macarons from the corner bakery, and quality wine from the humble supermarket. Artisanal cheese is abundant, and baguettes are baked fresh each morning using age-old methods. Even the least-glamorous arrondissement (maybe the 14th - I lived there!) offers a selection of viennoiseries rivalling the most upscale New York pastry shop. At a local internet cafe I once had a bagel with foie gras - and it was life changing.
Eventually you realize that you can’t live on baguette and cheese and pastries (doesn’t mean I didn’t try) and you begin thinking seriously about what the city has to offer in terms of real food. And this is where it starts to get tricky. In the US, French food equals fancy food, and that usually means it’s quite good. We go to French restaurants on anniversaries and birthdays to savor blanquette de veau, magret de canard and steak tartare. In France, well wouldn’t you guess, that’s just the national cuisine, and it’s available on every level of quality from outstandingly good to outstandingly bad.
What’s more, it’s hard to distinguish the good establishments from the bad ones because they all look exactly the same. There are some general rules of thumb: avoid major boulevards or anywhere near the Eiffel Tower, steer clear of English-language menus and aim for fabric tablecloths. That being said, when it comes to bistros you really won’t know until your food is served. I’ve had grisly steak-frites in Montmartre, rubbery omelettes in Saint-Germain-des-Près, and burnt croque-monsieurs in the Marais. All of this might make you never want to walk into a restaurant without first consulting TripAdvisor. And yet, when I met a friend one night in super-touristy Place de la République, we wandered into what I thought was a dubious establishment and discovered absolutely delicious chicken breast and risotto, not to mention a charmingly friendly waiter. That’s Paris for you.
The bastions of quality are usually the neighborhood brasseries: more upscale than bistros, and correspondingly more expensive. A must for one meal, but not feasible for much more than that. Plus, it gets boring. This is Paris and, believe it or not, it’s one of the most culturally diverse places in the entire world. There are Lebanese sandwich shops and Vietnamese pho counters, sushi bars and takeout biryani. And then there’s the sheer diversity of food offered around France: Bréton, Alsacien, Basque, you name it. A great resource for navigating all of this is Le Fooding, a French food magazine and website that lets you search by neighborhood, cuisine, price range and more, and their recommendations are consistently on point.
I’ve put together a list of restaurants and cafés I’ve enjoyed in Paris, both from my recent trip as well as my previous visits (hopefully they’re still there). If you have the money and the planning skills to swing l’Arpège or the Comptoir du Relais, then by all means go for it. If you’re looking for a Paris dining experience that’s a little less curated, a little more spontaneous and--dare I say--authentic, read on.
From my October trip:
Fish La Boissonnerie: Inventive seafood dishes with a lively, somewhat hipster ambiance.
69 Rue de Seine
U Mulinu: My first foray into Corsican food, featuring charcuterie from their native “Tiger Cow.”
28 Boulevard de l'Hôpital
The café at the Musée Picasso: Not a fancy museum restaurant but a simple and inexpensive café where I enjoyed one of the single best quiches I’ve ever had. You can bring your trays out onto the roof and have lunch in the sunshine.
5 Rue de Thorigny
Brasserie le Stella: They sort their shellfish right by the entrance to the restaurant and you know it’s going to be good. Raw seafood towers, sole meunièure and perfect steaks.
133 Avenue Victor Hugo
Vaudeville: Another brasserie, this time right across from La Bourse. I had a salmon with pesto there once that I’ve never forgotten.
29 Rue Vivienne
Paris Feni: For the lassi and takeout chicken biryani.
15 Rue Ternaux
Nagoya: The à la carte sushi gets pricey, but I lived on their katsu don when I was a student in Paris.
130 Rue de Vaugirard
Au Bon Pho: I think there’s just one variety of pho on the menu, but it’s amazingly rich and flavorful.
22 Rue au Maire
Cojean: A takeout lunch chain with great options beyond sandwiches.
Mariage Frères: The iconic tearoom where I once had mango-lavender cake, and it just worked.
30 Rue du Bourg Tibourg