Advice on Dining in Paris
"Paris has more than its fair share of the world’s top restaurants, but that doesn’t mean they’re all good. Some are even downright terrible. So when you’re wandering around in a jet-lagged fug and all of the restaurants start looking the same, how do you choose? Fortunately, French law requires restaurant to post their menus outside, so visitors have a chance to check the type of food served, specials of the day, prices, and whether there’s anything on the menu that Junior or the vegetarian in the group can eat. If the menu posted outside is translated into four languages and has accompanying photos, then that gives you an idea already of what you’re getting into." From The Adventure Guide: Paris & Ile-de-France.
I don't do a lot of restaurant reviews for work, so the reviews here on my site are simply the places where I've eaten as a "regular client" (ie on my own dime). I tend to equally weigh the food, service and atmosphere (decor and mood). And I'm always looking for a good deal! I believe you can eat well for under €20, and fabulously for less than €50 (that's including wine), so most of the places I frequent are in these price ranges.
So how do I pick a place to eat in a city spoilt for choice? It's not easy, I admit. I've eaten a lot of bad meals! I go by recommendations, either from friends or trusted guides. On my bookshelf:
Online, I read Le Fooding Guide, a movement for alternative dining that focuses on good food and good atmosphere without the "rules" of traditional French cuisine. They publish an annual print guide as well (only in French).
Le Figaro Scope is another trusted site for restaurant reviews by local journalists who aren't easily impressed. They have regular specials like "best outdoor seating", "best views", and "best steak-frites" (French only).
The Time Out Paris: Eating & Drinking Guide is updated annually, and is written in an irreverent, fresh voice by Paris-based journalists who know what they're talking about. In English.
The Michelin Guide Rouge, as a reference only, because it's not very detailed in the descriptions. The guide is also online (free registration), and you can purchase the English version.
If you don't have your own friends in Paris to recommend their favorite restaurants, borrow mine: Dessert cookbook author and chocolate guide David Lebovitz has a great foodie website/blog where he shares all of his favorite Paris dining addresses.
There are many, many other guides. I would choose yours based on who's doing the reviewing. Paris-based writers are more likely to have visited places several times to get a better idea of consistency, like Patricia Wells, the Paris food journalist for L’Express and the International Herald Tribune) and author of the Food Lover’s Guide to Paris.
always wary of print or online guides where the reviews are anonymous. I think it's just to easy to "fix" these by friends of restaurant owners or even skewed by one unhappy reviewer who has blown the experience out of proportion.
In the United States the terms bistro, brasserie and café seem to be interchangeable terms for any place serving food, but in France these titles mean something, and knowing these meanings will make it a lot easier to now what kind of dining experience you should expect.
The typical bistro is a simple, family-run affair specializing in honest, home-style cooking. The best ones only serve a few different dishes each day, based on whatever is in season at the local market. They tend to be open only on weekdays, and only for a few hours at lunch and dinner. There are many stylish "neo-bistros" on the market now, with contemporary or kitsch retro décor and chic clientele, but the focus is still on traditional cuisine made with the highest quality, seasonal ingredients. The average Parisian bistro is an excellent value, with budget lunch menus and wine by the pichet or glass.
Brasseries are bigger, with non-stop service throughout the day (sometimes 24-hours). They have a larger, flexible menu to suit small or large appetites, from salads and open-faced sandwiches to hearty meals of meat and potatoes. They’re usually set in beautiful, late19th-century dining rooms, yet have an informal, sometimes noisy atmosphere, with no dress code. The first brasseries were opened in Paris by Alsatians who fled their German-occupied region after the Franco-Prussian War, bringing with them their specialty beers and pork-based dishes such as choucroute (sauerkraut and sausages). Other typical brasserie fare includes fresh seafood platters, cassoulet and onion soup.
- Cafés & Salons du Thé
Cafés are a bit more difficult to define. They're generally casual places to have a drink, with light snacks such as croque-monsieurs or salads available throughout the day. They’re the kind of places where you can spend the day people-watching or reading a book. Regulars tend to congregate at the bar, where coffee and drinks are cheaper than at tables. Sometimes a bistro or a restaurant will also call itself a café if it has seating for those just stopping in for a drink. The tables set for eating (placemat, silverware, etc.) are not meant for clients just having a drink. The waiter will usually ask, when you arrive, if you're eating or drinking, and direct you to the proper area.
Tearooms have become very popular in the past few years. Some serve only tea and pastries throughout the day, others have full lunch menus with tea service limited to the afternoon. Tearoom cooking is typically a choice of light but refined salads, quiches and tartes. Tearooms usually close before dinner.
Whether formal or low-key, a restaurant is where you go to have a lingering, three-course (or more) meal, typically with wine, cheese and coffee at the end. Go to a restaurant when you have the time and the appetite to enjoy the entire experience. Sometimes an establishment is called a restaurant if it doesn’t fit into any other category. For dinner, almost all restaurants expect a bit more formality in dress code than during the day, even if in the more casual establishments that means no tank tops, shorts and mucky sneakers. Only the most formal restaurants will actually turn you away for improper clothing; the rest will just seat you in the corner where the other guests won't see you.
- Wine Bar
A wine-lover's paradise, it's hard to go wrong in Paris's bistrots à vin (wine bistros). They're typically informal, and offer a limited selection of charcuterie (cold meats and cheeses) and tartines (open sandwiches) to accompany the carefully-chosen wines. You usually can't just drink wine without eating anything (unless the establishment has a bar license).
Regular restaurant hours are noon-2:30pm for lunch and 7pm-10:30pm for dinner. Parisians tend to eat lunch from 1pm and dinner from 8pm (9:30pm on weekends).
Tip: It's a lot easier to get a reservation in a popular restaurant if you book the first seating -- but you may be the only ones there for awhile!
Like shops, many dining establishments are closed on Sunday or Monday, so be sure to check. Many restaurants close for all or part of August, or shorten the opening hours, so be sure to call ahead if you’re going out of your way. Cafés usually serve snacks such as croque monsieurs or sandwiches throughout the day, and most brasseries are open all day and night.
Always a good idea, especially if there’s more than two in your group and the restaurant is tiny. Trendy bistros may need to be booked up to a week in advance, rising to several months for the Haute-Cuisine restaurants in high season. It’s also a good time to confirm whether they accept credit cards, since this information tends to change frequently.
Having a reservation doesn't guarantee you'll be seated immediately. Nicer restaurants will direct you to the bar while you're waiting, but be patient if you're asked to wait.
Conversely, a restaurant may give your table away if you're more than 15 minutes late, or if you failed to confirm two days before your reservation in more formal restaurants.
Le Menu vs La Carte?
"English words that look like French words but means something completely different are called faux amis (false friends). Americans usually know that à la carte means “off the menu”, therefore la carte is the menu (it also means “map”, which isn’t completely illogical). But we get in trouble when we see the French word menu, and think it means the same thing. But it’s a false friend. Make it your new best friend." From The Adventure Guide: Paris & Ile-de-France.
If you ask for the menu, it means you want to order the fixed-price, 3-course meal that includes a starter, main dish and dessert. Sometimes it's a set selection, more often you get a few dishes in each course to choose from. The menu is always cheaper than ordering à la carte, especially at lunch.
There's also something called a formule, which consists of 2-courses (main dish and either starter or dessert), and sometimes includes coffee or a glass of wine. This is good for small appetites or if you're in a hurry, and often only offered at lunch.
In very expensive restaurants you'll often find the upscale version of the menu, called the menu dégustation (tasting menu), which is usually a multi-course sampling of the chef's specialities.
Reading the Menu
The typical menu has starters/appetizers (entrées), main dishes (plats), and desserts (same word).
Note: Entrée is another one of those false friends! In the US, the entrée is the main dish. In France it’s the appetizer (entrer means “to start”). At least we all agree on dessert!
The fixed-price menus (sometimes there are several available) are always separate from the selections à la carte. There may also be a children's section and a cheese course.
Understanding French food vocabulary is a tricky thing for newcomers. Even I'm still confused by things on the menu! If your waiter doesn't speak English, you may have no idea what you're eating. Best to be armed with a good food dictionary (don't use the sparse, useless vocab guides in the back of guidebooks). Most restaurant guides have decent vocab sections, but try to get something like World Food France (part of the World Food Guides series), which describes every region’s specialities and wines, and includes a detailed, cross-referenced dictionary, or the Bon Appetit: French English Menu Dictionary by Judith White.
The ins and outs of ordering beverages in France is actually quite complicated, so this section should help clarify things a bit.
Parisians drink a lot of bottled water. But the tap water is perfectly fine (I actually prefer it, myself). There's no charge for ordering tap water when eating out. Just ask for une carafe d’eau, which means “pitcher of tap water”.
If you don’t like the taste you can order eau plat (still mineral water like Evian) or eau gazeuse (sparkling mineral water like Perrier).
Woe is the tourist who orders a bottle of wine without knowing the price. This usually happens when, in a moment of linguistic panic, the client nods in agreement with whatever the server recommends. Avoid nasty surprises by asking them to point it out on the wine menu. There’s no shame in ordering the house wine (vin maison) by the pitcher (un pichet), which can also come in ¼- or ½-bottle sizes. In finer restaurants, the sommelier should be able to suggest a bottle within your specified price limits. At lunch it’s normal to order wine by the glass, especially when dining alone.
Don't forget: wine isn't considered a snobby thing to drink in France. The average Parisian spends about €4 for the bottle of wine they drink at home on a daily basis. Wine is obviously more in a restaurant, but you shouldn't feel like a cheapskate if you order the €15 bottle instead of the €40 bottle.
Nothing beats Champagne as a festive way to begin your meal. Other popular pre-meal apéritifs include a kir (white wine with blackcurrant syrup) a kir royal (the same with Champagne instead of wine), a pastis (a Provençal favorite of anisette liqueur, like Pernod, mixed with water), or possibly a small beer. The French don’t drink hard liquors or cocktails before eating because they think it dulls the taste buds.
A waiter will usually ask you right away if you'd like an apéritif. It's perfectly acceptable to decline or ask for water.
Coffee & Tea
Although Starbucks has arrived in France, there are still quite a few other options to getting your caffeine fix. The least expensive beverage on any café or restaurant menu is normally un café (espresso). The price goes up if you want it with steamed milk (café au lait) or cream (café crème). You can also order a noisette (an espresso with a drop of milk), a décaféiné (decaffeinated, also called déca), a café serré (extra strong shot of espresso) or a café allongé (watered-down espresso, closer to American-style coffee). Cappuccino and hot chocolate are standards in most Parisian cafés, and you may also see chocolat Viennoise, which is hot chocolate with whipped cream.
In a restaurant, the coffee comes after the dessert unless you ask the server to bring them at the same time. Sugar is always on the side, sometimes with a square of dark chocolate, too. There's no such thing as free refills in France.
Thé nature is just plain black tea. You can also order it with milk (avec du lait) or lemon (avec citron). If you want non-caffeinated herbal tea, ask for a tisane or infusion. In tearooms the selection is obviously much more elaborate.
Milk & Juice
It’s rare for French adults to order milk. The milk typically used in cafés for coffees is UHT, or long-conservation milk that comes in a box and doesn’t have to be refrigerated until opened. If you want to order a fresh glass of milk, ask if they have lait frais. Semi-skimmed is called demi-écrémé and skimmed is called écrémé.
Similarly, if you order an orange juice or tomato juice in a café, odds are you’ll get the preserved, bottled juices that just don’t taste as good as the real thing. If you want fresh OJ, ask if they have jus d’orange pressé (in a café you’ll see the orange squeezer on the counter). It’s typically served in a half-filled glass with a pitcher of water and sugar on the side (the French like to dilute and sweeten their juice).
Note: The French limonade is actually what Americans would call Sprite, or any type of carbonated lemon-lime drink. If you want real lemonade, ask if they can make a citronnade, which is fresh-pressed lemon juice with a side of water and sugar to taste.