Cue letters of complaint, but it is damn difficult to eat terribly in Paris. The French capital rises to the warmth of fresh artisanal baguettes, snacks on cloud-light macarons, and uses two-course lunches as an excuse to uncork a bottle of rich, ruby-coloured Bordeaux.
Of course, you can still march into an overpriced brasserie with obscured Eiffel Tower views and choke on an overcooked frite, but as even the most seasoned Paris kitchens shake things up, the food scene is becoming tastier by the dawn.
Here’s a taster menu of the best off-beat foodie adventures to try.
Starter: prepare a picnic along rue des Petits-Carreaux
At the north end of rue des Petits-Carreaux, where the noon sun cuts between Haussmann’s honeycomb buildings like a golden butter knife, there’s a bakery that sells loaves the size of pillows. Lightly browned and tenderly dusted with flour, the stoneground breads are bunched together like a hotel cushion arrangement.
Many Parisians shop in stores devoted to a single product: specialist butchers, dedicated bakers and – if they wing it over to Cire Trudon (trudon.com) – the French court’s official candlestick makers. That’s why streets like rue des Petits-Carreaux have everything needed to make an affordable picnic.
Start by selecting some bread from artisan baker Eric Kayser (maison-kayser.com). If you’re browsing for breakfast, try the soft and subtly flavoured fig loaf; else ask for a bronze, Monge baguette whose ends twirl like a gentleman’s moustache. Avert your gaze from the oozing pains au chocolat and sugar-sprinkled orange blossom cakes – there are superior treats to come.
Saunter south instead to La Fromagerie (8 rue des Petits-Carreaux) where slabs of gorgonzola sit beside soft balls of clear-bagged mozzarella, presented like fish at a fairground. Ask what works best with your loaf: perhaps a slice of pungent, creamy stilton or a small block of sharp Roquefort. Then peruse the cheesemongers’ condiments library for a complementary clementine jam or quince paste.
Blushing red tomatoes, sandwich-stuffing lettuces and bowls of fresh fruit can be bought from the greengrocers next door but head further south, where the street morphs into rue Montorgueil, and Boucherie Montorgueil (62 rue Montorgueil) can cover any charcuterie needs: rich pâté de champagne; slices of peppery Boudin blood sausage; wafer-thin cuts of Bayonne ham; tender, pink bresaola.
No picnic would be complete without dessert, so cross to the mirror-filled and magnificently-frescoed Stohrer, Paris’ oldest patisserie, and drool lustfully over their heavenly cakes, delicate pastries and glossy glazed eclairs. Inventors of the baba au rhum (a rum-drenched sponge cake), the shop has sold after-dinner divinity since 1730.
Main course: food trucks and viva the vegetarian revolution
Optimistically, not all culinary reputations rely on recipes inherited from the Louis XV-era, and a new generation of cooks are deftly tugging the starched white tablecloth from underneath Paris’ long-established eating institutions, especially in the city’s food trucks.
Street grub is hotter than a Scotch bonnet pepper right now: seek out Che Empanadas (facebook.com/cheempanadasparis) for hot on-the-hop Argentinian pasties; else wolf down the drooling wagyu beef burgers that sizzle seductively on the griddle of the Wagy Burger Bus (wagy.fr).
Le Réfectoire (le-refectoire.com) began life as a gourmet burger van serving thick, rose-bellied patties in grilled brioche buns, but has since opened a casual restaurant at Marché Saint Martin as well. Preparing French classics from the organic produce sold next door, customers who eat at the counter can hear the cackle and clatter of chefs cooking daily specials like caramelised duck breast served with sliced mango and rocket leaves.
But there’s another development simmering away in the Parisian dining scene, one that tail-coated traditionalists may find hard to stomach: the quiet rise of vegetarianism. In the past, declaring to a French chef that you didn’t eat meat was the equivalent of slapping them with a bunch of spring onions. Yet today, even vegan restaurants can cut the opening day ribbon without a protest mob prowling outside.
Brasserie Lola (facebook.com/brasserielolaparis) in the 15th arrondissement does fantastic quinoa salads with roots, shoots and all manner of earthly goodness, as well as delicate leek quiches and vegan desserts like golden pear pies with whipped cream. Also seek out the Sol Semilla cafeteria (sol-semilla.fr) for superfood juices, revitalising daily soups and rich, rainbow-coloured salads.
RawCakes (facebook.com/RawCakes), a short flâneur (aimless stroll) from Le Jardin du Luxembourg, is a charming pudding pit stop. Decked out in pale pink, its eponymous gluten-free goodies include a sugarless mint and chocolate cake that won’t worry your dentist. Even their vegan burger, slathered in tomato salsa and served with homemade mayonnaise, feels like a treat.
Going off-menu: is this the best food in the whole of Paris?
Even with the hollers of raw-throated salesmen and the low rumble of passing pallet trucks, Francis Gaultheir’s brazen exaggerations still cut above the echoing clamour of Paris’ Rungis International Market (rungisinternational.com). Give the man an audience and he’s louder than a reversing forklift.
‘The best food, the best produce, the best chefs,’ the chain-smoking dealmaker is bellowing from a self-made lectern of boxed soft cheese, gesturing to his audience to admire the bounties around him. Gaultheir is a buyer and tour guide at the vast, sprawling produce market, but more than that, he’s a showman. He knows everybody, or at least appears to: there are back slaps and doublehanded handshakes; whistles, winks, in-jokes.
The deals done beneath the Rungis strip lights mean that the kitchens of Paris always have fresh produce. Throughout the night the market runs like an airport: 25,000 lorries land, load and leave six times a week. Cold, starless 5am dawns glow orange under the flashing hazard lights of reversing refrigerated trucks as articulated HGVs sigh hydraulically.
Fifteen kilometres south of the city centre, closer to Orly Airport than the Eiffel Tower, visitors will need a map and a set of wheels to navigate the hangar-sized depositories that are laid out like a military base. Warehouses are divided by produce type – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, dairy products, flowers and plants – but with damp, slippery floors and impatient workers blindly pushing towers of boxed tomatoes towards the shins of gormless bystanders, a tour guide is your best chance of not getting scooped up and sold off with the livestock.
Rungis is every bit a hard-working mega-bazaar – white-coated hacks haggle over ice-filled boxes of octopuses; wheels of gruyeres are stacked in dark pantries; boxes of fresh-cut rainbow roses wait to save loveless marriages – but Gaultheir sees Europe’s largest produce market more like a museum.
Poking his glasses onto his nose, he combs over the contours of milk-fed veal like a Rodin sculpture. He’ll discuss its age and its provenance; he’ll curl his ringed pinky finger around its marbled rump, reviewing the animal’s muscle as if it were an antique, before considering its fat content. Then, like every good broker, he’ll pontificate on a price.
But does Gaultheir’s claim that Rungis has the best food in the whole of Paris equal out on the abacus? It should do: this is the very start of the Parisian food chain. The boxes of bright-bottomed turnips, home-grown and glowing purple, pink, rouge and gold, are only found fresher if pulled from the earth by hand; and no one but the farmers of the Dordogne’s Perigord Vert have access to creamier fig-stuffed Coeur Figue goat’s cheese.
That means that the 19 restaurants at Rungis could be serving better meals than anywhere else in the city. However its existence as an epicurean destination simmers down to this: its chefs might have access to the finest range of produce in France, but they predominantly cater to post-shift lifters and pre-dawn lorry drivers. So for thick, on-the-run sandwiches stuffed with cheese so soft it melts the moment the knife arrives, Rungis remains an off-menu secret.