The inhabitants of some cities rally around local sports teams, but in Paris they rally around la table – and everything on it. Pistachio macarons, shots of tomato consommé, decadent bœuf bourguignon, a gooey wedge of Camembert running onto the cheese plate…food isn't fuel here; it’s the reason you get up in the morning.
Paris: A Culinary Renaissance
Home to one of the world’s great culinary traditions, France has shaped Western cooking techniques and conceptions of what good food is for centuries – whether it's a multicourse gourmet meal or a crusty baguette. Blessed with a rich and varied landscape, farmers with a strong sense of regional identity and a culture that celebrates life’s daily pleasures, it’s no surprise that French chefs have long been synonymous with gastronomic genius.
Over the past several decades, though, restaurant culture started to slip. Frozen and industrially prepared ingredients, stultifying business regulations and an over-reliance on formulaic dishes led to a general decline in both quality and innovation. Alarmed by these forbidding trends, a new generation of chefs has emerged in the past several years, reemphasising market-driven cuisine and displaying a willingness to push the boundaries of traditional tastes, while at the same time downplaying the importance of Michelin stars and the formal, chandelier-studded dining rooms of yesteryear.
Even more significantly, the real change that is taking place in Paris today is that more and more of these chefs – and, just as importantly, more and more diners – are open to culinary traditions originating outside France. Some have trained abroad, while others hail from Japan, the US or elsewhere. The latter group has come to Paris specifically because they love French cooking, but none are so beholden to its traditions that they are afraid to introduce new concepts or techniques from back home. French cuisine has finally come to the realisation that a global future doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of identity – decadent work-of-art pastries and the divine selection of pungent cheeses aren’t going anywhere. Instead, there is an opportunity to once again create something new.
How to Eat & Drink Like a Parisian
Eating well is of prime importance to most French people, who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, discussing and enjoying food and wine. Yet dining out doesn’t have to be a ceremonious occasion or one riddled with pitfalls for the uninitiated. Approach food with even half the enthusiasm les français do, and you will be welcomed, encouraged and exceedingly well fed.
When to Eat
- Petit déjeuner (breakfast) The French kick-start the day with a slice of baguette smeared with unsalted butter and jam and un café (espresso) or – for kids – hot chocolate. Parisians might grab a coffee and croissant on the way to work, but otherwise croissants (eaten straight, never with butter or jam) are more of a weekend treat or goûter (afternoon snack) along with pains au chocolat (chocolate-filled croissants) and other viennoiseries (sweet pastries).
- Déjeuner (lunch) The traditional main meal of the day, lunch incorporates a starter and main course with wine, followed by a short, sharp café. During the work week this is less likely to be the case – many busy Parisians now grab a sandwich to go and pop off to run errands – but the standard hour-long lunch break, special prix-fixe menus and tickets restaurant (company-funded meal vouchers) ensure that many restaurants fill up at lunch.
- Apéritif Otherwise known as an apéro, the premeal drink is sacred. Cafes and bars get packed out from around 5pm onwards as Parisians wrap up work for the day and relax over a glass of wine or beer.
- Diner (dinner) Traditionally lighter than lunch, but a meal that is being treated more and more as the main meal of the day. In restaurants the head chef will almost certainly be in the kitchen, which is not always the case during lunch.
- Carte Menu, as in the written list of what’s cooking, listed in the order you’d eat it: starter, main course, cheese, then dessert. Note that an entrée is a starter, not the main course (as in the US).
- Menu Not at all what it means in English, le menu in French is a prix-fixe menu: a multicourse meal at a fixed price. It’s by far the best-value dining there is and most restaurants chalk one on the board. In some cases, particularly at neobistros, there is no carte – only a stripped-down menu with one or two choices.
- À la carte Order whatever you fancy from the menu (as opposed to opting for a prix-fixe menu).
- Formule Similar to a menu, une formule is a cheaper lunchtime option comprising a main plus starter or dessert. Wine or coffee is sometimes included.
- Plat du jour Dish of the day, invariably good value.
- Menu enfant Two- or three-course meal for kids (generally up to the age of 12) at a fixed price; usually includes a drink.
- Menu dégustation Fixed-price tasting menu served in many top-end restaurants, consisting of at least five modestly sized courses.
- Bread Order a meal and within seconds a basket of fresh bread will be brought to the table. Butter is rarely an accompaniment. Except in the most upmarket of places, don’t expect a side plate – simply put it on the table.
- Water Asking for une carafe d’eau (jug of tap water) is perfectly acceptable, although some waiters will presume you don't know this and only offer mineral water, which you have to pay for. Should you prefer bubbles, ask for de l’eau gazeuze (fizzy mineral water). Ice (glaçons) can be hard to come by.
- Service To state the obvious, France is not a service-oriented country. No one is working for tips here, so to get around this, think like a Parisian – acknowledge the expertise of your serveur by asking for advice (even if you don't really want it) and don't be afraid to flirt. In France flirtation is not the same as picking someone up; it is both a game that makes the mundane more enjoyable and a vital life skill to help you get what you want (such as the bill). Being witty and speaking French with an accent will often help your cause.
- Dress Smart casual is best. How you look is very important, and Parisians favour personal style above all else. But if you're going somewhere dressy, don't assume this means suit and tie – that's more business-meal attire. At the other end of the spectrum, running shoes may be too casual, unless, of course, they are more hip than functional, in which case you may fit right in.
Where to Eat
- Bistro (or bistrot) A small neighbourhood restaurant that serves French standards (duck confit, steak-frites). The setting is usually casual; if you’re looking for a traditional French meal, a bistro is the place to start. Don't expect haute cuisine service; most simply do not have the staff to cater to a diner’s every whim.
- Brasserie Much like a cafe except it serves full meals, drinks and coffee from morning until 11pm or later. Typical fare includes choucroute (sauerkraut) and sausages.
- Cafe Many visitors will naturally gravitate towards cafes (which become bars around 5pm) because of the alluring ambience and buzzy sun-kissed terraces. Meals are inexpensive but often consist of industrially prepared food that's simply reheated, so stick to the drinks.
- Crêperie A quintessentially Parisian snack is the street crêpe made to order, slathered with Nutella and folded up in a triangular wedge. Crêpes can be so much more than this, however, as a trip to any authentic crêperie will reveal. Savoury crêpes, known as galettes, are made with buckwheat flour; dessert crêpes are made with white flour – usually you order one of each accompanied by a bowl of cider.
- Gastronomic Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Savoy, Pascal Barbot… Paris has one of the highest concentrations of culinary magicians in the world. Designed to amaze your every sense, many of these restaurants are once-in-a-lifetime destinations – even for Parisians – so do your homework and reserve well in advance.
- Market Fantastic places to wander: here you’ll find all the French culinary specialities in the same place, in addition to meals and snacks cooked on site. Scores of food markets set up in the city. Most are open twice weekly from 8.30am to 1pm, though covered markets keep longer hours, reopening around 4pm. For a complete list, visit https://meslieux.paris.fr/marches.
- Neobistro Generally small and relatively informal, these are run by young, talented chefs who aren’t afraid to experiment. The focus is on market-driven cuisine, hence choices are often limited to one or two dishes per course. Some specialise in small plates designed for sharing.
- Wine bar/cave à manger The focus is on sampling wine; the style of cuisine, while often excellent, can be wildly different. Some places serve nothing more than plates of cheese and charcuterie (saucisson, pâté); others are full-on gastronomic destinations with a talented chef running the kitchen.
Vegetarians, Vegans & Gluten-Free Food
Vegetarians and vegans make up a small minority in a country where viande (meat) once also meant ‘food’, but in recent years they have been increasingly well catered for with a slew of new vegetarian and vegan addresses, from casual vegan burger, pizza and hot-dog joints to gourmet vegetarian and vegan restaurants. More and more modern places are also offering vegetarian choices on their set menus. Another good bet is non-French cuisine; Middle Eastern cuisine in particular is currently a red-hot trend. See www.happycow.net for a guide to veggie options in Paris.
Likewise, gluten-free dining options are steadily becoming more prevalent: try Noglu or Helmut Newcake for starters, and bakery Chambelland for bread and cakes. Gluten-free addresses are mapped at www.glutenfreeinparis.com.
What better place to discover the secrets of la cuisine française than in Paris, the capital of gastronomy? Courses are available at different levels and for various durations.
- Cook’n With Class A bevy of international chefs, small classes and an enchanting Montmartre location are ingredients for success at this informal cooking school, which organises dessert classes for kids, cheese and wine courses, market visits, gourmet food tours and six-course dinners with the chef and sommelier as well as regular cookery classes. Classes are taught in English.
- Le Cordon Bleu One of the world’s foremost culinary-arts schools. Prices start at €140 for themed three-hour classes (food and wine pairing, vegetarian cuisine, eclairs, choux pastry etc) and €470 for two-day courses.
- La Cuisine Paris Classes in English range from how to make bread and croissants to macarons as well as market classes and gourmet ‘foodie walks’.
- Le Foodist Classes at this culinary school include classic French cookery and patisserie courses, allowing you to create your own éclairs and choux pastry, macarons or croissants. Market tours, and wine and cheese tastings and pairings are also available. Instruction is in English. Three-hour classes start at €99.
Paris Food Bloggers & Useful Websites
David Lebovitz (www.davidlebovitz.com) Expat US pastry chef and cookbook author. Good insights and recommendations.
Le Fooding (https://lefooding.com) The French movement that’s giving Michelin a run for its money. Le Fooding's mission is to shake up the ossified establishment, so expect a good balance of quirky, under-the-radar reviews and truly fine dining.
La Fourchette (www.thefork.com) Website offering user reviews and great deals of up to 50% off in Paris restaurants.
Paris by Mouth (https://parisbymouth.com) Capital dining and drinking with articles and recommendations searchable by arrondissement.
Paris Food Affair (www.parisfoodaffair.com) Keep tabs on Paris' evolving foodie scene.
Many people in Paris buy at least some of their food from a series of small neighbourhood shops, each with its own speciality. Having to go to a series of shops and stand in several queues to fill the fridge (or assemble a picnic) may seem a waste of time, but the whole ritual is an important part of the way many Parisians live their daily lives.
Patisseries & Chocolatiers
Pâtisseries (pastry shops) are similar to bakeries but are generally up a notch on the sophistication scale. Although they sell different varieties of pastries and cakes, each one is often known for a particular speciality – Ladurée and Pierre Hermé do macarons, Gérard Mulot does cakes and tartes, and so on. A chocolatier specialises in chocolates, generally sold in 100g increments and available in over a dozen mouthwatering flavours: pistachio, lavender, ginger, orange and more.
The fromagerie specialises in cheese, and cheese only: whether you want a hard goat’s cheese, creamy Époisses or mouldy Roquefort, this is the place for unpasteurised goodness.
The neighbourhood butcher’s shop is a common fixture in Paris; short-term visitors will be most interested in checking them out for their selection of charcuterie (prepared meats; usually pork, sometimes poultry), such as pâtés, terrines, saucissons (salami) and rillettes (meat spreads).
Similar to a deli, the traiteur specialises in prepared dishes. As at the boucherie you’ll find a selection of charcuterie, but you’ll also find a variety of salads, baked goods (eg quiches) and sometimes sandwiches.
Even in the supermarket age, open-air and covered markets (marchés alimentaires) are a staple of Parisian life.
Neighbourhood wine shops (cavistes) are another typically French establishment. Although foreigners may find French wine intimidating – for starters, wines are classified by region, not grape variety, which undermines most people's basic level of familiarity – caviste staff are generally quite eager to share their knowledge and passion for a good bottle.
If you’re interested in sampling French wine paired with a good meal, your best bet is to visit a bar à vins (wine bar) or a cave à manger – a caviste that serves meals in addition to selling wine.
Need to Know
- Restaurants generally open from noon to 2pm for lunch and from 7.30pm to 10.30pm for dinner. Peak Parisian dining times are 1pm and 9pm.
- Most restaurants shut for at least one full day (usually Sunday). August is the peak holiday month and many places are consequently closed during this time.
- Midrange restaurants will usually have a free table for lunch (arrive by 12.30pm); book a day or two in advance for dinner.
- Reservations up to one or two months in advance are crucial for lunch and dinner at popular/high-end restaurants. You may need to reconfirm on the day.
A pourboire (tip) on top of the bill is not necessary as service is always included. But it is not uncommon to round up the bill if you were pleased with your waiter.
Paying the Bill
Trying to get l’addition (the bill) can be maddeningly slow. Do not take this personally. The French consider it rude to bring the bill immediately – you have to be persistent when it comes to getting your server's attention.
- Daily formules or menus (prix-fixe menus) typically include two- to four-course meals. In some cases, particularly at market-driven neobistros, there is no carte (menu).
- Lunch menus are often a fantastic deal and allow you to enjoy haute cuisine at very affordable prices.