The legendary New Yorker essayist A.J. Liebling once wrote that “the primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.”
The same could be said about visiting Paris. Apart from the iconic palaces of culture — the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou, the Musée d’Orsay, the fashionable boutiques in the 16th arrondissement — what sets Paris apart from other world capitals is the wonder and depth of its culinary culture.
Whether it’s the flakiest, most rich pain au chocolat from the boulangerie around the corner from your hotel, the simple lunch of steak frites at a small Marais bistro after a morning’s visit to the Musée Picasso, or the six-course dinner at one of the city’s Michelin-starred temples de cuisine, Paris is about indulging your palate. Here are ten easy steps to mastering culinary Paris:
Find a copy of Patricia Wells’s Food Lover’s Guide to Paris. Luminaries of the American culinary scene from Alice Waters to Jacques Pépin use and recommend this book by Wells, a longtime food critic for the International Herald Tribune and an expert on Parisian gastronomy. Whether you want to visit one of the city’s vibrant open-air markets, find the fixings for a romantic picnic in the Jardins du Luxembourg, or pick up a bottle of beautifully aged Bordeaux as a souvenir, Wells tells you when and where to go. That said, don’t be a slave to the book. Follow your nose. Paris is full of wonderful aromas. If the scent of brioche coming out of the ovens of the bakery down the street catches your fancy, you can’t go wrong picking up a few.
Book the biggies in advance. If you want to dine in the famous two- or three-starred restaurants, book in advance — preferably before arriving in Paris. But don’t be afraid to call at the last moment either; people cancel reservations all the time, at which point the restaurant of your dream might be happy to arrange a last-minute table. Alain Passard’s L’Arpège (Phone: 01-45-51-47-33), Henri Faugeron’s Faugeron (Phone: 01-47-04-24-53), and Benoit Guichard’s Jamin (Phone: 01-45-53-00-07) are worth far more than the cost of an international call.
Don’t be intimidated. If you speak French, great, but English is widely understood. And though some Parisian waiters have earned their reputation for snobbery, most are gracious, accommodating professionals. If you are intent on enjoying yourself and open to more than eating steak, you’ll be treated with respect.
A couple of years ago some friends and I went to a restaurant named Polidor. Though our French was good, we conversed in English as we walked in. We were brusquely taken to a table in the back. Desiring something simple, one of my friends ordered a steak. The waitress flashed her a look of disgust. I in turn ordered the andouillette sausage, and our server smiled broadly, asking me if I knew what it was. “Tripe and sausage, I hope,” I said. “Exactement!” she replied, beaming, explaining that the restaurant was famous for it and was one of the few in Paris that made it “the right way.” From that moment on she was as friendly as any waitress I have encountered. She even saved me a slice of apple tart (which she told others they were out of) for dessert.
Do as the French do. In the morning, stand at a café’s counter with the businesspeople as they down a quick espresso (un express!) or café crème (basically a cappuccino). At the end of dinner, espresso.
Visit a specialty food shop. Paris abounds in food shops offering the finest chocolates, coffees, and cheeses in the world. One sweet stop: the Maison du Miel, one of the few shops outside Turkey devoted exclusively to honey. Dozens of different kinds are available, including remarkable nectars from herb blossoms. The thyme and rosemary honeys are unbelievable.
Have lunch at a simple bistro. You needn’t go fancy your entire trip. Have one lunch at a simple bistro where the owner offers only a couple of selections per day, based on what’s in the market. A favorite is Au Bon St-Pourcain, on a small cobblestone street behind Place St-Sulpice (10 bis rue Servandoni). François, the genial proprietor, serves dishes like brandade and roasted filet de veau to an arty, glamorous, yet rough-around-the-edges clientele.
Order the house wine. In a bistro, you’ll do well to order the house wine — or something modest. Unless you are at a grand restaurant like Taillevent or Guy Savoy, there’s no reason to order top-rated wines like Château Margaux or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Sample the menu without going broke. If you want to eat well on a budget, focus on lunch: most fine restaurants offer prix fixe lunch menus for a fraction of the cost of dinner. Some of the dishes will be less elaborate than those served at night, but you will be able to sample the chef’s art either way. The lunch menu at L’Arpège costs 320 FF; dinner is 690 FF.
Don’t however, confuse the prix fixe menu with the tasting menu, or menu dégustation, which tends to offer more courses than most of us can eat and usually costs a lot more.
If you aren’t very hungry, or are inclined to do without dessert, order à la carte. Better yet, order the plat du jour. More often than not it will be a house specialty, especially at restaurants specializing in regional French cuisine. And, it is often less expensive than many other dishes on the menu — unless, of course it’s truffle season.
Splurge once or twice. If you can afford it, splurge once or twice. The dining rooms at Taillevent or Guy Savoy are magnificent; the bustle of Le Dôme, invigorating; and the generous extravagance of L’Ami Louis (not to mention the sublime food), memorable. Order Champagne before, a grand cru Burgundy during, and vintage Armagnac afterwards. You’ll never forget it.
Don’t be afraid: Play the tourist. There’s nothing wrong with so-called tourist places like Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots, or La Closerie des Lilas (171 bd. du Montparnasse, 6th arrondissement), allegedly Hemingway’s favorite Parisian hang-out. While you probably won’t see many literary types or artists these days, you’ll definitely see some Parisian character. To actually see a few artists, pop into La Palette (43 rue de Seine, 6th arrondissement) — near the Ecole des Beaux Arts — for a pastis.
Go to an open-air market. Buy some artisanal cheese and cured meats, a crusty loaf of bread (preferably by the baker Poilâne), some fruit, chocolate, and a bottle of wine. There’s little more romantic than a picnic by the Seine. Don’t forget to pack a corkscrew.