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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Eating and Drinking Cheap in Paris (Part 1)

Without a doubt, Paris is an expensive city. For instance, a pint of beer seems to average between 5 and 6 euros (about $8 at the moment), and a plate in a restaurant is close to 15 euros for a main course. By comparison, one pays only about 2/3 of the price in other big cities in France, like Lille, Strasbourg, Lyon, and once out of the cities, even less than that.

Paris charges ridiculous prices more or less because it can. A lot of people come to Paris for a once in a lifetime trip and come ready to shell out whatever is necessary to have the real Parisian experience. Just because the prices are high doesn't mean someone from the US, Australia, etc. will refrain from eating out; they came this far, they might as well do it.

In reality, not a lot of Parisians eat out all that often. It's not because they don't want to, it's just because it's unreasonable. Minimum wage (le SMIC) in France is 1347.73 euros a month, before taxes (which in this case is about 22%). With payments for rent, cell phone, internet, and the rest, people can't go drop 50 euros on a meal for two all that often.

So here is how we can get by here in Paris, starting with the food.

1. Markets are a Lifesaver

No matter where you are in Paris, no matter what day (except Monday), there is a market nearby. They usually start early in the morning (7ish) and go into the early afternoon. I could be wrong, but I believe I heard once that there has to be a market operating within a kilometer radius 6 days a week throughout the city of Paris, and I would not doubt if this was true. Going early guarantees getting the best produce/meat/cheese, but going after noon will allow you to get the best prices.

When I lived in Montmartre, I always looked forward to hitting the markets on my days off. Usually I'd take a big cloth bag and a pocket full of coins and head up to the market on Boulevard Ornano at Métro Simplon. The deals to be had were cheap, no matter what your standards were be. In most occasions, I could get a kilo of vegetables for 1 euro. And usually if you ask for a number amount, the vendors will round up, especially in the afternoon, as they have to get rid of their produce. For example, if you ask for 6 clementines, they might just give you 11. You ask how much, and half the time they'll just make up some reasonable price, even though it's less than what they say on the little chalkboards with the price listings. I had similar luck at Barbès, where I spent maybe 3 euros, and had to have three big bags to carry home all of the food that was, in some cases, literally thrown at me.

Part of the fun with the markets is that the people that staff them are joyous and love making conversation. I remember a friend telling me he walked by one day and heard a vendor scream out "Ladies and Gentlemen! I have big news! I...have the best the world!" Whether or not that is true, people were certainly interested. Another time when I was buying some sausage, the vendor asked if I wanted some potatoes too. I told him I had them at home, He then replied "Oh but mine are better." It almost worked, except that I had used up all of my change.

2. Grocery Store Prices Vary

Since I have moved back to the 15th arrondissement, I have been reminded about how expensive grocery stores can be down here. In the 18th, I probably spent a few less euros every single time I went to the store. This even goes with supermarkets that are the same company; Carrefour market is much cheaper in the 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements than it is in the more central arrondissements of Paris.

Probably the biggest variance in this regard would have to be with the butchers, fromageries, and occasionally the bakers. For instance, one evening when I was buying a chicken on Rue des Abbesses in Montmartre, the butcher told me that he saw some for sale in the 16th arrondissement for close to 60 euros! I don't know what made this chicken so special, but I guarantee it wasn't worth that much. On the contrary, at Barbès, the best tasting poulet rôti that I've had since living here costs only 5 euros.

3. Cook at Home!

I think you can tell that the subject matter of the last two point implies that I eat more at home than I do out at restaurants. The great thing is that you can make most of the things that you eat in restaurants at home, and most likely with similar quality!

A lot of the best French foods are ones that can be made very simply. For example, if one looks at a lot of the foods from Savoie, close to the alps, one finds that a lot of the recipes involve potatoes, lardons (little pieces of bacon) or other cuts of meat, and melted cheese from the region. A lot of other dishes, like Blanquette de Veau or Boeuf Bourguignon are chunks of low cost meat simmered in wine or broth with herbs and served with some starch to soak it up, like potatoes, pasta, or rice. All you really have to do is throw everything in a pot and cover it for at least a couple of hours until you can cut the meat with a fork. Ratatouille? Take a bunch of vegetables, throw them all in a pot for 2 hours with olive oil and Herbes de Provence, and eat it whenever it looks good to you.

4. Picnics!

What better city in which to share a picnic than Paris? Just run up to the baker, get a couple baguettes (less than 2 euros), run across to the grocery store, pick up some fruit, cheese, sausage (5-8 euros), a bottle of wine (3-4 euros for something drinkable, though occasionally one can find decent wines at less than 3 euros), and you have a feast for 2-3 people for 3-4 euros a person! I made an effort to do this a couple of times a week last spring and summer, not only for saving money on eating out and effort on cooking, but because there are so many open spaces filled with other picnickers doing the same thing. Some great spots for this include the Champ de Mars, Pont des Arts, Parc Monceau, though my three favorites are the Canal St. Martin, Parc des Buttes Chaumont, and anywhere along the water around the Île de la Cité and the Île St. Louis, in no particular order.

5. If You Are Going to Eat Out, Do it at Lunch Time

As I said, eating out isn't cheap, but it can be reasonable from time to time. The cheapest options are buying sandwiches from the bakers, and these are usually around 4 euros. They're big enough to keep you full for a while. Sandwich Grecs at kebab shops are cheap and filling, but then you have to realize that you just ate 2000 calories in one go and you have no idea what part of what animal you just ate, though they are supposed to be cow and lamb parts.

Cafés offer great lunch deals where one can get an appetizer, main dish, and/or dessert for a fraction of what they would sell for at dinnertime. On the Île St-Louis, there are numerous little cafes on the main street which offer deals like this between 10-12 euros. The island is normally one of the more expensive spots in the city, but you can get a lot of the same things at lunch that you would at dinner for much cheaper.

One more little helper is that it is sometimes cheaper to eat at the bar than at a table. When you eat at restaurants, you are paying to rent your table as well for as long as you like, and some places will charge you for it. At the bar, you can still get a stool and pay a little less for your meal.

Tomorrow I'll talk more on how to get cheap drinks in Paris. It isn't easy, but it is doable.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

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