Friday, July 23, 2010
Tips to Eating Well at Restaurants in Paris
Two of the most common questions that I receive at work are these: "Do you really live in Paris?" and second, "Where could we find a good place to eat?" The first is completely ridiculous as I obviously fly into work from St Louis every morning just so I can give you, the tourist, a whirlwind tour of the city.
The second question, however, is one of the most difficult to answer, and not because I haven't eaten at any good restaurants. Rather, it's just that there are so many of them, for me to single out one or two "typical" French restaurants could be scanning a dictionary and picking my favorite one or two words.
First, for clarification, there really isn't such thing as a typical French restaurant. Because France has so many regions that produce different types of food products and beverages, a restaurant from one region will almost always be completely different than a restaurant from the region next to it. Paris itself is not very inventive in terms of cuisine; most of the famous French foods that one associates with Paris were stolen from another region in France. Boeuf Bourguignon is from Burgundy, French Fries are probably Belgian in origin (though some French claim they invented it, the Belgian ones are better in my opinion), most of the duck dishes come from the Southwest, and Fondue comes from the Alps. The Parisians are lucky in that people immigrated from so many regions and brought their foods with them. The whole concept of the restaurant was invented in Paris, and with a wealth of foods to choose from thanks to their inhabitants from all over France, one could not have picked a better place to start serving food for enjoyment in addition to serving it for survival.
There are really two things to remember when looking for a restaurant in Paris. Though, I might say these are more of things to avoid when looking for a restaurant in this city.
First, avoid restaurants where the server is standing outside trying to beg you to come into their establishment. This is a bad indicator since that means that their meals do not speak for themselves, and that they need to harass every passerby and tell them that they need to eat at their restaurant. The Rue de la Huchette just off of the Place St. Michel is notorious for this kind of restaurant. Occasionally, it is entertaining to watch some of the stupid stuff that the waiters will do to get your attention in the streets, such as break plates at your feet and then tell you that you can do the same in their restaurant.
Second, avoid the restaurants where the menu is in any other language than French or English. Almost every restaurant in Paris has their menu in both since they assume that most tourists can read and speak at least a little of one or the other. However, if you start seeing the menu in Russian, Japanese, Urdu, or Greek, you should run like hell. This means that this restaurant cannot get local clients to eat there, so they need to start manipulating the tourists that come from countries where English and French are not really spoken, and especially from those that have different alphabets from the Latin Alphabet that I am using in this article. The only exception would be a pizza restaurant, as those are more or less the same at 95% of pizza restaurants in the city, and they will from time to time have menus in four or five languages.
Another hint is to be weary of the restaurants included in backpacker guides or general guide books. The one example that really stands out to me is Le Refuge des Fondus in Montmartre. How this place gets good reviews and gets so much hype absolutely baffles me. I have eaten here twice. The first time I got piss drunk, ran into a friend from university who happened to be sitting at the other bench in the restaurant, and had a great time, though I remember nothing good about the food. The longer I lived here, the more I realized what a tourist trap this restaurant can be. All of the people eating in the restaurant are anglophones. Usually they are backpackers. They serve wine in baby bottles for 2 euros, which is very inexpensive, but the wine is the cheapest, most hangover-inducing wine that one can imagine.
The second time I visited, I had already been living here for almost two years. I had pretty much been avoiding the place, but I saw a good opportunity to hang out with some good friends. After we sat down, I went to the restroom, and along the way, I saw that the food being served came in bulk from Leader Price, which is the cheapest grocery store in town. Not exactly gourmet food, but whatever, I shop there from time to time. I just think it is a little absurd to pay 15 euros to eat it in a restaurant. When the fondue came out, you could tell that it had not been cooked long enough as the wine hadn't really evaporated. Basically it tasted like someone dumped half a bottle of shit white wine on melted cheese, and voila, fondue. Even this didn't bug me that much. When we were finishing the meal, the owner tried to take the unfinished baby bottle from Julie's hands and while doing so, said "Give me that, you slut." I don't think he realized that she is French. Julie lost it and was damn near close to throwing a chair through the window by the time we left. She stood outside the restaurant for a few minutes and warned all of the customers not to eat there, and instead go to a restaurant across the street which happens to be one of my favorites in all of Paris, Le Potager du Père Thierry, which had no line at all. People just kind of laughed off the advice. I mean, after all, they serve wine in a baby bottle! Imagine that!
In closing, use your own judgement in choosing a restaurant in Paris. Don't let the plate throwers and the baby bottles of wine fool you. If the menu looks good, the customers look happy (and non-touristy), then it's probably a good bet. Good luck and bon app!
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 culinarytoursofparis.com