When it comes to eating out in Paris, the difficulty lies not so much in finding a good restaurant—there is no dearth of those—as in deciding what you feel like, in your heart of hearts. A glass of wine and a few nibbles? A wholesome bistro meal? A creative take on French classics? A colorful salad? A four-hour gastronomic extravaganza? A crisp, golden crepe? A cup of tea and a pastry?
Whatever the itch, this book should include a restaurant to scratch it. I have strived to put together a selection that covers a wide variety of occasions, moods, appetites, and budgets within eight categories:
lunch. For a quick, light meal—soups, salads, sandwiches, savory tarts, and simple plats du jour. These restaurants are usually open during the daytime only, and in most cases, no table service is provided: you order and pay at the counter, then take your purchases to go (à emporter) or sit down at a table to eat them (sur place). No reservation necessary. Dress code: come as you are.
casual. For traditional French cuisine in a laid-back and often bustling atmosphere. Expect little room between tables and hectic service. Dress code: casual.
neo bistro. For bistro food taken to a new level. The ambiance is casual, but there is serious action in the kitchen as the chef revisits the classics with creative riffs. See page 46 for more on the neo bistro trend. Dress code: casual-chic.
chic. For special-occasion meals in a more upscale environment. Expect smooth tablecloths, polished silverware, attentive service, and sophisticated food. Dress code: chic.
gastronomic. For a memorable dining experience at a high-flying establishment. Reputations can be deceiving, as a number of visits to renowned restaurants have disappointingly revealed. The ones I have highlighted here, however, truly provide an excellent level of cuisine, service, and decor. I have limited the selection to those that offer affordable weekday lunch menus, giving you the most sparkling and the most delicious run for your money. Dress code: chic, but not to the point of evening wear. Men should wear a shirt and a jacket—in addition to the pants and shoes, I mean.
salon de thé. For tea and pastries in the afternoon. Most tea salons also serve a light fare at lunchtime, and brunch on weekends. Dress code: casual.
bar à vin. For great wines, and food to match. The fare may be reduced to platters of tapas-like nibbles (charcuterie, cheese, etc.) or there may be cooking involved, from simple to elaborate. See page 20 for more on wine bars. Dress code: casual.
international. Much as I regret it, the average French palate is not particularly adventurous. Consequently, our ethnic restaurants tend to edit—some would say "dumb down"—the cuisines they represent so as not to disorient sensitive taste buds. The ones I have selected provide as authentic a dining experience as you will find in Paris: most are fuss-free joints that the immigrant communities frequent, and you will enjoy them if you're interested in observing how these cuisines respond to the influence of local ingredients, tastes, and habits. Dress code: casual, unless otherwise specified.
Parisian waiters have a terrible reputation and some deserve every last crumb, but good service is at your fingertips if you play by the rules of this strange little world called the French restaurant.
These rules all derive from a significant cultural difference: in France, a restaurant is not perceived as a public place so much as the extension of the chef's or owner's home, a fact that is well illustrated by the traditional name of many restaurants—Chez Michel, Chez Jean, Chez Ramulaud…
Diners are seen as paying guests rather than just customers, and the restaurant staff as their hosts rather than just the people who cook and serve the food. Waiters often feel proprietorial about the restaurant they work in, and they want to be sure its value is recognized and appreciated: the relationship they establish with the diners is thus based on grounds more personal and more emotionally charged than what you may be used to.
But if you keep this in mind and follow the tips outlined below, you will find it easy to make them want to make you happy. Humor goes a long way, too: many waiters are the teasing kind, and playing along is the surest way to win them over.
Date and time
With the exception of brasseries, which offer nonstop service, Parisian restaurants typically start serving at noon for lunch and 8pm for dinner, with a break between the two shifts, during which the restaurant is closed. Most Parisians arrive a bit later than the beginning of the service hours—around 1pm for lunch, and 9pm for dinner.
Restaurants are busiest on Thursdays and Fridays, with a peak on Saturday nights. Many restaurants are closed on Sundays and Mondays, and restaurants that cater chiefly to an office crowd may be closed on weekends. Restaurants that serve both lunch and dinner often skip the lunch service on Mondays and Saturdays.
The vast majority of Paris restaurants close for three to four weeks in July or August, when the entire country is on vacation, and for a week or two in late December, for Christmas and New Year's Eve. These are, consequently, tough times for dining out, as the choice of restaurants is very limited.
It is always a good idea to make a reservation: not only does this guarantee you a table, but it is also a matter of courtesy to your hosts, who will welcome you more warmly if you have called ahead to announce your visit. In some exceptional cases, you need to book a table weeks or even months in advance, but most of the time, calling a few days ahead or even on the same day will suffice.
A reservation is essential on the busiest days of the week, especially Fridays and Saturdays, and if there are more than two of you. If you don't have a reservation, your best bet is to arrive at the beginning of the service (around 12:30pm for lunch, or 8pm for dinner) and ask if they can accommodate you. Don't be upset if you see that the restaurant is empty but you're told they can't seat you: it's not that you have grime on your face, it's that they're holding the tables for diners who have made a reservation and will show up a bit later.
Reservations are taken on the phone—fax and e-mail are not reliable means of communication—during the service hours of the restaurant. Outside of these hours, you may be able to leave a message on an answering machine, but you will need to leave a phone number at which the staff can call and confirm your reservation.
When you call, you will be asked for the date and time you would like to come, how many people will be in your party (they may be referred to as couverts, or place settings), your name (if your name is difficult to understand or spell, just pick an easier one, or give your first name), and sometimes a phone number—the reason they ask is so they can call you if there is a problem, or if you are late for your reservation.
A typical conversation would go:
"Bonjour, je voudrais réserver une table pour quatre pour vendredi soir. C'est possible?" (Hello, I'd like to make a reservation for four on Friday night. Is it possible?)
"Pas de problème, vous voulez venir à quelle heure?" (No problem, what time would you like to come?)
"Vers vingt heures trente." (Around 8:30pm.)
"C'est à quel nom?" (Under what name?)
"Au nom de Bernard." (Bernard.)
"Parfait—quatre couverts pour vendredi, vingt heures trente. Ë vendredi!" (Okay—table for four on Friday at 8:30pm. See you then!)
"Merci, À vendredi!" (Thanks, see you on Friday!)
If you don't speak French, start the phone call by saying "Bonjour, je voudrais faire une réservation, s'il vous plait. Vous parlez anglais?" The person you're talking to often will, or will at least understand enough to take a reservation if you give the information slowly and clearly. And if you're staying at a hotel, ask the concierge or receptionist to place the call for you.
If you have a reservation, you will rarely be made to wait. In the event that the table is not ready, ask how long it will be, and go out for a stroll or have an aperitif at the bar (it will be added to your bill).
Most restaurants hold the table for fifteen minutes or so after the appointed time. If you think you will be later than that, or that there will be fewer or more people in your party, call the restaurant to let them know and ask if it's okay.
And of course, if your plans change and you can't come at all, be sure to call and cancel as soon as you know: Paris restaurants don't overbook and they may turn people away to hold your table, so if you fail to show up, you're effectively hurting their business.
When you enter the restaurant, say "Bonjour!" during the day, and "Bonsoir!" in the evening—the magical switch from bonjour to bonsoir happens around 6pm. Mention whether or not you have a reservation, and if so, under what name—"Nous avons une reservation pour quatre, au nom de Bernard"—then wait for the staff to point you or show you to your table. Don't seat yourself at a table without asking first: it would be seen as brash, and that table may be reserved. (This seating etiquette is also valid in cafes, even if they seem more casual.)
Generally speaking, smile—without excess—and use as much French as you can, even if it's just the basics: bonjour, bonsoir, excusez-moi, s'il vous plait, merci, au revoir. It shows that you are making an effort, and this is always appreciated. Try to establish a rapport with the wait staff by joking, asking for advice, and demonstrating your interest in the restaurant and the food that it serves.
Be attentive to the level of noise in the room, and adjust your voice accordingly: Paris restaurants are typically small and the tables close to one another, so keeping one's voice down is common courtesy.
No one calls the waiter "Garçon!" outside of black-and-white movies. If you need to catch the staff's attention, raise your arm slightly (but do not—I repeat, do not—snap your fingers) and say "Excusez-moi?" or "S'il vous plait?"
You should be brought the menu minutes after being seated. It can be a printed menu that is handed to each diner, or a chalkboard menu that is passed around from table to table (see page 67). The waiter may have plats du jour (specials) to announce—ask him to repeat if you haven't had time to register them all—and these dishes may be listed on a chalkboard somewhere in the room.
As you are handed the menu, you will be asked if you would like an aperitif drink (see page 112). Order one if you like, but you will not look cheap if you decline. When the waiter comes to take the food order, each diner announces in turn the first and main course he's chosen. (See page 14 for more on courses.)
If you're unsure what to order, or if you have a hard time deciding between two dishes, don't hesitate to ask the waiter for his recommendation or personal preference. And if you order a dish of seared meat or red tuna, you will be asked how you want it cooked (see page 109).
The dessert order is usually placed after the main courses have been cleared, unless it's a dessert that takes time to prepare, in which case it will be indicated as such on the menu ("Ã† commander en debut de repas") or the waiter will tell you.
A basket of bread is placed on your table once you've ordered, or as the first course is served. It is free, but does not come with butter, except at gastronomic restaurants.
Once you've ordered the food, you will be asked about drinks; at fancier places, the sommelier will come to take your order. The French don't typically drink sodas with their meals, but rather water and wine, or beer in some cases—in Alsatian and Asian restaurants in particular.
Ordering wine by the bottle gives you the widest choice, but a smaller selection is often offered by the half-bottle, by the pichet (pitcher), or by the glass (see page 90). Don't hesitate to ask for advice, specifying how much you can spend and the sort of wine you enjoy.
Water isn't necessarily brought to the table; you may have to request it ("On peut avoir de l'eau, s'il vous plaît?"). Waiters often try to sell you bottled water by asking if you want still or sparkling ("Plate ou petillante?"). For tap water, which is free and fine to drink, ask for une carafe d'eau. The water will be cold, but it won't be served with ice.
No one will think twice if you just follow the rules you grew up with, but should you wish to adopt the French dining etiquette while in Paris, here are a few basics:
• Keep your hands on, not under, the table, but don't put your elbows on the table as you eat.
• Place your piece of bread on the table next to your plate (or on the bread plate if one is provided), not on the rim of your plate.
• If there is more than one set of silverware around your plate, start with the outermost set and work your way in from course to course.
• The French way of using silverware is to hold the fork, tines down, in your left hand and the knife in your right hand—no switching between the two.
• To signify that you are done with your dish, place your fork and knife together at four o'clock on your plate. Note, however, that the waiter won't clear your plate until everyone at the table has finished eating; this is so the slowest eater won't feel rushed.
• In most restaurants you will get fresh silverware for each dish, but at casual places you may be asked to keep your fork and knife throughout the meal. If that is the case, put the fork tines down on the table to your right, and balance the blade of the knife over the fork so as not to soil the table.
• There is no such thing as a doggie bag in France, and restaurants don't have takeout boxes handy, so you can't take the remains of your meal home—sorry.
The French typically end their meals with a cup of espresso, caffeinated (un café or un express) or decaffeinated (un déca). This is ordered instead of, or after dessert, not alongside dessert. You can also opt for one of the variations: un café serré (an espresso with less water poured in), un café noisette (a regular espresso with a drop of milk), or un café allongé (a regular espresso with double the amount of water). You can also order a cup of tea or tisane, but café au lait, which is really referred to as cafe creme in cafes, is considered a morning beverage only.