September 2011 Trip Report OR How not to eat in Paris the Chowhound Way
My wife and I were in Paris for 10 days in mid-September and to that end I have been lurking on this board since the Summer. First, beyond a general thank you to everyone who contributes, my special appreciation to Souphie for all of his advice even though we couldn't get our schedules to mesh for a private tour. We did follow his suggestion of Meg Zimbeck and booked one of her tours through Context. Highly recommended--our appreciation for good cheese will never be the same.
I had almost decided not to post anything about our experiences, except that we benefited so much from the collective wisdom of this list that it seemed churlish not to write something. But what? To cut to the chase, we were having minor health issues during the trip so that all of our plans for better dining garnered from this list were abandoned, including canceling a reservation for lunch at Le Cinq. What we ended up doing was making meal choices based on where we were and how we were feeling at the moment, which meant no establishments which required a reservation or that were expensive enough that we would likely receive a meal better than we could enjoy. So perhaps this post is really aimed at those non-Chowhounds who, for whatever reason, find yourselves at the mercy of Paris, sans reservations, but wanting a dining experience you cannot get at home. Will you starve? Must all your meals be Happy Meals? Although I can't wait to return to Paris to sample some of the restaurants most highly recommended on this list, I must say that we did enjoy our meals, not a single one of which involved fast food.
I'll start with breakfast. This was a big concern going in because, as I assume like all tourists, we looked forward to sitting on outside terraces drinking perfect cafés and nibbling croissants while watching the world go by. In pursuit of this ideal, we visited a different establishment every morning. While the drinks were always acceptable, in retrospect, our best luck vis-a-vis pastries was at places where one would also expect a good lunch or dinner experience. We did eat at one bakery/cafe, Bread & Roses, where we had our best pain au chocolat and brioche. The one stop in our tracks drink was the hot chocolate at Les Deux Magots; the people watching, of course, and the pastries there were fine, too. (This being the exception to the observation above as I understand one wouldn't want to eat a real meal here.)
Most days, we chose lunch over dinner. As indicated above, we ate mostly at cafes. Fortunately, I had a list of these along with the better restaurants we ended up ignoring. We especially enjoyed our lunches at Cafe l'Epoque (coq au vin), Cafe Breizh (crepes, well, duh), Cosi (sandwiches), Le Loir Dans la Théière (pear tart), and Cafe Janou. When we were in an area where we didn't have any recommendations, we looked for establishments with tables occupied by well-dressed French people. But even at one of these restaurants near the Musée Marmottan where the patrons were better than the food, the waiter noticed me looking longingly at the macrons accompanying coffee at a neighboring table and brought us two gratis. It's amazing to me how unexpected little touches like this can stay in the memory. I would characterize what we ate at lunch during our trip as comfort food. We could cook similar dishes at home (if we could find the same quality ingredients), but in general we don't, and we certainly wouldn't expect to find most of them on the menu in any restaurants where we live. Worth noting is that our lunches for two ran from 25 euros to a maximum of 43 euros with most in the low 30s, including wine or beer.
Our preference in the evening was to pick up cheese, bread, fruit or whatever and bring it back to the hotel, admittedly a strategy stolen directly from the Chowhound playbook. We loaded up a couple of times at the Lafayette Gourmet for convenience rather than visit separate shops. We did eat three evening meals out. Two were near our hotel in the 10th: the Le Zerda Café where I had a good chicken tagine and my wife a Moroccan fish dish which she very much enjoyed. More variable was a meal at Le Bouillon Chartier where a couple of the dishes weren't hot enough, but we had acceptable duck confit and an even better "total" experience beyond the food. Our best evening meal was at Café du Grand Louvre which included a tasty salmon in white wine sauce. Not an exceptional meal, but certainly worth 60 euros with a couple of glasses of better wine than we were having at lunch, and even more certainly worth it for the convenience--how often does one judge restaurants by their distance from the Mona Lisa? As with all the lunches, we had no dinner reservations and there was no wait for a table.
OK, now I can go back to drooling over the reviews of Le Cinq, et al, and planning for next year.
Think of it as improvisation.
Have in mind a selection of places you'd like to go and things you'd like to eat. Does not have to be high end. Keep a list of addresses and phone numbers and be prepared to improvise in an intelligent way. Going blind, a family of four can wind up paying enormous amounts of money for lousy food.
These words of wisdom should be incorporated into the post "New to the France Board? Read this first" (which nobody seems to read).
One horror-of-horrors post on the Spain forum, contributed by a poster who had just visited San Sebastian and Bilbao, whose ideology was against restaurant reservation, recommended that the only way to eat well in Spain was to eat … in Chinese restaurants. Spain !