Because I spend so much time in France, friends, family, and readers often ask me to give them recommendations on where to eat in Paris. The truth is, I generally don’t go to Paris that often—most summers, we transfer at Charles de Gaulle and fly straight to the south.
Collioure? I can tell you all about it. But Paris? I’m no expert.
That’s not to say that I don’t have my personal favorite restaurants in Paris. Yet these often speak to me as much for the memories that I’ve made in them as for the food: Here’s where I discovered steak-tartare at the age of 16….here’s where my Québecois French teacher and I emptied our pockets and splurged on that farandole de desserts our last night together…..here’s where I met that Catalan artist who later sent me the painting that hangs in my study….here’s where the old waiter spontaneously sang “La Vie en Rose” to my 80-year-old mother….here’s where we spent New Year’s Eve with that rugged Alaskan couple we met at the hotel….here’s where I tried my first Calvados….
Sure, the food has to be good—with few exceptions, it’s hard to have good memories of a place with bad food. But the thing about Paris is that a dining experience is rarely just about the food. It’s about who you’re with, it’s about all that you’ve seen that day. It’s about how you got to that particular table that particular evening.
It’s about feeling shaky after you’ve narrowly avoided being pickpocketed, but easing into a sense of well-being the second a graciously placed apéritif meets your lips.
It’s about how an elderly waiter spontaneously sings La Vie en Rose to your elderly mother—how that moment of sweetness shakes off the sadness you’ve felt for your mother all day, ever since a beaky shopkeeper was so rude to her.
It’s about how, lost in Paris at the age of 16 with your friend Cindy, a bearded stranger showed you how to read a metro map and pointed the way to the Restaurant Chartier, a place you return to often.
Its about how, on the $20-a-day backpacking trip, the two of you ordered andouillette sausages for dinner, not knowing what they were (innards); they were awful, but the wine was good. So you filled up on bread and potatoes and wine and still laugh about it 25 years later….
Another reason I don’t like to give recommendations: There’s something spectacular about stumbling onto your own little find, about discovering your own Paris. Indeed, the times I have recommended restaurants to friends, they’ve come back, saying “Yes, we enjoyed Le Square Trousseau, but there was this place near our hotel that we went three nights. The third night, the patron sat us at our favorite table and sent us over an apéritif ….”
So stumble upon your own Paris. Sure, there will be a misfire or two, but that will be true whether or not you read a guidebook.
My Three Favorite Restaurants in Paris
So, in spite of the fact that I don’t give Paris dining recommendations, I will make an exception and give three. These are by no means the three best restaurants in Paris, but they happen to be restaurants I return to again and again.
You’ll likely note that the connecting thread for all three is that each is over 100 years old. That’s not to say that I don’t love contemporary French cooking—I do; but this year’s culinary darlings may be train wrecks a couple years down the road. Besides, when the foam and foie gras ice cream become too much, I turn to these time-honored spots again and again to remember why I fell in love with Paris in the first place.
P.S.: If you want a contemporary insider’s recommendation, you’ll do no better than reading David Lebovitz’s list of favorites. And I am positively thrilled that one of my favorites is also one of his favorites, because in truth, the Restaurant Chartier does not appeal to everyone.
The Restaurant Chartier
7, rue du Faubourg Montmartre; 75009 Paris
Phone: 01 47 70 86 29 (No reservations accepted)
Once upon a time, a kind stranger in a metro station recommended this restaurant to my friend Cindy and me (we had become separated from our cultural exchange group and needed someplace to eat). Since then, I have returned here often.
This is not the place if you’re looking for bragging rights (“I ate at three three-star Michelin restaurants in Paris!”). In fact, some of the food is quite plain. (I once ordered some fromage blanc for dessert, for example, and they brought it in the carton). But simple roasts, grilled meats, veal milanese, and the like are quite gratifying, especially when served amidst the 19th-century decor. And I love the starters: celeri remouade, oeufs mayo, leeks vinaigrette—tout est classique! (everything’s classic!).
1, rue Antoine Vollon; 75012 Paris
This warm, charming spot is so quintessentially “bistro” that I’ve spotted it as a location in French films. Complete with dark wood, etched glass, ornate molded ceilings, and a terasse overlooking the Square Trousseau, the place specializes in classics well prepared and handsomely presented. It’s the first (and maybe still the best!) place I ever had gigot de sept heures (seven-hour leg of lamb).
5-7 rue de la Bastille; 75004, Paris
Founded in 1864, this is where to go to experience the history and tradition of a grand brasserie—stained-glass skylight, tiled floor, polished brass, Art Deco lamps, and all. (See a 360° tour here. Or better yet, don’t peek; instead, let yourself be utterly surprised and thrilled by the beauty of the place).
They do brasserie classics, including the best choucroute garnie outside of Alsace; I sometimes splurge for the lovely Sole Meunière. Yes, you might spot a fellow tourist here and there, but then, you’ll see them at the Galleries Lafayette, too. And you’d be a fool to skip that, too.
If you do visit any of these spots on my recommendation, I would be absolutely thrilled if you would let me know what you thought. Always feel free to post here, or to message me or post on my Facebook Page.
Chartier sign: Pierre Olivier via Flickr.
Blackboard: _Boris via Flickr.
Interior of Chartier: Malaise via Flickr.
Brasserie Bofinger: Janesdead via Flickr.