Paris, By Menu


Beyond the glitter of the Eiffel Tower and crush of tourists at the Louvre, Paris is a sophisticated, hip, even gritty, international city filled with people who know how to eat well and a wide range of restaurants ready to feed them — and I’m not talking about three-star Michelin chefs.

Paris is comfort food at tidy neighborhood bistros where everyone is tucking into a small cut of steak with crispy fries for dinner (fork in left hand, knife in right, bien sûr). It’s natural beauties in scarves and stylish comfortable shoes (for all those cobblestones, ma chérie) with a buoyant frisée salad with chèvre and a glass of wine at lunch. It’s students unceremoniously biting off mouthfuls of baguette stuffed with ham and butter as they dodge tourists in the street. And it’s wooden bowls of moist Tunisian couscous and stewed vegetables from one of the many restaurants that bring the rest of the world right to Paris.

What I’m trying to say here is leave your pearls and your American Express gold card at home. You don’t need to spend any more on lunch or dinner in Paris than you do in your own neighborhood, and you can still get the full — dare I say even more authentic —Paris experience.

Find a neighborhood bistro.
Locals know best, so skip put down the tourist guide and find a place without a trace of English on the menu. Just steps away from Notre Dame cathedral there is a bistro that tourists miss and locals love. Pain d’Epices (12 rue Jean du Bellay, 4ème) is located on the edge of Ile St.-Louis in the absolute heart of Paris, right in the middle of the Seine River. It’s small and simple with white walls and a dozen tables with modern wooden armchairs cushioned in jewel-toned velvet. You can hear the chef chopping the herbs after your order goes in, and not long after you’ve finished your first glass of wine, a rack of lamb arrives at your table and it’s so tender that it releases itself from its own bone when the server sets it in front of you. A simple light sauce spiked with thyme and rosemary sparkles beneath the chandeliers, and a bowl of impossibly creamy mashed potatoes appears at its side. The portions are enormous, and yet the meal must finish with a couple of scoops of the best and most famous ice cream in Paris from Bertillon (it’s been made just around the corner for more than 50 years, after all), served in a footed metal bowl with a cookie charred to caramel perfection.

Or a mid-day meal served by church ladies.
Want a little bit of history with your lunch? Head to the basement of La Madeleine, the Greek temple of a church built by Napoleon to honor his armies in the 1800s. It’s located right between Place de la Concorde and the Opera House in a posh area of town — Maxim’s famed restaurant is just up the street — but here Parisians of all ages and walks of life gather under the vaulted ceiling in the basement for a weekday lunch bargain that benefits the church’s soup kitchen. Take the side door, pay the nice lady and find an available seat. Your friendly volunteer server will bring out a plastic tray displaying first-course options — Mushroom salad? Perhaps pâté? — and take your order for one of two lunch entrées offered that day. I devoured a simple pork chop accompanied by a mountain of soft, yellow carrots. Dessert is votre choix again. Thank goodness the ladies sharing my table opted for the cheese, leaving the layered chocolate pastry for me. When you’re done, move to the back counter for an espresso and linger in the adjoining salon. Go early before they run out of options. (Open weekdays 11:40 am to 2 p.m.)

Picnic on bakery takeaways.
Bakeries are not just for baguettes. They are also the perfect place to grab supplies for a picnic in one of the city’s many parks or tables set up along the Seine River. You’ll find robust bready pizzas stuffed with ham and olives or mini-quiches that they’ll gladly heat up for you. There are simple sandwiches with chunks of tuna or chicken on a baguette, and even a giant French-style hot dog baked into a loaf of bread, all for less than you’d pay for a burrito at Chipotle.

Not to mention a variety of pastries for dessert: Pain aux raisins (a buttery swirl of flaky dough speckled with soft raisins), chausson aux pommes (little tarts layered with apple slices), and pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants), to name just a few. Each will run you about $2 each. Or go crazy with a sampling of creamy, chocolatey or fruity confections.

Intimidated? Just point and say s’il vous plait. Nod yes, no matter what, and give the clerk your money. They’ll sort it out. It’s OK … you’ll have an éclair in the end. And yes, there are even gluten-free bakeries these days.

If there is a bakery, there is sure to be a cheese shop nearby. Take a risk on a wheel and take it with you to top off that baguette. You can also buy a bottle of wine at any little grocery store and expect to find something perfectly adequate for far less than you’d spend at home, and you can even drink it in public.

Go global.
I always feel the whole world begins in Paris and you can eat your way around it without leaving the city limits. Squeeze into a table in the yellow and green Brazilian Carajas restaurant on Rue Trois Frères, a winding street lined with restaurants at the footsteps of Montmartre, the renowned 19th-century artist enclave. Order the traditional feijoada (a rich, slow-cooked melding of black beans, pork and smoked sausage) or a chicken stew with coconut milk, tomatoes and onions topped with crunchy dried manioc crumbs. Ask for a dessert sampler of coconut flan and passion fruit mousse with a cup of espresso in an enameled metal cup to top it off.

Dive into bowls of homemade pasta at the Ristorante Gallo Romano (44 rue Gallande) on the Left Bank, where the walls — and ceiling — are covered in vintage Italian movie posters. Or try any of the Mme. Shawn family chain of Thai restaurants, including a sumptuous  exotic bistro at the edge of trendy Canal St. Martin, which you might recognize from the beloved French flick “Amèlie.” (3 rue des Récollets) 

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