People travel to Paris for a variety of different reasons, ranging from business trips to summer vacation. Whatever your reason for making the trip, you will find your visit to the City of Light more enjoyable if you take advantage of your presence there to dine on the fine French cuisine that hundreds of Parisian restaurants offer.
By fine French cuisine, I don’t mean the standard steak-and-French-fries fare that is served up in the city’s myriad cafés. Nor do I mean the exquisite haute cuisine that is served in exclusive restaurants.
To me, fine French cuisine is served in mid-range restaurants where the price for a three-course meal ranges from around 28€ to 35€, excluding beverage.
There is no secret to finding quality restaurants in this price range. What IS required is that you make an effort to familiarize yourself with French restaurant culture and cuisine at least a couple of weeks before you leave for your trip. Thanks to the Internet, that infinite repository of knowledge, this should require only a few hours of research.
The following are some ideas on how to prepare for your fine-dining experience in Paris:
Determine in which quarters you will spend most of your time while in Paris. Do you plan just to hit the major sightseeing spots and then quickly move on to Belgium? If so, this will limit your time and the areas in which you will find good restaurants. It also increases the chances that you will fall into restaurants that cater mostly to the tourist trade…not always a great choice. Many fine restaurants can be found off the tourist circuit with only a little extra effort.
Determine whether you are truly ready to try French cuisine. Many travelers aren’t open to new dining experiences and abhor the idea of eating foreign food. I once dined in a Parisian restaurant with an American woman who ordered a chicken dish baked in brick pastry. When it was served, she raised the plate high and studied the food for the longest time. Finally, she lowered the plate and, with what seemed to be great reluctance, began eating it.
Determine whether your budget can support a meal in a mid-price-range restaurant. A price range of 28€ to 35€ translates into $38 to $48 at today’s exchange rate. Yes, this is expensive by American standards, but Paris is an expensive city. If you don’t want to spend this much, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to find a fine-dining restaurant. It only means that your search will be a bit more difficult.
Determine whether you want to order wine with your meal. The French drink wine with their meal as a matter of course, but that doesn’t mean that you have to. Ordering two glasses of wine will increase the bill by roughly 33% or more. If you want to order wine with the meal, but don’t know too much about French wines, ask the waiter to make a suggestion. They are usually quite knowledgeable about wines and no, they won’t necessarily suggest the highest-priced wine.
Determine how far you are willing to travel from your hotel to get to the restaurant. After a hard day of sightseeing or shopping, you generally return to your hotel and prepare to go out for dinner. How far are you willing to travel to get to the restaurant that was recommended by a friend or whose name you found on the Internet? Use the Paris metro service Web site to learn precisely where the restaurant is located, the closest metro or bus stop, and the amount of time it will take to get there.
Determine whether you are willing to wait until 7:30 p.m. (or later) for dinner. The French begin their evening meals later than Americans. If you cannot tolerate waiting two more hours for your meal, you will limit your choice of fine restaurants.
Determine whether you can learn to enjoy a meal the way the French do. The French enjoy conversation with their meal…lots of it. They generally don’t rush to the next course or rush to get out of the restaurant. They also enjoy the presentation of the dishes – the way the food is organized on the plate. And they enjoy sipping wine with their meal and commenting on the aromas emanating from the glass. If you are not open to new dining experiences, this will limit your appreciation of the meal.
And finally, here is my method for choosing a restaurant for my wife’s and my weekly foray into the marvelous world of French restaurant dining. I begin by consulting The Fork, a restaurant reservation service. There, I look at restaurants that have garnered at least an overall score of 8 out of 10. Then, I look at the rating that these restaurants have garnered on Trip Advisor, a restaurant rating service. I should note here, however, that some of the negative reviews that diners post on Trip Advisor seem to me to be a result of a misunderstanding of French dining culture.
With up to an hour or so of careful research, I usually find a restaurant whose food, service, and ambiance are above reproach.
Tom Reeves gives gourmet walking tours of Paris and publishes a weekly restaurant guide on his Web site Paris Insights. He is also the author of ane-book entitled Dining Out in Paris – What You Need to Know before You Get to the City of Light.