The bistro has experienced a bit of a downturn in Paris these days, and that’s no surprise. Your average Parisian is far more excited by on-trend street food or small plates than the hearty beef bourguignons and veal blanquettes classics of yore, and widespread industrialization of the food industry in France has led many restaurants to serve up ho-hum iterations of such classics to unsuspecting tourists. (Alain Fontaine, president of the French Association of Maitres-Restaurateurs, estimates that just 7,000 of France’s 175,000 restaurants make all of their food in-house.) But if you’ve got your heart set on some classic bistro fare, there are more than a handful of spots still doing things right. You just need to know where to look.
1. Les Arlots
This pocket-sized restaurant just steps from Gare du Nord is a stalwart fave of locals who love it for its unpretentious food and old-school décor hinging predominantly on taxidermy (including a framed assortment of ortolans, a purported favorite of François Mittérand). The chalkboard menu changes regularly, often boasting slightly modern plays on old-school fare. Confit de canard may be served with meaty shiitake mushrooms; egg-mayo may be seasoned with black garlic and topped with smoked eel. The only permanent line item is the now-famous saucisse des Arlots, a perfectly seasoned sausage served with mashed potatoes and jus. Vegetarians are not likely to find their bliss here, though pescatarians will usually have at least one option. A long list of natural wines is sure to offer the perfect accompaniment.
136 Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, 10th
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2. Chez Georges
When you make a reservation at Chez Georges, be sure you append: Rue du Mail. There are many bistros in Paris bearing this name, but there’s only one with the old-school charm of this one. The waiters boast that practiced Parisian tongue-in-cheek derision, and the black-clothed waitresses are masters of bustling efficiency. The hand-written menu is a treasure in and of itself, but it also paves the way for some truly excellent iterations of time-honored bistro faves.
The appetizer salads are behemoths, whether it’s the salade lyonnaise with its bounty of frisée and thumb-sized hunks of salty lardons or the creamy céleri remoulade – categorically the best I’ve ever had. Mains tend to be on the meaty side, with 5A andouillette, kidney, and sweetbreads all featuring prominently. (Three kinds of steak-frites and multiple fish options are also on offer for those who can’t quite jump on the offal train.) Desserts are simple but always delicious — the tarte tatin is caramelized and oh-so-buttery, served alongside an unnecessary but welcome bowl of raw cream.
1, rue du Mail, 2nd
The Marais can be a bit of a crapshoot when it comes to great tables, but the young team behind the Bistrot des Tournelles have got a no-brainer with this small bistro hewing closely to time-honored tradition in the kitchen, albeit with an almost exclusively natural wine list. Chef Geoffroy Langella has become famous for his behemoth of a cordon bleu, whereby the staple of French cafeterias gets a serious makeover. A thinly pounded turkey breast is lined with a layer of Prince of Paris ham and stuffed with a generous handful of Comté cheese before being rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. It’s a delicious gut bomb — but it’s not the only thing on the menu. Langella’s approach to slow-cooked Provençal daube results in fall-apart-tender beef, and his love of classic sauces is evident in his steak au poivre.
6 Rue des Tournelles, 4th
On the slightly more modern side of things, Au Petit Panisse is primed to impress. While the dining room screams old school, the menu caresses contemporaneity, with dishes that may include a steak tartare seasoned à l’italienne with guanciale and parmesan or pressé d’agneau paired with cinnamon, beetroot, and port reduction. The kitchen does not shy away from offal: Tripe and blood sausage are frequent fliers on this chalkboard menu. But so too are classics done right, like slow-cooked beef paleron or sautéed seasonal mushrooms atop perfectly cooked chicken breast. An all-natural wine list and genial staff round out the experience to a T.
35 Rue de Montreuil, 11th
You can’t get more traditional than le Relais de l’Entrecôte, one of four similarly-named spots dotting Paris known for their identical menu of just one dish: entrecôte steak served with the house sauce and perfectly golden fries (pictured at the top of this article). Upon arrival, you’ll be asked merely “how would you like it cooked?” before waitresses arrive, first, bearing a simple frisée and walnut salad. This diminutive starter is followed by not one but two helpings of the namesake steak-frites. Dessert offers way more choice, with tantalizing classics like crème brûlée, crêpes, fresh fruit tartlets, or a chocolate sévigné.
15, rue Marbeuf, 8th
6. Le Bistrot de Paris
Since 1965, this Art Nouveau dining room has welcomed guests seeking out tradition, whether in substance or in ambiance. Appetizers include bistro stalwart egg-mayo and an exceptional céleri remoulade, as well as marinated herring, to be served out of a massive terrine brought to the table in true conviviality. In terms of mains, expect to find house-made duck confit, AAAAA andouillette with mustard sauce, or beef bourguignon served tableside out of a cast-iron cassolette. And for once, vegetarians need not stick to the appetizers: Le Bistrot de Paris always has at least one veggie main. Save room for dessert, where chocolate mousse is served à la louche and the profiterole is as much a delicacy as it is a challenge.
33, rue de Lille, 7th
The name of this restaurant appropriately hearkens to its location just between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, and while this hood may not be held in the highest regard, this pretty little spot sports a lovely terrace overlooking the tracks leading in from Champagne and boasts a lovely menu of more modern bistro fare: Think beef bourguignon paired with eggplant or sweetbreads served with green beans and rockfish sauce. The product-driven mindset so pervasive on the current culinary landscape also sees the preponderance of more pared down dishes where the ingredient is the star, like crispy Noirmoutier shrimp served nestled atop bean purée or a half-dozen oysters. And offal definitely pops up frequently, whether in the form of monkfish liver or duck hearts. Expect smaller servings and a slightly chaffier flair than in most bistros, and you won’t be disappointed.
1 Rue des Deux Gares, 10th
There’s a reason Woody Allen chose to set so many scenes of his Midnight in Paris at this historic bistro. Once a watering hole for writers and artists like Ionesco, Boris Vian, André Gide and Ernest Hemingway, this 19th century staple still boasts all of its storied charm: dark wood, gingham napkins and all. The menu is rife with classics like escargots, steak-frites, and one of Paris’ best beef bourguignons, but you’ll also find a handful of ever-changing twists like a curry-spiked steak tartare or foie gras with tonka, not to mention seasonal vegetarian offerings. A semainier offers a revolving door of daily specials, with veal blanquette the weekend standby. Service here can be slow, but in a dining room this lovely, it never hurts to linger.
41 Rue Monsieur le Prince, 6th
9. Cinq Mars
The low lights of this 7th arrondissement bistro lend a romantic appeal to a dining room known for its contemporary plays on classic French fare. The menu reads old-school, with warm leeks vinaigrette, escargots, and saucisse-purée. There are even some dishes, like pot au feu or a simple omelette, that have disappeared from the menus of other spots still steeped in Old World charm. But Cinq Mars adds modernity where it counts, with reasonable portion sizes, exquisite sourcing, and a handful of international touches, notably ensuring that vegetarians never feel abandoned. Be sure to save room for dessert: the bottomless chocolate mousse will conquer the heart of any chocoholic.
51 Rue de Verneuil, 7th
This 11th arrondissement bistro surely knows how to dress the part, with walls decorated with copper saucepans, red leather banquettes, and crisp white linens adorning every table. Contemporary bistro fare is on offer here, with storied classics like housemade pâté en croute, frogs’ legs, or Grenobloise cod sharing space with ample fish options and a true mastery of game, whether it’s roast pigeon or a play on rabbit in mustard sauce fashioned into a roulade. Side dishes are often served tableside from that gleaming copper: The puffy pommes dauphines outshine even the steak au poivre they accompany. Astier was once famous for its unlimited cheese service; this has since been limited to a dish of five, which is still more generous than most. And there’s always the dark chocolate soufflé or one of Paris’ best rum babas as an alternative end point.
44 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 11th
11. L’Ami Jean
L’Ami Jean is known for big flavors and big portions – and for its chef, Stéphane Jégo, a big personality. This Basque-inspired bistro invites guests to get cozy with their fellow diners, many of whom are seated at a long table running along one wall of the space. Meat is king here, from the family-sized terrine of house-made pâté (served with a veritable bucket of cornichons) to the “chimera” of wild boar and rabbit stewed in red wine. It is impossible to save room for dessert here, but you must: The rice pudding, served in a massive bowl to share alongside candied nuts and house-made salted caramel, is unmissable.
27 Rue Malar, 7th
12. Au Bougnat
It’s not easy to find great food steps from one of Paris’ most popular tourist destinations, but around a quiet corner near Notre Dame, Au Bougnat offers a surprisingly delicious experience. In a cozy dining room complete with exposed beams and a chalkboard menu, dig into an assortment of modernized bistro specialties like shirred eggs with smoked salmon and dill cream or snails served, not in their shells, but in a cassolette with garlic cream and Parmesan crumble. Mains may include slow-cooked pork cheeks with honey and cider or that omnipresent staple steak-frites, though you’ll also find a burger (as you will pretty much everywhere in Paris these days) and a planche of Auvergnat charcuterie and cheese, an allusion to the Bougnats (Auvergnat coal workers-turned-restaurateurs) from whence the restaurant gleans its name. (Anything that comes with the house vinaigrette is truly excellent.) The lunch prix fixe is a steal at 20.50 euros for two courses, which change regularly with the seasons, and the restaurant is open en continu, should you be on the lookout for somewhere to dine between 2:30 and 7pm.
26, rue Chanoinesse, 4th
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Old-school panache defines the menu at Café des Ministères, which quickly skyrocketed to local fame for its mighty stuffed cabbage, the first place winner in the 2022 Champion de France du chou farci contest. (Yes, that’s a real thing.) The genial team behind this restaurant offers true mastery of classics as simple as oeuf-mayo and as complex as generous vol au vents, which see creamy veal sweetbreads and mushrooms piled into exquisitely flaky golden pastry. Finish things off with a bang with house-made pavlova or a snifter of brandy served tableside from the wooden drinks cart. This spot’s prices (and difficult-to-get reservations) may make it more of a special occasion spot than some others on this list, but it’s worth it.
83 Rue de l’Université, 7th
Lead photo credit : Le Relais de l’Entrecôte. Photo: Emily Monaco