Dining Out in Paris Day After Day After Day
It’s so fascinating. At the beginning of every year, I collect the receipts from the all of the previous year’s worth of restaurant dining. They then get turned over to a bookkeeper who gets a kind of strange pleasure out of logging in every single one. The end result is an accounting of how many restaurant meals I’ve had over the course of the year, and on the average, how much every meal costs.
What’s so fascinating is that for the last seven years the statistics remain ridiculously consistent…regardless of the rate of exchange (which we translate from euros for each) within less than a 10% difference! Every year it surprises us, to say the least.
The serious interest in restaurants began not long after moving to Paris as there were so many restaurants seducing us at every turn. With a limited budget for dining out, we began to seek out the bargain spots — little mom-pop bistrots that offered a good quality French meal for not a lot of money. The most attractive ones to our taste had lace curtains in the windows, checkered table cloths, bentwood chairs and total old world charm. The really good ones had been there many years serving to a local and loyal clientele.
Once in the habit of dining out at almost every meal, after my daughter went off to college, cooking at home became a chore, uninteresting dining alone and inside, and not all that cheap. It was tough to go back to shopping, cooking and cleaning up after myself once spoiled by good food and complete service dining out.
Over the years living in Paris, however, restaurant dining has really changed, even if the statistics have stayed mostly the same. The mom-pop restaurants are few and far between now. Those older couples I can remember cooking on four burners in the tiny back kitchens went by the wayside and a whole new wave of restaurateurs took their place. There are more restaurants now than ever before, which I believe is a prompted more by the tax advantages than by the desire to cook! (Restaurants take in a lot of cash — an advantage in a highly taxed society!)
In their places have come trendy bistrots, pop-ups and diners. American-style burgers are now on just about every menu along with restaurants specializing in the ground meat and cheese staple…but, at no bargain. The lace curtains are gone along with the checkered table cloths and the bentwood coat rack. In their places are restaurants with one-word names, perhaps not even signed on the outside (very trendy) with stark, modern, hip furnishings and no place to hang your coat (this really annoys me).
These restaurants have no appeal to me. They could be anywhere in the world. The restaurants that get write-ups in the New York Times or other American foodie journals or blogs are even less interesting. They can be exorbitantly expensive just for the sake of creating a kind of international ambience, but they end up filled with Americans who can go home and brag to their friends that they had dined there while they were in Paris. Who cares really?
Just give me an old-fashioned bistrot with a hearty menu of well-prepared food, run by a family that cares about its patrons, at a price that is reasonable considering their offerings in a decor that makes you feel right at home. There are still a few around, but fewer all the time, sadly.
I bet you now want to know which are at the top of the list. If you want a list of my top favorite 100 in Paris, then you might want to download the “Adrian Leeds® Top 100 Cheap Insider Paris Restaurants” — a guide I’ve been writing since 1996.
And if you want my top five? These are the restaurants I frequent the most, so naturally, they are close to home. Here you go:
1. CHEZ OMAR (excerpt from the “Adrian Leeds® Top 100 Cheap Insider Paris Restaurants”)
Address: 47, rue de Bretagne, Arrondissement 3
Métro: Arts et Métiers (Line 3, 11), Temple (Line 3)
Payment: Cash Only
Hours: Closed Sunday Lunch, No Reservations
Average per Person: €25 – €35
North African couscous is as French these days as onion soup, thanks to a large North African population in Paris. So, to truly complete a French experience, you will not want to visit Paris without a lunch or dinner pause at Chez Omar. You can find me here about once a week as the kind of restaurant I can count on for a great meal, a small price and a really fun experience. It is well reputed for its great couscous, grilled meats and fish, fast, friendly service and Omar himself, who is loaded with personality. The neighborhood residents, local celebrities and tourists all flock here. While not as uncharted as many of the restaurants in the guide, you can rest assured you’ll enjoy its vivant ambiance as well as its savory couscous or other simply, but well prepared items at very reasonable prices. My personal recommendation is to start with a “pastille” (pigeon pie – shared among two or four as it’s very rich) then order one meat couscous and one “legumes” couscous between two as the portions are copious. The “Royal” is a platter of different varieties of meats, for a taste of everything. You can also choose from a variety of standard dishes (steaks, roast chicken, etc.) if someone in your party just isn’t in the mood for couscous. In fact, these may be Omar’s finest accomplishments: “Filet au Poivre,” “Foie de Veau,” “Magret de Canard,” “Steack de Thon or Espadon” (swordfish). The side dishes such as “Endives braisés” or “Choux fleur sauté” are worth giving up the couscous. Dessert can be a tough choice when presented with Omar’s platter of Middle Eastern pastries filled with honey and nuts. Instead of coffee after dessert try Omar’s Thé à la Menthe (fresh made mint tea). Be prepared – even my most discerning friends agree, it is virtually impossible not to have fun at Chez Omar! Special note: it’s a popular place so be prepared to wait to get in unless you arrive early enough.
2. LE COUDE FOU
Address: 12, rue du Bourg-Tibourg, Arrondissement 4
Phone: 01.42.77.15.16, Fax 01.48.04.08.98
Métro: Hôtel de Ville (Line 1, 11)
Hours: Open Daily
Average per Person: €30 – €40
For such a small street, there are lots of wonderful shops and restaurants, including Le Coude Fou. Over the past several years, Le Coude Fou has become one of my regular “cantines” because the choices always change, the food is always great, the atmosphere perfectly inviting and comfortable and the service friendly and welcoming. There are only two choices in each category on the fixed price menu, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. This charming old-world typically Parisian bistrot serves a meal as perfectly prepared as you might have much more expensively. The first good sign is the delicious crusty bread, then steak (their specialty) with a very robust green peppercorn sauce, or pink trout in a buttery, but flavorful light sauce. Servings are copious. The wine list is the most impressive aspect, as this is one of the neighborhood’s favorite “bistrot à vins” and the wine which is served with the fixed-price menu is much better quality than the usual “vin de maison.” Service is prompt and friendly and the décor simple and comfortable. This is the kind of restaurant that reminds me why I like living in Paris and I can go there often, never to be disappointed. No matter how many times a month I land at Le Coude Fou, I never tire of it.
3. LES FETES GALANTES
Address: 17, rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique, Arrondissement 5
Métro: Cardinal-Lemoine (Line 10), Maubert-Mutualité (Line 10)
Hours: Opening days and hours change frequently, call in advance
Average per Person: €25 – €35
In the shadow of Le Panthéon, we found this tiny bistrot many years ago. With a maximum seating of 22, eclectic décor and jovial owner Bibi and his wife Isabelle, it is a veritable delight. Bibi’s personality is bigger than the restaurant itself and manifests itself in his delightful cooking, not to mention a humorous collection of bras and panties hanging in one corner donated by customers, plus photos and business cards adorning the walls! The entrées and plats are both beautifully presented and very full of flavor (spicier than the average traditional French preparations), but the desserts are the “pièce de la résistance!” Do not miss the fresh homemade profiteroles. Bibi does his own cooking while his wife Isabelle waits on tables. The quality of the cuisine just gets better and better – no other restaurant in this guide gets as many comments from past customers as this one. And I’ll bet it’s the only one whose customers send bras to the owner as a reward! The only downfall, which has happened since it landed in this guide in 1996 is the abundance of Anglophones that frequent the restaurant. Bibi is quite pleased, but you may not be if you’re looking for something more undiscovered by Americans.
4. BISTROT LE MAZARIN
Address: 12, rue Mazarine, Arrondissement 6
Métro: Odéon (Line 4, 10) , Pont Neuf (Line 7)
Hours: Open Daily
Average per Person: €25 – €35
A classic corner in what is fast becoming “tourist town,” Bistrot Le Mazarin holds fort for the lovers of Saint-Germain-des-Prés who have watched their neighborhood butcher shops turn into chic shoe boutiques. Lace curtains, cozy wood tables, a long bar for the regulars to bend their elbows over a coffee or a Pastis, one can order a broad range of brasserie-fusion-restaurant traditional cuisine served by a friendly wait staff with years of experience. Daily specials keep the menu forever interesting. Preparation is superb. The bread assortment in the tiny basket comes from a bakery on rue Git le Coeur and is worth spreading butter on before your meal arrives. The atmosphere is so “Paris,” it’s unbelievable. In warm weather, tables take over the sidewalk under temporary tarps. The clientele is local to a tee – you have to know this “petit coin” exists and stands out from the rest, even on the well-known and chic rue Mazarine.
5. Special Mention (not in the Paris guide, as it’s in Nice!):
LE BISTROT ANTOINE
Address: 27, rue de la Préfecture, Vieux Nice, 06300
Hours: Closed Sunday and Monday and August
Average per Person: €25 – €35
This could be my favorite bistrot of all time — I never leave Nice without at least one dinner at Antoine which never disappoints us at a price two-thirds of an equivalent restaurant in Paris. The food is creative bistrot fare at it’s best and the choices are so many that you just want to try everything on the menu. Their sister restaurant, “Le Comptoir du Marché” (8, rue du Marché, 06000 Nice, 04.93.13.45.01) is equally as good, plus both, family run, serve well with big smiles.
The bottom line is that once again, I managed to average at least one dining out experience per day at an average cost of under $30 including all taxes and tips, usually including wine and coffee. Not bad, when you consider what it costs in time and money to shop, cook and clean up after oneself…plus have the pleasure of being a guest in someone else’s ‘home.’
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris & Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
(at Bistrot Mazarin)
P.S. HGTV and House Hunters International is looking for ‘contributors.’ A ‘contributor’ is an exciting professional/outgoing person under the age of 50 who has recently purchased (or rented) a home or apartment somewhere in France (or is about to) who will be willing to allow their story to be told by being filmed for an episode which will be aired nationwide in the United States. Contributors earn a remuneration for giving about five days of their time to the filming. If you are a good candidate for starring in a House Hunters International episode with me within the next couple of months, please email me immediately and let me know why!: [email protected].
P.P.S. It’s Tuesday! Tune in to HGTV’s House Hunters International on January 21 at 12:30 p.m. E/P for “Returning to Europe.” When offered the job opportunity of a lifetime in Paris, will this couple find their perfect Parisian paradise? Watch the episode to find out!