Paris Bargain Bistrot Dining
Once upon a time we hosted eight to ten people almost every Saturday night for a four-course dinner “chez nous.” He (the Ex) would do the marketing and I’d do the cooking. Together we served and cleaned up. Among those circles, I became known for making great pastas (à la Marcella Hazan) and a “crème caramel” to die for. Invitations to dinner at our house were rarely turned down and a good time was had by all…except me.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like to cook. I loved it…so creative, so relaxing, so fulfilling and rewarding when others like your nourishment. But as ‘chief cook and bottle-washer,’ everyone was part of the party except me while I was ‘slaving over a hot stove’ hearing the laughter coming from the dining room.
When we moved to France, the dinner parties continued, and the hunt for restaurants began. It became a major sport — discovering the little mamma-poppa spots in the local neighborhoods was a new culinary adventure. And it didn’t require marketing, inviting, cooking or cleaning up. The toughest part was making the reservations and showing up for someone else to do all the work. Suddenly I was a part of the party once again.
When my daughter went off to college and she and her friends were no longer hungry mouths to feed, I was left alone with my pots and pans. They became increasingly ignored until one day, they were virtually forgotten. The refrigerator was free of rotting foodstuff and the stove top stayed shiny clean. I made reservations…or not, but picked my favorite eateries and showed up to be served and pampered. It grew on me.
In the summer of 1996, only two years after landing in Paris, I constructed a list of 50 of my favorite Paris “good value” bistrots to test the sales of an online Paris restaurant guide. It was the first of its kind and it sold like ‘hotcakes’ from the get-go. It seems I wasn’t the only one to enjoy great French meals at a bargain price. The guide has had a life of its own, having changed publishers now four times, but landing currently as the “Adrian Leeds Top 100 Cheap Insider Paris Restaurants” with Tap Books Publishing and sold on Amazon.com.
For tax purposes, I keep track of the cost of every meal. It’s a small benefit of the dining out, but mostly it’s been fun to record the statistics over the years. The results from 2012 just landed on my desk and were thoroughly surprising!
In 2012, there was one more dining experience than in 2011 (353 compared to 352) — almost a perfect record of one per day. The meals are paid for in euros, but when converted to dollars, the average cost is altered. Dining out was most expensive in 2007 as the average meal cost $30.64 when the rate of exchange was $1.47…and for some reason that year I really pigged out, having eaten out 403 times. The biggest bargain year was 2005 with an average cost of $23.20 while the rate of exchange was $1.18. Two-thousand-four was a special year — I must have been hibernating having only dined out 219 times.
Still, it’s pretty amazing to think one can eat in Paris at $29.48 (2012) for two courses, wine and coffee plus including tax and tip. As a tourist, you may be following the lead of such foodies as Alexander Lobrano (Hungry for Paris) or David Lebovitz, but you could go broke dining out daily at the new hip bistrots they recommend. You can count on their good taste, but can you count on their prudence?
Want to know my top three favorite Paris restaurants for great food at a bargain?
1. Chez Omar of course.
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 of more than 200,000. 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 Omars platter of Middle Eastern pastries filled with honey and nuts. Instead of coffee after dessert try Omars 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: its a popular place so be prepared to wait to get in unless you arrive early enough.
2. Les Fêtes Galantes ranks way up there for best bargain in the ‘funkiest’ spot with the zaniest chef ever!
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, to be 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 youre looking for something more undiscovered by Americans.
3. Le Bistrot Mazarin for a surprise in the midst of the touristy 6th district for being REAL!
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. 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 little corner spot exists and stands out from the rest, even on the well-known and chic rue Mazarine.
If you want to know more, simply buy the guide. It will set you back a whopping $3.59! Download it to your Kindle or iPhone (so it goes where you go in the City of Light)!
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds (at Le Bistrot Mazarin)
Editor, Parler Paris & Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
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