Paris' Most Memorable Dining Spots

The French gastronomic meal is an event like no other. It traditionally consists of an aperitif, four courses paired with four different wines and a digestif.

France’s national identity has always been closely tied to its culinary heritage, from the deeply ingrained pride in its agricultural roots to its excellence in the fine art of cooking known as haute cuisine, which was developed during the glory days of the royal court at Versailles. But after almost two centuries sitting comfortably atop their gastronomic throne, the French saw their crown slipping. In 21st century France, globalisation has not only brought fast-food chains and pre-packaged foods to the time-strapped population, but also a constant hunger for the latest new tastes and trends. Critics also claim that French cuisine, with its heavy sauces and coldly formal service, has become too stale for the modern world. 

With this in mind, the country’s top chefs have decided to take matters into their own hands, and after several years of lobbying, French gastronomy was finally added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list last November. In the UNESCO application, the French gastronomic meal is defined as the customary social practice of celebrating important moments in life with friends and family around a festive meal of good food and wine. While no two may be the same in terms of what’s on the table, they all share a common vision of what makes this meal special: taking pleasure in the time and effort required to prepare and enjoy a truly good meal with close friends and family. And this appreciation is passed down through successive generations. The ritual serves to strengthen social ties.

“I think the French are unique in the fact they have always understood that cooking is a culinary art,” says Paris-based food consultant and cookbook author Rachel Khoo. “Having that understanding and respect for food ingrained into a culture obviously affects the way people eat.”

The rituals of planning a multi-course menu, shopping at the local markets for the finest ingredients, selecting the perfect wines and creating a beautiful setting are all part of what makes a meal so special for the French. It might be anything from a small family gathering to celebrate a birth to a village-wide potluck for a summer festival. And, of course, it could be in a restaurant.

Savoir Faire 

Ever since The Michelin Guide began awarding stars to fine French restaurants in 1926, it’s been considered the benchmark of dining establishments. The restaurants awarded the coveted three-star status embody the highest expression of French culinary savoir faire. The formal service, elaborate dishes and hair-raising price can make haute cuisine seem worlds away from the meals created in French homes, but they both evolve from the same unshakeable social and cultural traditions. Whether carefully choosing the finest produce for a Sunday meal with the family chez grand-mère (at Grandma’s house) or dining in the restaurant of the latest star chef, the French are participating at every level in the art of good eating. 

“The real genius of French cuisine rests on education,” says Alexander Lobrano, author of the restaurant guide Hungry for Paris. “Not only is the French public taught to know and value good food, the French system for training chefs is the most rigorous in the world, and brilliantly perpetuates the transmission of culinary knowledge from one generation of chefs to another.”

While the French only indulge in true gastronomic feasts for special occasions, there is a noticeable trickle-down effect in the way they enjoy their everyday meals. Open-air markets and dedicated cheese, meat, wine and produce shops are still the norm in many towns, holding their own against the growing number of  hypermarkets and frozen foods. Meals may no longer last two hours, especially for the busy Parisian, but there’s still an appreciation for quality ingredients and pleasing presentation. The decade-old Paris-based group Le Fooding champions a movement to bring haute cuisine back to its roots. This trend is catching on in the capital where some of the hottest new bistros are scruffy little establishments in unpopular neighbourhoods that happen to be run by classically-trained chefs serving simple, high-quality gourmet meals for less than €50. Frenchie Restaurant and Vivant are ideal examples of this, both of which are almost impossible to reserve less than a month in advance. 

Vive L’artisan

The latest UNESCO classification also helps French chefs and agriculture lobbyists protect the high quality of the country’s meat, produce and wine against the threat of industrialisation. From the invasion of genetically modified crops to the pressure to pasteurise their raw milk cheeses, artisan French food producers need all the help they can get to maintain culinary traditions in the face of growing standardisation, factory farming and processed convenience food. 

“The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas,” wrote Brillat-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste. “It mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure.” Perhaps UNESCO’s nod to France’s centuries-old tradition will ensure it remains an honoured part of the country’s way of life. 

The French gastronomic meal is an event like no other. It traditionally consists of an aperitif, four courses  starter, fish and/or meat dish, cheese platter, and dessert  paired with four different wines and a digestif. To finish, there is usually espresso, to provide enough energy to get up from the table. Finally, the most important secret to dining like the French is perhaps the hardest to come by in our fast-paced world: time to enjoy it. Don’t plan on the meal lasting fewer than four hours, and don’t be surprised if it runs longer. Also, ducking out early for other engagements is a faux pas. The French not only eat less the day before a gastronomic meal, they clear their schedules so they can relax and bask in the pleasure of the fine food and good company. Want to experience a typical French gastronomic meal? You can’t go wrong in the many Michelin-starred establishments, but there are also some classic and contemporary bistros where you can enjoy authentic French cuisine without always emptying your wallet.

La Régalade Saint Honoré 

Chef Bruno Doucet’s restaurant near the Louvre wins over the notoriously difficult Parisians with skilfully cooked, fresh, flavourful bistro cuisine. The setting is modern and informal, with large windows overlooking the street and a small window separating the diners from Doucet’s brisk movements in the kitchen. On the menu are organic game chicken, steaks, stews, fish and seafood served with delicate morel mushrooms, seasonal asparagus and baby vegetables. Be sure to order one of the superb dessert soufflés. Truly a wonderful bistro experienceone that’s getting harder and harder to find in Paris.

Konfidentiel Paris 

After a redesign, this 15th-century building reopened last year as a designer boutique hotel, including a postage-stamp-size restaurant tucked into the whitewashed cellar. The menu, like the setting, is condensed and contemporary. Guests are offered a choice of two seasonal menus, changed daily according to the mood of chef Denis Davidoff who reinvents classic French dishes with a creative touch. Reserve one of the outdoor terrace tables (facing the street) if the weather is good. 

Frenchie Restaurant

Young Grégory Marchand, who earned his nickname Frenchie when working in the kitchen of British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, opened his eponymous little bistro fewer than two years ago in the Sentier garment district. Eleven tables for two occupy the tiny dining room of exposed brick, wooden beams and neo-retro light bulbs. It’s modern, fresh and cosyjust like the food. Forget about dishes heavy on the reduction sauces, here the highest-quality vegetables are carefully chosen to complement the meats with just a hint of condiments and juices to heighten the flavours. And when there are only two starters, mains and desserts and a cheese plate on offer, you can be sure everything is market fresh and cooked to perfection. 

Josephine “chez Dumonet”

The nicotine-tinted walls and 1930s’ light fixtures might make visitors feel like they’re extras on a French film set, but this typical old-world bistro is the real thing. It’s famous for dishes such as the crispy-skinned duck confit and hearty boeuf bourguignon cooked by Jean-Christian, the third generation of the Dumonet family to work the restaurant. Order the handy half-portions of the heavier dishes like steak tartare or cassoulet if you want to have enough room for the enormous desserts including mille-feuille or a towering Grand Marnier soufflé. The wine cave celebrates the country’s fine Bordeaux wines, alongside more affordable house wines. The waiters in their white aprons are as old school as the traditional cooking, so be prepared for an arched eyebrow should you dare order your steak well-done. 

Restaurant Astier 

If there’s one common theme in any truly authentic French gastronomic meal, it would be a joyous mood, something that’s often hard to reproduce in a restaurant setting. But this neo-bistro with its chequered tablecloths, playful cartoon pigs, and boisterous elbow-to-elbow atmosphere seems to get it just right. The cheeky waiters try to hide their smiles behind feigned Parisian aloofness, even when having to pose with what must be the most photographed cheese platter in France. You’ll find all of the classic specialties with ingredients sourced from the best suppliers of the Île-de-France region surrounding Paris, including Charolaise steaks, boudin noir (blood sausage), wild boar terrine, black-footed roast chicken, sole meunière, (fish coated in flour and pan-fried) or homemade foie gras. If you make it through the massive cheese plate alive, order the popular baba au rhum, a yeast cake saturated in liquor, for an impressive final flourish. 

Au Petit Marguery

This elegant Belle Époque restaurant on the southern edge of the Latin Quarter is exactly the kind of comfortable, semi-formal establishment that locals visit en famille to celebrate special occasions without going over the top. Now tourists who are in the know do, too. The restaurant excels in seasonal game dishes as well as typical French specialties such as tête de veau (calf’s head), rognons, (kidneys) and tourte de pigeon (pigeon pie). Fish, lobster and steak dishes round out the menu for less adventurous palates. 

L’Astrance Restaurant

Those who claim that there’s nothing new in French cuisine probably haven’t been to chef Pascal Barbot’s restaurant in the posh 16th arrondissement (district) of Paris. Behind an unassuming façade, the stylish, contemporary dining room and accommodating serving staff provide the perfect complement to his inventive cuisine that combines flavours, colours and textures in new ways without being heavy. Raw vegetables, edible flowers and dustings of Asian ingredients are typical, but forget about seeing an actual menu, as it’s a “surprise”. Much like dining at a friend’s house, the chef simply prepares a meal of what he likes (after checking with guests for any allergies or strong aversions). A typical French meal? Hardly. But with three Michelin stars and countless other international culinary honours, Barbot’s novel style of cooking could one day itself become part of the classic.  

Words by Heather Stimmler-Hall - Published in Voyeur July 2011
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 2,193,031
Time Zone UTC +1
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