Eating well here should be as much of a must-do rite for visitors as riding to the top of the Eiffel Tower, stomping through the Louvre or buying a scarf at Galeries Lafayette.
But Parisian pigging out can get very pricey. I know. Three tiny cups of coffee, a hot chocolate and four medium-size desserts cost me 52 euros -, about $67 - at one of the gilded tourist traps along the Champs-Elysees. Yes, the place was beautiful, but you can't eat the intricately carved crown molding. And, yes, the hot chocolate was the creamiest and richest I've ever had. But $67?
Food is expensive in France, especially with the lousy dollar-euro exchange rate. It pays to choose your spots wisely. There are scores of guidebooks and well-meaning friends out there to advise you.
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Just remember, delicious meals are not the sole province of luxury restaurants festooned in Michelin stars and attitude. Do as the locals do and seek out smaller neighborhood restaurants, casual cafes or venerable bistros where one can dine nicely and not stretch the cost-quality ratio too much. And don't forget the wine bars! There's always food, ranging from a nibble or two to a menu as ample as any cafe's.
Any of these four restaurants below could be the starting point for your culinary tour of Paris.
L'Avant Comptoir: The hottest wine bar in all of Paris holds about a dozen people, max, on a standing-room-only basis. It's basically a zinc-topped counter and a row of coat hooks, and it's jammed to bursting practically every night. The reason? Yves Camdeborde, who made his reputation offering high-quality food for low prices at his bistro, La Regalade, in the 1990s and then boosted both his cred and the bistro concept even higher by opening Le Comptoir du Relais on the Left Bank about four years ago.
Le Comptoir's seats are among the most sought-after in Paris (go early, for lunch, and tables are on a first-come basis). Giving waiting customers a place to wait is likely one of the reasons Camdeborde decided to turn his tiny creperie shop next door into L'Avant Comptoir wine bar. Wine and good nibbles always make the time go more easily.
Camdeborde vigorously rejects press attempts to define his place as some sort of Gallic tapas bar. The concept strikes me as sort of small plates of various degrees of complexity. You can order tissue-thin strips of cured Basque ham, a little bowl of black olives, assorted pates and sausage, pickled peppers, even little squares of fresh tuna paired with micro-beet greens.
Why does he put so much effort into such a little space? "It's all about the passion and the love of food," Camdeborde replied simply in French. Can't argue there.
The address: 3 carrefour de l'Odeon, 6th Arrondissement. Open daily.
Chez Michel: This restaurant near the Gare du Nord train station is chef Thierry Breton's homage to his native Brittany. The main dining room is elegant with warm wood accents but feels cramped. Downstairs, the wine-cellar-like basement is roomier but more casual looking, with long wood tables lining the stone walls.
The prix fixe dinner is very modestly priced, for Paris, at 32 euros (about $41). Breton has a particularly fine hand with seafood. "Potted" sardines are gorgeous, the silvery skin shimmering in the light. The fish filets are lightly pickled, with a texture like seviche, and accented with the distinctive flavor of carrot and onion. An earthy brandade de morue - salt cod pounded to a creamy consistency - is topped with a layer of crusty browned cheese.
There are plenty of add-ons that can lift the cost of the meal to more than 50 euros ($65). Spend the extra 10 euros (about $13) if scallops are on the menu. You get them cooked and served in the shell, accented with an ethereal celery foam and driblets of a rich seaweed butter.
For dessert, try the Paris-Brest, a perfect circlet of puff pastry piped with a hazelnut butter cream. The cheese tray is a revelation; the server drops off an assortment of five or six types, and you serve yourself as much as you'd like.
10 rue de Belzunce, 10th Arrondissement. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Friday, dinner only Monday, closed Saturday and Sunday.
Josephine Chez Dumonet: Young chef Jean-Christian Dumonet is the third generation at the helm of this 113-year-old Latin Quarter charmer. He offers fresh takes on traditional French food that look as handsome as they taste.
Consider the "mille-feuille" of pigeon. A golden cake of thin potato petals is mortared with moist chunks of rare breast meat. The two legs, roasted and crisp, are posed like miniature swans on the plate atop a dark, rich sauce.
Scallops are presented in the shell posed on pillows of braised spinach and garnished with shavings of sweetly roasted leeks.
Robustly winey, the boeuf bourguignon is spiked with tiny white onions, mushrooms and carrots and served from its own casserole onto tagliatelle pasta.
A souffle boozy with Grand Marnier rises proudly out of its white baking dish.
The restaurant offers full or half portions of nearly everything on the menu. Choose the former option if possible; the food is too good to scrimp.
117 rue du Cherche Midi, 6th Arrondissement. Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Friday, closed Saturday-Sunday.
Les Pipos: Located in the shadow of the Pantheon on a narrow, winding street, this tiny Latin Quarter wine bar is impossibly crowded and refuses to take credit cards. What wins you over are the place's spirited personality, top-notch traditional menu and a thoughtful roster of good wine from small producers.
Food and drink really count here. Nowhere else in Paris do I find a sign above the bar proudly announcing that the oysters arrive fresh every morning from Brittany. They're beauties, sporting deep cups brimming with briny juice. On the side is half a lemon, a cup of vinegary mignonette sauce, bread and a crock of butter.
On a nearby chalkboard is the name of the vin de jour, a 2008 Wilfrid Rousse Cuvee les Galuches from Chinon in the Loire Valley. The wine is lean, structured, a perfect foil for the food.
Try herring salad, with the fish lightly pickled under a shower of thin onion strips and served with thick slices of hot potato. The rib-eye steak is small but arrives properly saignan ("rare"), in a green peppercorn sauce. A huge bowl of crisp, non-greasy frites arrives with the meat.
Order the smoked haddock if you can: It's hauntingly smoky flavor is enhanced by a saffron-laced butter and a medley of vegetables, peas, pea pods and the skinniest green beans you've seen.
See the bathroom even if you don't need it. A tiny, twisting staircase behind the bar leads you upstairs to a nondescript dining area. It's the stairwell that's fascinating; the space is papered with hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs and ticket stubs.
2 rue de l'Ecole Polytechnique. 5th Arrondissement. Live music on the weekends. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.