Ultimate Paris Dining Guide

Terry Durack

Restaurant critic Terry Durack has had more than his fair share of feasts de resistance in the City of Lights, a place he has come to know intimately in years of dining out. Here, he presents his definitive guide to dining like a parisian.


I first met Paris when I was 21, and we didn’t get on. I was, perhaps, too young and in too much of a hurry. I rushed from place to place. I went to the famous Brasserie Lipp and was sent to the upstairs room, otherwise known as Siberia. I took a terrace table at Les Deux Magots and sat there in shock at the cost of a gin and tonic.

I stayed in a hotel room so small I had to step out of the bathroom in order to towel myself dry. Then I was apprehended by security at the Printemps store who accused me of stealing a pair of trousers I had just purchased, and a taxi driver threw me out of his car for wanting to take a short trip to Gare de Lyon instead of a long trip to the airport. I was not impressed, and neither was Paris.

Since then, we have forgiven each other and moved on. I changed, Paris changed, the world changed. I’m not entirely sure I love Paris even now, but I can’t live without her. Is that the same thing?

One of the reasons I moved to London was to be closer to Paris – something that has since been made an absolute pleasure with the opening of the reborn St. Pancras station and the newer, faster Eurostar. J’adore l’Eurostar.

Now I go back four or five times a year. I could spend an entire week doing nothing but admiring the bridges that arch across the Seine, a bag of plump cherries in hand. I get a thrill out of taking the metro to dinner, emerging from the utilitarian tiled tube into some frothy baroque fantasy of velvet and champagne. I revel in the purchase of a small tart, the saltiness of the butter, the tickle of Badoit. I can even cope with the poor coffee; a small price to pay for the privilege of sitting at a café on one of the grand boulevards.

Above all, I like eating in Paris: the simple exchanges between waiter and diner; the negotiations over which wine, which vintage; the stout matrons with little dogs curled at their feet; the time and respect paid to the art – for it is very much an art – of dining.

Everyone has their own Paris, whether it is forged by a fantasy they have yet to visit, a reality constructed from memory, or a long-term relationship with all its ups and downs. This is mine.


THE BRASSERIES


Bistros may be more “neighbourhood”, but brasseries, with their art nouveau interiors, are instant party time. brasseries began life in the 19th century as beer taverns for the refugees who had fled Alsace after it was ceded to Germany. While several famous ones have been taken over by the Flo restaurant group, they have retained their boisterous appeal.

Terminus Nord One of the best things about arriving in Paris by Eurostar is that you can trundle your case into this hustly, bustly brasserie directly across the road from the Gare du Nord for a platter of wonderful oysters, or steak tartare and frites with a bottle of Burgundy. You’re back. Terminus Nord, 23 rue de Dunkerque, 10th; +33 1 42 85 05 15; terminusnord.com; dinner for two $140.

Bofinger This Bastille landmark is the brasserie dreams are made of. Bofinger (pronounced boh-fan-jay) has been serving onion soup, huge shellfish platters, and steaming bowls of choucroute and saucissons under its beautiful glass dome since 1864. Long may it last. 5-7 rue de la Bastille, 4th; +33 1 42 72 87 82; bofingerparis.com; dinner for two $160.

Balzar When word leaked that the Flo group was taking over what was Jean-Paul Sartre’s favourite brasserie, the regulars formed a “committee of defence” to force the new owners to preserve its character. It worked. Nothing has changed – not the feel, nor the battle-weary waiters, and certainly not the pot au feu, cassoulet, pig snout salad and baba au rhum. 49 rue des Ecoles, 5th; +33 1 43 54 13 67; brasseriebalzar.com; dinner for two $150.


THE NEW BISTROS


Once, your only choice was bistro, brasserie or haute cuisine. But that was before Yves Camdeborde left the two-starred Les Ambassadeurs restaurant in 1992, to take over a casual bistro called Le RÉgalade. His imaginative take on classic regional cooking spawned a movement that has become known as new bistro cooking or bistronomique. Soon, a number of young chefs trained under haute cuisine masters were choosing the more relaxed lifestyle of the bistro over the expense, stress and pressure of going for Michelin stars. As a result, Paris is now eating better than it ever has, and paying less for the privilege.

Le Comptoir You are so not going to thank me for this recommendation, because you won’t be able to get in. Yves Camdeborde’s first venture since Le Regalade, was to open a cosy, casual, open-to-the-street Left Bank bistro with just 25 seats. By day, you can drop in for breakfast or a simple no-bookings, brasserie-style lunch, but at night Camdeborde lets his hair down with a single set-price $80pp menu that showcases his very special talents: rolled saddle of lamb or deboned pig’s trotter, perhaps, or roast tuna and zucchini puree with crabmeat and herring caviar. As for dessert, I have just three words for you: Salted. Caramel. Ice-cream. ∫ 9 Carrefour de l’Odeon, 6th; +33 1 44 27 07 50; dinner for two $210.

Spring “An American in Paris” has taken on a whole new meaning ever since Daniel Rose arrived from Chicago to study philosophy a dozen years ago. He ended up working with some of the most gifted chefs in Paris before opening his own budget-driven 16-seater, serving a daily changing, market-driven menu. There are no choices, and you have to be seated by 8.30pm as everyone is served at once. The food is light, seasonal and utterly charming, from an octopus salad with potatoes to rabbit with black olives and carrot puree, and Rose’s wine list is smart and user-friendly. 28 rue de la Tour d’Auvergne, 9th; +33 1 45 96 05 72; springparis.blogspot.com; dinner for two $200.

L’Ami Jean This has been a tiny Basquaise bistro for as long as anyone can remember, and still looks and feels the part. But five years ago Yves Camdeborde protégée, Stéphane Jégo moved into the tiny kitchen to bring a touch of class to the homely, earthy cooking of south-west France. Start with a basket of help-yourself charcuterie with bread, butter and pickles, then look to the great-value specials board for suckling pig three ways, stewed shoulder of veal, or braised monkfish cheeks with mussels. It’s all good, all classy, and all memorable. 27 rue Malar, 7th; + 33 1 47 05 86 89; dinner for two $180.

Mon Vieil Ami Former three-starred Alsatian chef, Antoine Westermann has transformed this medieval dining room on the otherwise very touristy Île St-Louis into a modern, almost minimalist, space – unusual in Paris. So is the kitchen’s emphasis on heirloom vegetables, most of which are sourced from celebrated Parisian market gardener, Joël Thiébault. 69 rue Saint Louis en l’Île , 4th; +33 1 40 46 01 35; mon-vieil-ami.com; dinner for two $200.

Aux Lyonnais Early in the bistronomique revolution, two of the masters of the Parisian dining scene, Alain Ducasse and Thierry Brosse of L’Ami Louis pooled their talents to restore this 1890s bistro to its former glory, complete with zinc bar. While the food remains true to its Lyonnais roots, the kitchen breathes new life into the likes of pike quenelles, coq au vin, and a deliciously creamy cervelle de canut (herbed fresh cheese curd). It’s business-y by day, due to its location near the stock exchange, and more relaxed at night. 32 rue Saint Marc, 2nd; +33 1 42 96 65 04; alain-ducasse.com; dinner for two $200.


THE GASTRONOMIC RESTAURANTS


If you adore refined cooking, appreciate exquisite detail, or are simply curious about the pinnacle of French gastronomy, then it is very hard to resist the lure of haute cuisine. But beware, these are expensive waters to splash in. A meal for two with wine in a three-Michelin-star restaurant can cost $1000, and in a two-star restaurant about half that, choose very carefully. You also need to book weeks, if not months, ahead. Lunch is easier to get into than dinner, will generally cost less, and will be no less remarkable.

Le Meurice This is what most of us think of when we think of Michelin stars – crystal chandeliers, marble columns, gilt-edged murals, flocked and tassled fabrics, and candles in a rococo-a-go-go salon. Le Meurice’s dashing, 40-year-old chef, Yannick Alléno, arrived in 2003 and took less than four years to win his three Michelin stars – a meteoric rise. Yet he didn’t do it the safe way, by reproducing the conservative excesses of the past. He did it his way, with lighter, modern dishes like a shimmering, jellied bouillabaisse, or marinated langoustine with black and white “pearls” of oscietra caviar and tapioca. A truly modern three-star Michelin experience, right down to the delectable petits fours, in a hotel that is itself among the best of the best. Hotel Meurice, 228 rue de Rivoli, 1st; +33 1 4458 1050; lemeurice.com; dinner for two $750.

Restaurant Hélène Darroze At last, a female chef poking her blonde head through the glass ceiling to gaze at the stars. Darroze is a country girl from the south-west, where both her father and grandfather were chefs. Her nine-year-old Left Bank restaurant was hotly tipped to get her third star from the Guide Michelin this year, but it didn’t happen. Personally I can’t see why not, having eaten very well indeed in this lush, plush first-floor boudoir, lined with rich, vibrant velvets and silks. Cuisine Darroze is rustic yet lavish, natural yet contrived in all the right places, from a log of Landes chicken with morels and foie gras oozing truffle-flecked jelly to the simplicity of Gascon ham sliced into wafers at the table. Dazzling. 4 rue d’Assas, 6th; +33 1 42 22 00 11; helenedarroze.com; dinner for two $600.

L’Astrance Pascal Barbot is regarded by many as the most exciting young chef in Paris, and L’Astrance the hardest three-star restaurant to get into. Partner Christophe Rohat could sell each of the 25 seats over and over every day. Once in, it’s worth it for the adventurous, brave-new-world food, from buckwheat blinis with oyster carpaccio, or crab-filled avocado ravioli with salted almonds, to sweet lobster with candied grapefruit peel. Most diners put themselves in Barbot’s hands by going for the Menu Astrance at $287 a head. 4 rue Beethoven, 16th. +33 1 40 50 84 40; dinner for two $650.

Pierre Gagnaire The conservative Parisian dining room doesn’t capture the swashbuckling, creative nature of Gagnaire’s cooking. Like works of art, his dishes tell stories and involve the improbable – who else would combine mortadella, baby scallops, lime, turnips, green apple and asparagus broth? Every dish on the menu is actually a collection of different dishes, deconstructed, so “les langoustines” is scampi done as a tartare with green mango; grilled with melted butter; sautéed with coriander; minced with Iberian ham, as a jellied consommé with carob powder; and moussed with soy bean sprouts. This can lead to total sensory overload, or to gastronomic nirvana. 6 rue Balzac, 8th; + 33 1 58 36 12 50; pierre-gagnaire.com; dinner for two $850.


THE BARS


In the same way that the French transform eating into dining, they turn the simple act of going out for a drink into a romantic tryst, a ritual, a special moment in the day.

Le Bar du Plaza Athénée Outrageously glamorous – and outrageously expensive – this is the bar as art form, with its holographic fireplace, miniature electric blue chandeliers, and cocktails so fashionable they could have come straight off the catwalk. Hotel Plaza Athénée, 25 Avenue Montaigne, 8th; + 33 1 53 67 66 65; plaza-athenee-paris.com

Hôtel Costes Set in the city’s most fashion-conscious hotel are a number of lush, interlinked salons around an internal courtyard, where you can take coffee, sip cocktails or eat the sort of teeny snack deemed a full meal by ridiculously attractive people such as these. Wear your v. best shoes. 239 Rue St-Honore, 1st; + 33 1 42 44 50 00; hotelcostes.com

Rival Deluxe Philippe, nephew of cutting edge restaurateur, Jean-Louis Costes, recently opened this slinky bar/lounge/restaurant/nightclub on the site of Claude Challe’s gone-but-never-forgotten Nirvana Lounge. Designer of the moment, Jacques Garcia has done his usual lush, plush makeover, making it a must-visit bar du nuit. 3 avenue Matignon, 8th; +33 1 42 89 64 72.

Hotel Amour Gilbert Costes’ son, Thierry, is one of the partners in this hip new boutique hotel – so hip it has table football in the downstairs loo, no lobby, and no actual reception. Forget the hipness and just treat it as a good bar with rooms, and a great little courtyard garden. 8 rue Navarin, 9th; +33 1 48 78 31 80.

Andy Wahloo This is the Anti-Costes, with no known connection to the ubiquitous Costes family, and no Jacques Garcia fitout. Instead, it’s a moody Moroccan hangout in the Marais where you sit on recycled paint drums at tables made from traffic signs, and drink fresh mint cocktails. Nice. 69 rue des Gravilliers, 3rd; +33 1 42 71 20 38.


THE ETHNIC RESTAURANTS


Even the French can get tired of French food, and the food of its former colonies (Algeria, Vietnam) and ancient quarters (Jewish, Chinese) is celebrated on a daily basis.

Mansouria Couscous is much loved by the fast crowd, and has become a bistro staple, but it’s worth going for the whole experience at Fatema Hal’s much-loved Moroccan restaurant, for its choice of seven different varieties. 11 rue Faidherbe, 11th; +33 1 43 71 00 16; dinner for two $150.

L’As du fallafel This place is a hoot; a fast-action, wipe-clean, cheap-as-chips café in the heart of the old Jewish quarter in the Marais. Nobody bothers with the menu – just go straight for the falafel special, which comes literally bursting with eggplant, cucumber, red cabbage, hummus, tahini and harissa. And felafel. 34 rue de Rosiers, 4th; + 33 1 48 87 63 60; dinner for two $50.

Dong Huong Parisians adore the lightness of Vietnamese food, returning time and again to this popular, buzzy restaurant for its steaming bowls of pho soup noodles. 14 rue Louis-Bonnet, 11th; +33 1 43 57 18 88; dinner for two $55.


THE FOOD SHOPS


Lafayette Gourmet A vibrant, ever-changing food hall with breads from Eric Kayser and Poilâne, a working butcher, well-stocked fish shop, first-rate fruiterer, and free tastings of everything from foie gras to olive oil. A top place to go for a quick cheap, lunch, especially from the jamon and sherry bar, Galeries Lafayette, 40 Boulevard Haussmann, 9th; + 33 1 42 82 34 56; galerieslafayette.com

Fromagerie Marie-Anne Cantin Marie-Anne inherited her love of cheese (and the affineur business) from her father, Christian Cantin. With a particularly dazzling range of raw milk cheeses, her shop is a place of worship for cheese-lovers from all over Paris, and the world. Even if you don’t buy, just go to smell. 12 rue Champ de Mars, 7th; +33 1 45 50 43 94; cantin.fr

Jean-Paul Hevin Perhaps the finest chocolatier in all of Paris, Hevin will cover anything in chocolate if it stands still long enough – fruit, caramel, spices, even cheese. The chocolates are made fresh every day and no chocolate stays on the shelf for more than three days. 231 rue Saint-Honore, 7th; + 33 1 55 35 35 96; jphevin.com

Astier de Villatte An artfully dilapidated little treasure of a shop full of wonky wooden walls, lined with exquisite hand-thrown tableware with a distinctive milky glaze, inspired by both plain and ornate 18th- and 19th-century designs. These are the only plates I will ever happily wash and dry by hand. 173 rue Saint-Honore, 1st; + 33 1 42 60 74 13; astierdevillatte.com

Pierre Herme The patissier of patissiers, Pierre Herme has few peers. His flagship store feels more like a fashion boutique than a cake shop, with its seasonally changing designer chocolates, macaroons and pastries. It’s thanks to Monsieur Herme, that in Paris I live on four meals a day. π 72 rue Bonaparte, 6th; +33 1 43 54 47 77; pierreherme.com

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