Womentravelers ask me if it's possible these days to have a great meal in Paris without breaking the travel budget, given the sharply declining value of the American dollar against the euro. My answer is a resounding "yes!" -- and on a regular basis. After 25 years of traveling to France, I continue to marvel at how respectfully and lovingly the French treat a simple meal. Years ago the founder of the French Institute of Taste told me emphatically, "We eat two meals every day -- why should they be dreary? If the goal of life is to be comfortable and feel good, why waste the experience of a meal?"
The good news is that still holds true, economic volatility aside, in all price ranges.
One evening during my latest Paris trip, my friends and I chose Les Bouquinistes (you'll also see it spelled Les Bookinistes, Anglicized for the secondhand bouquiniste booksellers along the Seine). Located at 53 Quai des Grands Augustins in the region of these riverside bookstalls in the Left Bank 6th Arrondissement (01.43.25.45.94), this Guy Savoy resto was emblemmatic of nearly all my Paris encounters with food. Its understated uptown decor (butter-yellow linens and olive and eggplant trim) joins warmly attentive service and spectacular cuisine. For three of us the total was about $80 each, with three courses and wine -- not to mention two comped glasses of wine by our server. That's equivalent in cost to a moderately priced dinner out in LA, DC, New York and even smaller US cities, and the entire experience was much greater in value.
For appetizers, Anne and I each chose the plate of three kinds of lightly marinated fish (carpaccio style), while David selected the poached egg on asparagus. Our main courses were inventive combinations of ingredients (scallops and mashed potatoes with dried seaweed, seared seabass on spinach, and lamb and polenta) served uniquely on white china of various shapes. We enjoyed a bottle of red Saumur ("Chateau de Targe") from the Loire Valley and sparkling water, and finished with a triage of unbelievably lush crèmes brulées (nougat, passion fruit and pastachio). Portions were generous but the overall effect was neither rich nor heavy.
Volumes have been written on extraordinary French meals, and I will leave the finer points of the current situation to the critics. But as a womantraveler, solo and with friends, for me the thrill of eating in France is as basic as strolling through the open-air markets and established shops in every neighborhood where residents walk daily to purchase their provisions. The array is encyclopedic, and you walk away believing that the world is, indeed, abundant with wonders. How many varieties of fish or shapes of cheeses or categories of oysters can there possibly be? The French seem to know and present them every morning for themselves and their guests to enjoy.
On balance, dining in Paris remains a reasonable -- rather than horrifying -- commitment for the pocketbook. (Of course, you can always spend $200 on yourself if you want -- and it's well worth it if you can.) Fast food, sandwich stands, and quick crepes aside, it's easy to find a 2- or 3-course lunch for under $25 and a similar dinner for under $50, not out of line with US prices. My experience was very consistent -- at a brasserie in the Marais one day, Anne and I collectively had a delicious bouillabaise, quiche, six fresh oysters "fine clair", two glasses of wine and two expressos for $25 each. Dining solo on another occasion at a neighborhood restaurant specializing in southwestern French cuisine in the Latin Quarter, I had two courses with wine for $30.
I took the train one Sunday to the Loire Valley to visit an old friend, and we took our midday meal at the local "Hotel de France" for $25 each (plus a bottle of wine). After my opening salad, my plate was brimming with a lightly sauteed fish accompanied by pureed broccoli and other assorted vegetables. That evening in his sister's home, we switched to a light vegetarian supper of brown rice topped with steamed mushrooms, along with a salad and a Chenin Blanc produced by their father M. Poulain ("Côteaux du Loir") in 1946 and patiently waiting to be plucked from the refrigerator. It had turned ever so slightly, but as they talked about its origins in nearby soil, I felt very close to both earth and heaven.
Here are more Paris restos recommended by womentravelers and their friends:
Benoit, 20 Rue Saint-Martin (4th), tel: 01.42.72.25.76, well-regarded old-time bistro
Brasserie Balzar, 49 Rue des Écoles (5th), tel: 01.43.54.13.67, popular Left Bank hangout
Cafe Le Rostand, 61 Place Edmond Rostand (6th, across from Luxembourg Gardens), tel: 01.43.54.61.58, great people-watching
C'est Mon Plaisir, 8 Rue Falguière (15th, near Montparnasse), 01.42.73.07.02
Chez Clement (chain), 9 Place St. André des Arts (6th -- and other locations), tel: 01.56.81.32.00, www.chezclement.com
Chez Henri, 9 Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève (5th), 01.43.29.12.12
Chez Maître Paul, 12 Rue Monsieur-le-Prince (6th), 01.43.54.74.59, great standard
Fish la Boissonnerie, 69 Rue de Seine (5th near Rue de Buci market), especially for seafood lovers and wine lovers
Le Coupe Chou, 11 Rue de Lanneau (5th), www.lecoupechou.com
Le Petit Pontoise, 9 Rue de Pontoise (5th), 01.43.29.25.20
Thoumieux, 79 Rue St-Dominique (7th), telephone 01.47.05.49.75, busy bistro popular with locals
Grizzli Cafe, 7 Rue Saint-Martin (4th), tel: 01.48.87.77.56
Le Grand Véfour, 17 Rue de Beaujolais (Palais Royal area, 1st), telephone 01.42.96.56.27 (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Expensive, so go for lunch.