Over the last 20 years, Paris’s food scene has redefined itself, turning its back on classism to embrace the culinary ideals of a new set of open-minded chefs. Some trained with Michelin biggies; others are self-taught; all are well-travelled, plucky and determined to put a fresh spin on the world’s most famous cuisine. And not just in restaurants: Paris’s street food has recently reached new culinary heights too – from gourmet food trucks to epicurean hot dog bars and markets selling delicious ready-to- eat dishes, it’s “au revoir” ubiquitous ham baguette and “bonjour” eclecticism.
Of course, if it’s time-honoured dining you’re after, have no fear – there are still plenty of historic brasseries and longstanding family-run bistros to get your teeth into. The one thing all the city’s best eateries have in common, whatever the genre, is excellent ingredients. France built its reputation on the fine products of its terroir (regions) and today’s chefs are still making sure their country’s best produce finds its way to restaurant tables.
One Parisian maraîcher (market gardener) making his mark is Joël Thiébault. His farm, located in the nearby suburb of Carrières-sur-Seine, grows the vegetables served in dozens of top Parisian restaurants. You can even buy his produce on Wednesday and Saturday mornings at the Marché Avenue du Président Wilson, a quintessential street market held on a tree-lined avenue in the 16th arrondissement.
But whatever you do, don’t forget Ernest Hemingway’s eloquent words: “Paris is a moveable feast,” so move with it and be adventurous. Here are four places to get you started.
Paris’s oldest covered market takes its name from the l’Hospice des Enfants-Rouge, a former sixteenth-century orphanage founded by Queen Marguerite de Navarre (poet, playwright and sister to King Francis I), where the children wore red to symbolise the ideals of love and charity. The actual market dates from the early seventeenth century, when Louis XIII decided to turn this part of the city – today’s Marais – into the starting point for all the roads in France. The project was abandoned, but the surrounding streets still bear the names of the regions they were supposed to connect to – including rue de Bretagne (Brittany), where the entrance to the market lies today.
Step through the arched doorway and you’re in another world – a busy, fragrant maze of colourful street food stalls including Caribbean curries, couscous, sushi, pasta and Lebanese meze. One of the most popular stands is the Breton crêperie, where organic pancakes come full of ham and cheese, or sticky syrups and chocolate spreads. For real Parisian atmosphere, pull up a chair in the late afternoon and sip wine with the after-work crowd – many clients are merchants from the market’s own fish and flower stalls, or shoppers from trendy rue Charlot, just around the corner.
Tucked down a narrow Left Bank street, this unassuming restaurant with a checkerboard floor belongs to Jean-Luc Roulière, a fifth-generation butcher who knows a thing or two about steak. There are other meats on the menu (including duck and lamb), plus seafood and French staples such as garlicky snails, but beef is the real reason people come here. Start with buttery roasted marrow, served in the bone with grilled baguette and coarse sea salt. Next try the rib for two – a drool-inducing, melt- in-the-mouth affair – served pink with either creamy mash or crispy, hand-cut fries. If you have room for desert, make it a vanilla-infused crème brûlée or the griottes (kirsch- soaked cherries) with ice cream – all accompanied by a perky Bordeaux from a hand- picked petit producteur (small wine producer). Whatever you choose, you’re in for a treat – a fact confirmed by the ever-increasing presence of locals, despite the restaurant’s location in a touristy part of town. So make sure you reserve, especially on weekends, when hordes have been known to queue outside. If you do just turn up you should expect a wait – but it’s worth it!
The “smoking van” was the first food truck to open in Paris, and its burgers are still the best. It all began with Los Angeles ex-pat Kristin Frederick, who swapped studies in finance for lessons at Paris’s Ferrandi school of culinary arts. Diploma in hand, in 2011 she launched the city’s first-ever food truck and hasn’t looked back since. For Parisians – it would seem – are in love with le burger américan, and when they come dripping in homemade sauce on bread baked by Rachel’s (a hip American bakery in Paris), with veg sourced locally in the Île-de-France, who can blame them? Some people queue for as much as an hour before opening, just to be first in line. It’s a success story that has allowed Frederick to not only open three more vans, but also a permanent eatery on rue Montmartre in the 2nd. But whichever address you choose, expect mouth-watering, well-executed burgers like le Barbecue, topped with English cheddar, crispy onion rings and caramelised onions, or the French-inspired Bleu, which uses Fourme d’Ambert, a blue cheese from the Auvergne region. You can keep track of the trucks on their Twitter feed @LeCamionQuiFume.
In the heart of the Latin Quarter, behind a bottle-green frontage on Boulevard Saint- Germain, retro-chic Chez René has been plying its punters with finely executed bistro dishes since 1957. Decked out with large mirrors, red banquettes and framed art posters, it’s like walking into a 1940s Lyonnais bouchon (tavern) – though the view from its covered terrace is resolutely Parisian, with rows of Haussmann-era buildings and streams of passersby. Perfect for people watching.
On the plate, expect classics such as rich, meaty Boeuf Bourguignon (made to a recipe unchanged for decades), succulent Lyonnais sausage peppered with pistachio nuts, and skate with lemony butter and capers – the lot served with impeccable sides including sautéed spinach and heirloom potatoes. This is also one of the best spots in town for frogs’ legs, which René serves Provence-style in herby tomato sauce. But the plat extraordinaire has to be the chocolate mousse – one of the best in Paris, with a creamy consistency and a deep, chocolaty flavour that transports you straight back to childhood. The wine list is excellent, too – especially the Beaujolais selection, which includes Morgon, known for its fruitiness. Before you leave, scan the dining room for celebs: Superstar French crooner Eddy Mitchell has been known to dine here.