Tell people you’re going to Paris, and watch them sigh with desire. The wine! The cheese! The hours of people watching at cafés along the Seine or the Champs-Élysées! But man cannot live by wine and cheese alone – as depressing as that fact may be. You’ll still have the daunting task of choosing what – and where – to eat while in the City of Light, sometimes twice a day. So, what food should you have while in Paris?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Unlike other cities in France with signature dishes – cassoulet in Toulouse, bouillabaisse in Marseille, anything with mustard in Dijon – there is no one thing that is uniquely Parisian when it comes to good eats. Of course, that’s not going to stop me from giving you an extensive list of what to eat in Paris, lest you get nervous and wind up at McDonald’s for a week.
Every year, the city awards one lucky, talented baker the award for the Best Baguette in Paris. For 2010, and for the third time, a Senegalese man named Djibril Bodian from Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses (38 Rue Abbesses, 75018) has won the coveted title.
But really, really good baguettes are almost literally a dime a dozen in Paris. A good rule of thumb is to find the boulangerie that has a line of people waiting outside for their daily bread. Or, find one that you like the look of. Or just find any one, really, especially if you see them stacking the sticks fresh out of the oven. Eat it plain, with butter, or with almost anything on it – many bakeries sell pre-made ham and cheese baguette sandwiches. This isn’t your mother’s Wonder Bread, darling.
Croissant au beurre
Croissants are everywhere, but you don’t want a croissant. You want a croissant au beurre – a butter croissant. This is the croissant that people talk about when they talk about having had the most unbelievable croissants in Paris. Regular croissants are alright, I guess, but just… don’t get them. Get the croissant au beurre.
Skip the hotel breakfast, get out on the streets as early as possible, go to anyplace that’s selling them, and buy two – because you’ll eat one immediately, and will need to verify that it was indeed the best thing you’ve ever had by devouring the second one.
These little treats are the French version of a cookie and cream sandwich, roughly the size and shape of a jar of Carmex lip balm. And that’s where the description ends, because there really are no words that properly convey these bite-sized delights. You simply have to try one, even if you don’t have a sweet tooth.
There are the regular flavors, like chocolate or lemon, and then there are innovative ones using the most unlikely ingredients. Pierre Hermé (185 rue de Vaugirard, 75015) is the king of them all – and he delivers anywhere in France and Europe, in case you get a hankering while hiking the Cinque Terre in Italy.
There may be a rising tide of resentment surrounding foie gras in America, but here in France it still delights restaurant goers every single night. Parisian chefs have been tarting it up every which way – from a burger topping to paired with grilled citrus – with mostly wonderful results. But the only way to experience its nutty, buttery taste is perfectly cooked on a plate, or in a pâté.
And that’s why you should head to Il Était une Oie (8 rue Gustave Flaubert, 75017). You get foie gras the way you want it, bread and a toaster – and really, that’s all you need. Save the guilt and savor this delicacy for all it’s worth.
Pâté de campagne
Pâté de campagne, or country pâté, is to me one of the most varied dishes in the French cuisine. It can be on the smooth or chunky side, garlicky as hell or quite subtle in taste. But I’ve never met one I didn’t like. Surely, my fellow foodies will disagree.
I don’t really have a best-of or favorite place for pâté de campagne; it’s served in almost every café and brasserie worth the name. I recommend finding a particularly wonderful place to spend an afternoon, ordering a plate of pâté de campagne, which comes with cornichons (tiny, tart pickles) and a basket of sliced baguette, sipping on the house wine and letting Paris wash over you.
Old-school French cuisine
If you’re looking for the Paris of Julia Child’s fantasies, then get thee to Chez René (14 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75005). It’s been around since 1957, and pretty much nothing has changed since then – including the menu. Another timeless old-school favorite is (Joséphine) Chez Dumonet (117 Rue du Cherche-Midi, 75006), which foodies tend to place higher than Chez René; but René was my first of the two, so it is my sentimental favorite.
These are the places to try the classics – confit de canard, coq au vin, cuisses de grenouille, escargots…that would be duck confit, chicken slow-cooked in wine, frog’s legs, and yummy, garlicky snails, respectively.
This is a dessert custard with a top layer of sugar that’s been caramelized via blowtorch, preferably immediately before being served to you. While I don’t have a favorite place in Paris for crème brûlée, I do recommend trying it at the best restaurant you can find. Crème brûlée is never bad, but it can be disappointing when you know what it’s supposed to be – from that first crack of the spoon into the hardened sugar to maniacally scraping along the bottom to get the last creamy goodness of the custard.
There are plenty of other delightful and delicious foods to try in the City of Light. What are your must-have foods in Paris?
Christine Cantera lives in Montpellier and writes the WhyGo France travel guide, offering all you need to know about travel to France, including hotels in France, flights to France, and of course, where and what to eat in France. Be sure to check out these indie travel tips for visiting Paris as well.