Bistro or Brasserie? The many names of Paris restaurants
Despite global influence and modernization in Paris, the historic classifications of what Americans broadly refer to as “restaurants” charmingly prevails. It is wise to understand it to avoid disappointment, confusion, or even embarrassment if you show up at a place expecting to consume something entirely different from what they offer. While the lines of strict categorization are blending, places to eat are generally organized as follows:
- Café. Principally organized around the beverage, but not just coffee. Most serve wine and beer, or, increasingly, cocktails. This is a nod to global trends, because the French generally do not mix hard liquor and food (it dulls the palette). Café food is casual and set for the day — pastries for breakfast, omelets, salads and sandwiches for the afternoon. Similar, but with a few differences, is the Salon de thé. Slightly more informal in service (although not at all in decor), salons tend to focus only on pastries and sweets to accompany your coffee or tea, and are usually not open past the early evening hours.
“Paris cafe” by Jenn Kosar
- Bistro or Bistrot. Smaller, generally family owned and operated, with a more focused choice of offerings that change between lunch and dinner. Cooking is seasonal and often features a dish or two that is truly a house speciality. They are generally not open all day, so plan to arrive during the set Parisian lunch or dinner hours. Global influence has brought more unique food offerings, so while you can certainly find plenty of traditional French fare under the bistro umbrella, there are emerging modern options with influences from Japan, Morocco, and around the world.
- Brasserie. French for “brewery”, a Brasserie is focused on drink, with food as a side. The environment is boisterous, bright and fun. Beer lovers will enjoy a wider range of options. The menu is more consistent day-to-day, save perhaps a plat du jour (daily special) or two, and is your typical casual French food. Head to the Brasserie for signature Parisian deliciousness — Steak Frites, Moules Frites, Croque Monsieur, or Coq au Vin. Brasseries are the place to go for late night food and drink, and reservations are generally not necessary.
- Wine bars. Similar to a brasserie, but will always offer wine by the glass. This used to be unusual — Parisians assume a one-bottle minimum. The menus are a touch more narrow, focused on French snacking delights such as the tartine, an open-faced sandwich topped with cheese, pâté, or my favorite, sardines). Unlike Brasseries, Wine Bars are not necessarily open late and reservations are necessary at the most popular spots.
- Restaurant. As fancy as it gets, these are the crème de la crème of Parisian cuisine. The “restaurant” label does not always come with cost or pretension, and these days, it does not mean exclusively French food. It probably indicates operating hours, the need to consider advance reservations, and a higher level of formality. Packing note: at the highest levels of haute cuisine establishments, jackets are still often required.
In case you don’t want to mortgage your house to fund this culinary adventure in Paris
I am not going to sugarcoat it — Paris is expensive. Bargain food hunting is not what foodwithaview.com is all about, so I will not pretend that is why you are here. I will, however, give you a few tips on saving a few vacation dollars for shopping on Avenue de Montaigne:
- Watch the “would you like a glass of champagne” habit. It starts nearly every meal in every fine restaurant, and that seemingly harmless treat adds $100 to your bill with barely a blink. If you love champagne, by all means, go for it, but consider that even the “lesser” option they offer is probably significantly better than anything being served in your favorite American restaurant. If you aren’t a bubbles lover, skip it.
- When it comes to wine, it is not all about the label. The house white or red in most cafés and Bistros is usually a lovely option and very affordable for the quality.
“pain du jour” by jenn kosar
- Hotel breakfasts are not worth the price tag. If you have a choice, do not include them when booking your hotel. There are far better croissants out there. Do not settle for terrible scrambled eggs made to accommodate what Europeans think Americans want. Head straight to the café for an out-of-this-world omelet.
- Indulge the sweet tooth but skip dessert. In fine restaurants, the petit fours are fantastic. I laugh out loud at “free” given what you are likely spending on this meal, but they are free nonetheless. Do not feel obligated to order another course.
A note on tipping in Paris restaurants
There is a common misconception about tipping in Europe vs. the United States. The idea that “Europeans don’t tip” is not true, at least in Paris. Service must be included in the price of a meal. Some argue we should do this here, to ensure fair wages are paid for hard work. French etiquette does not require or even suggest you should pay more than the total bill. If you are going to leave something to recognize extraordinary service, leave it in cash, and for no more than 5% of the bill.
photo by jenn kosar
More tips for navigating the restaurant world in Paris
It is an adventure, so a few more tips for your journey:
- Even if you took French in high school, you will probably not speak enough French to navigate this meal. However, it goes a long way to learn a few words and exchange niceties in the language of the country you are visiting. Warning: if your pronunciation is too good, you will have to deal with trading menus and repeating stuff they just said in French in English. I consider it a small price to pay for respecting their culture.
- The “entrée” is the appetizer, the “plat” is the entrée. Yes, confusing for English speakers. You will get used to it. Google Translate has a built-in camera that helps with menu translation, but it yields some strange and not-that-useful results.
- If you are a picky eater, carry a small printed guide (I recommend Eating Out in Five Languages) for on-the-go confirmation you are ordering chicken. Those with food allergies or highly specific dietary concerns will be happy to know that the French have become more accommodating, but you should have notes handy for high-risk translations.
photo by jenn kosar
- Plan to eat like a local. The French invented seasonal, farm-to-table eating, and therefore eat everything, but particularly fish, shellfish, and oysters, at the right time. This means September – April, but the best are in months ending in -er starting with October. If your trip is not in those months, don’t expect to eat them, or anything else wildly out of season.
- Coffee comes after dessert, not with it. If you want milk (lait), you will probably have to ask for it; Parisians generally only consume coffee with milk in the morning. Consider my personal favorite, the café crème. The milk is heated and added to coffee (not espresso, which would make this a latte).
- Restaurant eating is leisurely, and while service is attentive, it is not fast. They will not rush you or bother you during your meal. You will have to get your server’s attention; that is not poor service in their eyes. “Garçon” is French for waiter, or “mademoiselle” for waitress (although a female server is more rare).
- Smoking has finally subsided in Parisian restaurants. The former “smoking section” with the French guy blowing his smoke at you from the table a foot away seems a relic of the not-so-distant past. Vaping is everywhere, including in restaurants.
All those stars, how do I choose? My view of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris
The city of lights full of Michelin stars. As of the 2018 release of the Guide, Paris is home to ten three-starred restaurants. I am fortunate to have now enjoyed half of them (not to mention a few with “only” a star or two, as well as others around the world). So of course, I have a view.
It is a tough call, but top honors go to Le Cinq. If you only go to one three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, go here. Situated in the Four Seasons Hotel George V (8e), it is the epitome of French old-world luxury, filled with gilded everything, and flowers as far as the eye can see. The food is, of course, delicious, but we appreciated the delicate dance of old and new, honoring the past while experimenting with the latest in culinary trends. The service also harmonized tradition and modern preferences. French service is traditionally more seamless, even hidden, which can come off cold, a bit snobby. For me, engaging with the service team is part of the experience, and at these prices, I expect more than a little experience. In contrast to other places, Le Cinq gets this balance right; efficient, focused service but with enough sense of humor to find my American brassiness charming.
l’Arpège came in a barely distant second. Its honor as longest resident on the three-star list is evident in every moment of the meal. And there are a lot of moments: four hours after we sat down for lunch, we wandered out, blinking in the sunlight as we tried to decide what to do with the two hours we had until dinner. Everything about l’Arpège is light: the delicate eggshell surrounding the signature maple-syrup kissed custard starter; the pleasant service; the bright interior. They even tolerated both me and my food-loving neighbor snapping photos with the “real” cameral. l’Arpège is in the 7e, right across the street from the Musée Rodin, [formerly] my favorite museum in the world. I recommend l’Arpège for those who want the French tasting menu experience but desire a lighter, more vegetable and fish-forward meal.
photo by jenn kosar
Guy Savoy is considered by some the best chef in the world, not just on talent but also teaching legacy (Gordon Ramsey, for example). Set in the historic Paris Mint (in the 6e on the banks of the Seine), the restaurant is perfectly described in a 2016 Forbes review as ‘his lair’, with handles that eerily operate as you approach, intimate small rooms with dark gray walls, and an ethereal mix of hush and chaos in the air. The food is more classic French in its richness and flavor profile, with classic French service to match. Dining here is a foodie bucket-list item for sure, but if you want to sample his cuisine at a more wallet-friendly level, consider Les Bouquinistes (also in the 6e) for a chic, delicious meal and the signature wine list.
“guy savoy” by jenn kosar
We enjoyed another luxuriously long lunch at Pierre Gagnaire (8e, near the Arc de Triomphe). Pierre Gagnaire offers what are essentially smaller tasting menus organized around a primary dish. I loved this option, especially at lunch time, allowing us to try a few different things without the full multi-course extravaganza. A thoughtful touch [which really, all over-the-top tasting menu places should embrace] were the elegant printed cards outlining the exact details of our individual meals.
Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athénée (8e) was, alas, my least favorite. In hindsight it probably was not meant to be: in 2014, Ducasse embarked on a journey toward “natural” fine dining, focusing on environmentally friendly food and centered on cereals, vegetables, and fish. It draws on shojin, a spiritual Japanese approach to vegetarian cooking that originated in China. If this sounds appealing to you, by all means, go: the decor is a sight to see, an eclectic mix of Swarovski crystal and stainless steel, and the team makes everyone, and I mean everyone, feel at home. The test of their service culture arrived with a visit from a costumed woman channeling something between Barbie and Little Bo Peep. They handled it without batting an eyelash.
“first course at Le Cinq” by jenn kosar
My favorite restaurants in Paris
There is no need to spend that kind of money (or time) to have a delicious and memorable meal in Paris. Here is a roundup of my favorite restaurants from nearly 20 years and multiple visits to Paris, plus recommendations from locals, food bloggers, and well-travelled friends.
- L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (two locations). A two-starred experience, presumably because you sit surrounding the open kitchen. This is an experience gastronomique, filled with dry ice and presentation dazzlers. The relaxed atmosphere encourages conversation with fellow food lovers, perhaps due to the seating arrangements.
“fish at septime” by jenn kosar
- Septime. Sure to boast a Michelin star someday, Septime is an exception to the low-fuss reservation culture. Ask your hotel concierge to navigate the time-based booking rules. It is worth it, particularly for the affordable prix fixe lunch of simple, elegant, French fare with a modern twist. A little further afield in the 11e, but worth the trip.
- Chateaubriand. A local recommendation and bit different from the rest. Not for picky eaters, you show up and eat what they are serving in seven to ten courses with pairings. We loved the quirky alcohol pairings (ever been served a shot with your food?) and the low-key, neighborhood vibe. It is meant for gathering with friends and enjoying a meal where the thinking is done for you. Also in the 11e.
- Bofinger. Open since 1864, it is one of the oldest breweries in Paris, with beautiful belle époque decor to transport you to another time. This is the place to try French brasserie classics. Be sure to order the shellfish tower in season. Located in The Marais near the Place des Vosges and Place de la Bastille.
“sardines” by jenn kosar
- Le Petit Cler. Another local recommendation and declared ‘favorite meal’ this past trip. Yes, we ate in five three-starred Michelin restaurants and this rue Cler café near our hotel (Le Narcisse Blanc, 7e) won. It is all about mood; it was our first meal, a cozy rainy afternoon. Realizing that yes, you can have a bottle of wine at lunch, because it is vacation. The perfect tartine with sardines, and fun, helpful service to tired travelers.
- Bouillon Racine. A beautiful, elegant restaurant that won’t break the bank. It was known for Belgian fare, but recent reviews indicate it is moving towards more traditional French cuisine.
- Le Bistrot du Louchebem. Another local pick, this is the place for a traditional French steak. They specialize in meat of all kinds, including bone marrow, tartare, and the like. Vegetarians and people who like their steak well done should probably not visit.
“street cheese” by jenn kosar
- Fish La Boissonnerie. First recommended by my friend Melanie nearly 15 years ago, it is still going strong. It is co-owned by Americans, making the experience easy for English speakers to navigate.
- Ma Bourgogne. Located at one of the prettiest spots in Paris, the Place des Vosges, this is all about people-watching. In nice weather, sit outside for a rest, a salad, and a glass of wine.
Fueling your culinary adventure in Paris
Sometimes you just need a snack in between all those glorious meals. And sometimes “snack” = “a glass of wine”. Here is my list for those moments:
- Cafés and Salon de thés. Angelina near the Louvre for their legendary hot chocolate, Mariage Frères (Marais) to work with their tea ambassadors to select your perfect leaves, and Gerard Mulot (between the Sorbonne and St. Germain des-Prés) for delicious croissants.
- A hearty snack for when you are famished. Breizh Cafe (Marais near the Musée de Picasso) for galettes and an eclectic selection of ciders, Au Lys d’Argent (Île St Louis) for coffee and chocolate cake, and L’As du Fallafel (Marais) for yes, falafel.
photo by jenn kosar
- A simple glass of wine. Taverne Henri IV (Île de la Cité) for that neighborhood bar feeling, l’Ecluse (1e, just off Rue Saint Honore), and of course, the popular and legendary Willi’s Wine Bar (2e), where you will need to book in advance.
- Ice Cream and Gelato. Locals and tourists alike rank the fresh-made ice cream at Le Berthillion tops, and it is worth visiting its original location on the Île St Louis. If the line is long, there are multiple pop up “windows” along the street serving cones. For gelato, we loved Amorino and Une Glace à Paris.
Additional resources for your culinary adventure in Paris
My first trip to Paris happened without the internet. My “list” began with recommendations from friends, Zagat, and the Patricia Wells’ Food Lovers Guide to Paris, already on its 4th edition back in 1999. While the penultimate and still-excellent resource, this trip leaves me uncertain how this guide will evolve for the modern dining era. For now, Patricia remains the resource for Parisian food.
A few more tech-enabled sources:
- Fodor’s “food lovers long weekend in Paris”
- Thrillist guide to eating out in every neighborhood in Paris
- Epicurious’ list of 10 restaurants Parisians won’t tell you about
It was an adventure, and I so enjoyed meandering through the streets of Paris in my mind during this stroll down memory lane. If you are dreaming of a trip to Paris, I hope this guide sets you on a path to making it happen. If you are a regular visitor, I hope you discover something new. Because there is always something beautiful [and delicious] around every corner in Paris. Bon appétit!
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