Paris is one of Europe's culinary centres. The restaurant trade began here just over 220 years ago and continues to thrive. It may however come as a surprise that Paris isn't considered the culinary capital of France, rather some people prefer the French cooking found in small rural restaurants, outside of the city, closer to the farms and with their focus on freshness and regional specialities. Even among French cities, Paris has long been considered by some people as second to Lyon for fine dining.
There have been other challenges in the last 20 years or so as restaurateurs in places like San Francisco and Sydney briefly surpassed their Parisian fore bearers, again with an emphasis on freshness of ingredients but also borrowings from other cuisines. Parisian cooks didn't just rest on their laurels during this time, rather they travelled, taught, and studied, and together with Paris's own immigrant communities, have revitalized the restaurant trade. Today you can find hundreds of beautiful restaurants with thoughtful (or just trendy) interior design and well-planned and executed cartes and menus offering a creative mélange of French and exotic foreign cuisines. It's safe to say that Paris is once again catching up with or edging ahead of its Anglophone rivals.
Of course there are also some traditional offerings, and for the budget conscious there are hundreds of traditional bistros, with their sidewalk terraces offering a choice of fairly simple (usually meat centred) meals for reasonable prices.
For the uninitiated, it is unfortunately possible to have a uniformly poor dining experience during a stay in Paris, mainly because many attractions are situated in upscale areas of town, and that mass tourism attracts price gougers. It is frequent to hear of people complaining of very high Parisian prices for poor food and poor service, because they always tried to eat close to major tourist magnets. For good food and great service, try to go eat where the locals eat .
Many restaurants are tiny and have tables close together - square metres are at a premium and understandably restaurateurs need to make the most of limited space. In some cases when the restaurant is crowded, you may have to sit beside strangers at the same table. If that does not appeal to you, go to a more upscale place where you will pay for the extra space.
Trendy restaurants often require reservations weeks, if not months in advance. If you haven't planned far enough ahead, try to get a reservation for lunch which is generally easier and less expensive.
For an easy-to-manage eating budget while in Paris, consider: breakfast or "petit déjeuner" at a restaurant, possibly in your hotel, consisting of some croissants, coffee, and maybe a piece of fruit. Get a 'walking lunch' from one of Paris' many food stands—a panino in the centre of the city, a crepe from a crepe stand, a felafel pita or take-out Chinese in the Marais. Traiteurs serving Chinese food are ubiquitous in the city and good for a cheap lunch and many pâtisseries sell inexpensive coffee and sandwiches. All these are cheap (about the same as breakfast), easy, and allow you to maximize your sightseeing and walking time while enjoying delicious local or ethnic food. For dinner, stroll the streets at dusk and consider a €20-40 prix-fixe menu. This will get you 3 or 4 courses, possibly with wine, and an unhurried, candlelit, magical European evening. If you alternate days like this with low-budget, self-guided eating (picnicking, snacking, street food) you will be satisfied without breaking the bank.
If one of the aims of your trip to Paris is to indulge in its fine dining, though, the most cost-effective way to do this is to make the main meal of your day lunch. Virtually all restaurants offer a good prix-fixe deal. By complementing this with a bakery breakfast and a light self-catered dinner, you will be able to experience the best of Parisian food and still stick to a budget.
Budget travellers will be very pleased with the range and quality of products on offer at the open air markets (e.g. the biggest one on Boulevard Richard Lenoir (near the Bastille), Rue Mouffetard, Place Buci, Place de la Madeleine and over the Canal Saint-Martin in the 11th or in any other arrondissement). If your accommodation has cooking facilities you're set, especially for wine and cheese, a decent bottle of French wine will set you back all of about €3-5, while the fairly good stuff starts at around €7. Bottles for less than €3 are not recommended.
Keep in mind that the small épiceries which open until late are more expensive than the supermarchés (Casino, Monoprix, Franprix, etc.). For wine, the price difference can be up to €2.
Buy a baguette, some cheese and a good bottle of wine and join the Parisian youth for a pique-nique along the Seine (especially on the Île Saint-Louis) or along the Canal Saint-Martin. The finest food stores are Lafayette Gourmet in the Galeries Lafayette or La Grande Epicerie in the luxury department store Le Bon Marché. They are worth discovering. You will find a large variety of wines there, otherwise try wine stores such as Nicolas or Le Relais de Bacchus (all over the city).
For seafood lovers, Paris is a great place to try moules frites (steamed mussels and French fries) (better in fall and winter), oysters, sea snails, and other delicacies. Meat specialties include venison (deer), boar, and other game (especially in the fall and winter hunting season), as well as French favourites such as lamb, veal, beef, and pork.
Eating out in Paris can be expensive. However don't believe people when they say you can't do Paris on the cheap - you can! The key is to stay away from the beaten tracks and the obviously expensive Champs Elysées. Around the lesser visited quarters especially, there are many cheap and yummy restaurants to be found. The area around Fontaine Saint-Michel, the fountain facing Notre Dame is crowded by particularly tasty places to eat, with good ambiance, cheap prices and excellent service, with the advantage of being very centric of many places of interest. The key is to order from the prix-fixe menu, and not off the A la Carte menu unless you want to pay an arm and a leg. In many places a three course meal can be found for about €15. This way you can sample the food cheaply and is usually more "French". Ask for "une carafe d'eau" (oon karaaf doe) to get free tap water.
Paris has the largest number of Kosher restaurants in any European city. Walk up and down Rue des Rosiers to see the variety and choices available from Israeli, Sushi, Italian and others. You will also find a wide assortment of Kosher restaurants in the 9th arrondissement of Paris near the rue Richer and rue Cadet areas. See the district guides for examples. Kosher restaurants and snacks usually display a big orange rectangle on their front, which ensure clients that they are Beth din certified.
For vegetarians, eating traditional French food will require some improvisation, as it is heavily meat-based. That being said, Paris has several excellent vegetarian restaurants, and many non-vegetarian restaurants will provide vegetarian dishes.
When eating in a traditional restaurant, be careful before ordering dishes labelled as "vegetarian". Most French people presume that fish and seafood are vegetarian dishes. This is a widely spread misunderstanding all around the country. Additionally, French people tend to confuse "real" vegetarians with vegans. When explaining that you're a vegetarian that won't eat fish, people will often presume that you won't eat milk or egg-based products.
Look for spots such as Aquarius in the 14th or and Le Grenier de Notre-Dame in the 5th just to name a few. See the arrondissement pages for more listings. For fast food and snacks, you can always find a vegetarian sandwich or pizza. Even a kebab shop can make you something with just cheese and salad, or perhaps falafel.
There are also lots of Italian, Thai, Indian, and Mezo-American places where you will have little problem. The famous South Indian chain Saravana Bhavan have their branch near Gare Du Nord. In Rue des Rosiers (4th arrondissement) you can get delicious falafel in the many Jewish restaurants. Another place to look for falafel is on Rue Oberkampf (11th arrondissement). Take away falafel usually goes for €5 or less.
Moroccan and Algerian cooking is common in Paris - vegetarian couscous is lovely. Another good option for vegetarians - are traiteurs, particularly around Ledru Rollin (down the road from Bastille) take away food where you can combine a range of different options such as pomme dauphinoise, dolmas, salads, vegetables, nice breads and cheeses and so on.
Lebanese restaurants and snack shops abound as well, offering a number of vegetarian mezze, or small plates. The stand-bys of course are hummas, falafel, and baba-ganouche (caviar d'aubergine). A good place to look for Lebanese is in the pedestrian zone around Les Halles and Beaubourg in the 1st and 4th.
When you are looking for a restaurant in Paris, be wary of those where the staff speak English a bit too readily. These restaurants are usually - but not always - geared towards tourists. It does make a difference in the staff's service and behaviour whether they expect you to return or not.
Sometimes the advertised fixed price tourist menus (€10-15) are a good deal. If you're interested in the really good and more authentic stuff (and if you have learned some words of French) try one of the small bistros where the French go during lunch time.
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