France - The Paris Bistro Experience
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- Food and Drink, Short Break, Mid-range
The quintessential Parisian restaurant has been going through a remarkable renewal. A selection of the good, good-value places where Parisians themselves go out for a meal
Ask a Parisian about his or her favourite restaurant and it is far more likely to be a bistro than a many-starred temple of haute-cuisine – those are for special, wallet-busting occasions.
The relaxed, convivial, affordable bistro is where Parisians eat every day.
Yet the genre has evolved enormously over the past few years, with the rise of the "neo-bistro" or "bistronomique" (a sort of mix or bistro and gastronomic, gastronomic and economic). Some are annexes set up by leading chefs, others opened by young chefs trained at top restaurants but keen to run their own places without the luxury ingredients and squadrons of waiters but with an insistence on quality and precision in preparation. This may mean going back to regional favourites, offal and rediscovered vegetables or cosmopolitan touches from apple crumble and chutneys to oriental spices.
One of the pioneers was Yves Camdeborde at La Régalade in the early 90s, with his daringly gutsy revised regional fare. Since then he's moved to Le Comptoir du Relais (01 44 27 07 97) in St-Germain. You have to reserve months ahead for the five-course weekday dinner, but it's accessible without reservation for simpler fare served from noon to 6pm (until 11pm Sat and Sun), especially if you arrive after the lunchtime rush.
Many of these places have a fixed price menu carte, where you can eat a three-course meal for around €30 a head and often good value menus at lunch time. Where dining is à la carte, it is perfectly acceptable to order just two courses (entrée plat or plat dessert).
101bis rue Lauriston, 16th; 01 47 27 55 07.
Perhaps because it's in a bourgeois businessy district near Trocadéro rather than trendy boboland that Victor has crept quietly on to the scene, yet this was one of my best discoveries this year. At first sight it looks like any classy old-fashioned bistro – zinc bar by the entrance and prints of Victor Hugo on the walls – but young friendly staff let the starch out of the atmosphere and I was immediately impressed by the fresh, seasonal approach to cuisine in wild mushrooms quickly sautéed as an entrée or served in a risotto, and excellent roast lamb with a small pot of long-simmered beans. Desserts consist of a tray of tempting cakes from master chocolatier Jean-Paul Hévin and the wines by the glass include some first-rate burgundies and bordeaux. Closed Sat lunch and Sun.
8 rue Gracieuse, 5th; 01 45 87 90 68.
Another recent arrival, on a side street in the Latin Quarter. The dark wood and cream interior may look a little bland and service is a one-woman show but behind the quiet setting you'll find real cooking, prepared with finesse by a chef who used to be the second at Le Jules Verne on the Eiffel Tower. There's a superb value lunch menu (€16-€20) based on what is best at the market at the moment, with a meat and fish choice each day; perhaps duck magret or sea bream in a classic beurre blanc sauce. Closed Sun and Mon.
Bistrot Paul Bert
18 rue Paul Bert, 11th; 01 43 72 24 01
On what has become a street of foodie bistros, the Paul Bert redoes the classic bistro experience in an almost too good to be true setting of wooden tables and tiled floors, drawing local bobos – out en famille for Saturday lunch – and international visitors. Revisited classics include a starter of green bean and foie gras salad, meatie main courses, such as a vast côte de boeuf for two with big chunky chips and succulent roast pigeon with pears. It also runs the fishy Ecailler du Bistrot next door. Closed Sun and Mon.
BistroY... Les Papilles
30 rue Gay-Lussac, 5th; 01 43 25 20 79; www.lespapillesparis.fr
Since it opened, this place has evolved from a wine shop and deli to become a bit more restaurant – they've added more tables and some etched glass partitions – but you can still pop in to buy wine, saucisson sec or olive oil during the day. At lunch, it serves salads, charcuterie and open tartine sandwiches. At dinner you should come for the €31 "retour du marché" that changes every day. It often starts with an excellent soup, followed by the speciality a slow-cooked plat mijoté. Typically a cast-iron dish will arrive at the table for you to serve yourself (perhaps braised veal shanks or chicken with spring vegetables). It sounds humble, it is very good – southwest-accented owner Bertrand Bluy used to work at illustrious Taillevent. Unless going for the "wine of the moment", you choose your bottle from the shelf, allowing some great discoveries for a minimal corkage fee. Closed Sun and Mon.
43 rue des Citeaux, 12th; 01 43 42 49 31; www.lebauchoir.com
This place has been around a long time but it has cleverly grown up with its casual, young Bastille clientele and gets the combination of tradition and innovation just right: a long, narrow dining room, bentwood chairs, paintings on the walls and the menu scrawled on blackboards, and dishes that mix old-time favourites and modern invention. Main courses might include cod with chorizo, squid risotto or lamb with peppers. For dessert, I inevitably choose the grandmother's rice pudding, a masterpiece of nostalgia, to be served from its baking dish. Closed Sun and Mon lunch.
92 rue Broca, 13th; 01 47 07 13 65.
Exposed stone walls, stripy Basque napkins and a list of old-fashioned apéritifs is about all there is by way of decor at the little bistro run by Sylvain Danière – an ex of the Régalade among other places – who produces wonders from a tiny kitchen just visible through the hatch. I like the simple approach based on good-quality produce, including seasonal game and fish options that depend on whatever was delivered from a Breton port that day. The pots of chocolate cream are a must for dessert. Closed Sun and Mon.
Hotels for foodies
If you want to get round the dinner waiting list at the Comptoir de l'Odéon, then staying at Camdeborde's adjoining Relais Saint-Germain (9 carrefour de l'Odéon; double from €285) ensures priority reservations, with romantic beamed rooms in a 17th-century building.
East of the Bastille, the Color Design Hotel (35 rue des Citeaux, 12th; double from €175) is next to L'Ebauchoir and a couple of streets from the rue Paul Bert foodie cluster. The modern interior has just the right degree of laidback arty cool, with grey and white rooms punctuated by vibrantly coloured lights, mosaic bathrooms and perspex panels.