France - The Paris Bistro Experience

by Natasha.Edwards

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).

Victor

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.

Lilane
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.

L'Ebauchoir
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.

L'Ourcine

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.

Natasha.Edwards

I am a regular contributor to Condé Nast Traveller, the Daily Telegraph and Elle Decoration. As well as several guidebooks to Paris, I have also written guides to Provence, the Côte d'Azur, Lille, Biarritz and the Pays Basque, Bordeaux, Reims and French food for, among others, Time Out, Berlitz, Insight Guides, Dorling Kindersley and Thomas Cook.

I came to Paris over 15 years ago for all the wrong reasons (love!) and have lived here ever since. I still adore exploring the city and today write about art, design, food, travel and French culture in general.

My Paris

Where I always grab a coffee: Le Rostand café on place Edmond-Rostand: it's my unofficial second office, right opposite the Luxembourg Gardens.

My favourite stroll: Although I think I know the city pretty well, there are always places to discover or rediscover. The district I always come back to, however, is St-Germain for its mix of history, small streets, cafés, shopping, people watching, the local and the cosmopolitan... in short, Paris.

Fiction for inspiration: Georges Perec's Life: A User’s Manual: a mind-boggling, jigsaw puzzle of life in a Parisian apartment building. For an insight into French character, the Asterix comic strips are pretty accurate, too!

Where to be seen this summer: Café terraces all around town. If your style is St-Germain, then it's between hip Bar du Marché and newcomer Germain on rue de Buci, if you are more Canal St-Martin, then the waterside Point Ephémère. Gourmets are going to be sniffing out the restaurant at Le Crillon, which has just appointed a new, young chef.

The most breathtaking view: The view of the city that gradually unfolds as you rise up the escalators at the Centre Pompidou.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: The Jardin des Plantes for its combination of botanical garden, scientific institution and local park (perhaps not so quiet). The 19th-century greenhouses are reopening this summer, and it's surely the only place in Paris where you see ostriches when you drive past.

Shopaholics beware!: Artfully distressed concept store Merci, for its totally desirable mix of up-to-the minute and second-hand fashion, housewares, oddities and cult design items.

City on screen: Parisians adore cinema and there's something cinematic about the whole city. I love Jean-Pierre Melville's film noir Le Samourai, for its vision of Paris low life, nightclubs and the metro, with Alain Delon as the cool, lean, beautiful hitman, and, for something completely different, brilliant animation film Ratatouille, for its witty, sentimental, tongue-in-cheek evocation of Paris and its restaurant culture.

Don’t leave without...Visiting a Paris food market – one of them, all of them, preferably on Sunday morning, the best time for catching up on gossip as well as gourmandises.