I arrived in Paris on the 13th March, 2013. It was the worst time to come, the snow was thick on the ground, the Eurostar and RER were disrupted, it was freezing cold and everyone was miserable.
I bought a carnet of métro tickets on the Eurostar and caught line 4 (the pink one) south bound from Gare de Nord to the end of the line at Porte d’Orléans. Dragging my suitcase through the snow with one hand, a google maps print out in the other, I found the Montrouge Adagio Hotel which was to be my home for the next three weeks. Despite four stars, it was a bit of a dump, furnished like student accommodation with a sofa bed, and a view of the traffic lights and road signs on the Avenue Pierre Brossolette.
Montrouge is a desolate suburb, outside of the Boulevard Périphérique and at the time beyond the reach of the métro, so not really in Paris at all. You could sense and feel the difference when you crossed Boulevard Brune to reach the métro at Porte d’Orléans. The north side of the road is lined with street cafés, people, and laughter, south of the road the shops shut early nobody laughs and the atmosphere is grim and despondent.
After three weeks I escaped, headed back up line 4 to St Michel and checked into the Hotel Europe St Severin in Rue Saint Severin, a delightful little place in the heart of the St Michel tourist district – a maze of mostly pedestrianised lanes where parts of “Les Miserables” actually took place. This is of course a dramatisation of the 1832 uprising against the Orléanist monarchy, not the French Revolution of 1789.
The term Rive Gauche (Left Bank) was coined when artists, writers, painters and philosophers abandoned expensive and touristy Montmartre in the 1920s to form an artistic community in the cheaper, quieter district of Montparnasse. The Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter) is a Left Bank area in the 5eme and 6eme, so named because originally Latin was spoken by the students at the Sorbonne, Latin being the language of learning in the Middle Ages.
I decided to make the Latin Quarter my home, and before renting an apartment in Rue Monge near Cardinal Lemoine métro station, I also stayed in the Grand Hotel Saint-Michel in Rue Cujas and the Relais Saint-Jacques in Rue de l’Abbe de l’Epee. The latter being, unusually for Paris, affordable but with proper four star service, old fashioned in a nice way, with friendly professional staff. Located just beyond the tourist area, it is still within view of the Panthéon which was visible from my room.
“Eating out” is one of the great joys of Paris, but after six weeks you can have too much of a good thing! Moreover, eating out in Paris on a limited expense budget requires great skill and judgement if you want to avoid the worst of the “tourist menu” offerings.
I first visited Paris in 1973 when English cuisine was at a particularly low point. Everything in Paris tasted better, even frites were better than chips. French cuisine was undoubtable the best in the world, but in the last forty years, the rest of the world has moved on whilst the French, and Parisians in particular, have been resting on their laurels. First the Italians learnt to cook, then the Spanish, and ultimately, quelle horreur, even some English learnt to cook! Lyons is now the culinary capital of France, whilst in Paris, although fine dining remains superb, the tourist food has declined significantly. Originally produced in restaurants’ own kitchens by trained and qualified French chefs, traditional cooking has become too expensive and hampered by a shortage of French chefs who can earn more money in London, New York or Shanghai. As a result, the food is now produced in cook chill factories located in the “Banlieues” (suburban ghettos inhabited by French of African origin). It is then reheated in microwaves by Eastern European microwave operatives and arrives at your table with no Gallic French input whatsoever. Of course similar situations exists in most European capitals, but the others do not claim global culinary superiority! To find good but affordable French food in Paris, there are a number of essential rules that need to be followed, mine are as follows:
- Never eat at a restaurant that employs a hustler to stand outside and drag people in
- Never eat at a restaurant that has international flags outside – this rule is even more important than rule 1 if said flags are plastic!
- Never eat at a restaurant with menus displayed outside in international languages
- Never eat at a restaurant with a good view – the worst duck I have ever eaten was accompanied by an enchanting view of the Panthéon
- Don’t eat in St Michel – a culinary depression comparable to Earls Court in the 1980s – just walk on a few blocks and the food improves immeasurably.
- Try to eat where the French eat – look for places with people smoking outside.
- Choose restaurants with addresses in double digit arrondisments – ordinary Parisians have been priced out of arrondisments 1 – 9, so if you want to eat where they eat, you need to choose a restaurant in arrondisments 10 – 20. For example, the restaurants in the 11eme, 12eme & 13eme are invariably better value than those in the 4eme, 5eme & 6eme.
- Look for restaurants displaying the black and white “fait maison” (home-made) logo in the shape of a casserole with a roof as a lid featured beside individual dishes on the menu to indicate that they were prepared and cooked in-house.
- To find the best restaurant in any French town or city, hang around outside the Hotel de Ville, Poste de Police, or Maison Tribunal just before lunchtime, wait for the fat middle aged men with expense accounts to come out, follow them into their chosen restaurant and book a table for the evening.
Three examples of good French restaurants of varying cost are:
- € Cheap – L’Ecurie, 2 Rue Laplace, 75005
- A delightful little restaurant in a former stable, with the original hayracks still on the walls, hence the name. It is completely unchanged since the mid-70s with candle lit tables, green salad with blue cheese dressing, and steak & chips washed down with a pichet of vin rouge. For added authenticity, they have a WC traditionnel and do not take credit cards! Upstairs has views of the side steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, 51 Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève, as featured in Woody Allan’s “Midnight in Paris”, the downstairs cave (basement) is ultra-atmospheric.
- €€ Medium – Le Buisson Ardent, 25 Rue Jussieu, 75005
- The Buisson Ardent has a view of the Pierre and Marie Curie University, which can best be described as “a monstrous carbuncle on the otherwise unblemished face of the 5eme”. You would need to sit opposite the Montparnasse Tower to get a worse view of Paris! As soon as the amuse bouches arrived we knew that the above rule 4 worked! All the food was excellent, with the added bonus of professional and friendly service, something you normally have to forego for an authentic Parisian experience. We paid 50 euros a head including champagne cocktails and a good bottle of wine, so little more than bistro prices for a genuinely fine dining experience. Unless you can afford the Tour D’Argent, you are unlikely to get better French food in this part of Paris – although the Tour D’Argent does have a better view!
- €€€ Expensive – Brasserie Bofinger, 5 Rue de la Bastille, 75004
- This beautiful restaurant, just off Bastille, seems expensive when they give you the menu but if you turn to the back page you will find the menu fixe options – the champagne, oysters and Chateaubriand plus desert make an excellent combination and if you wash it down with a pichet de vin maison it’s not too expensive!
But you don’t have to stick to French food in Paris. The Parisians love Japanese cuisine and Paris has excellent Japanese restaurants whilst take away sushi makes a convenient picnic, best eaten on the banks of the Seine and washed down with cold Macon. The Latin Quarter is famous for its Tibetan restaurants, a unique cuisine which should be tried at least once. Paris also has the best Vietnamese restaurants in Europe and my favourite is:
- Bonjour Vietnam, 6 rue Thouin | 49, Rue Descartes, 75005
- There are plenty of good Vietnamese restaurants in Paris, particularly in the 13eme, but none as good as this one! The place is tiny but still manages to generate a lovely atmosphere. Start with a real Vietnamese beer and wait for the best food ever!
Then on the 20th April 2013, I moved into my apartment, stopped eating out every night, and everything changed.