Paris dining is full of pitfalls. The guidebooks warn you, your best friend who just got back from a Provence tour with a quick weekend stop in Paris warns you, and even your distant college backpacking memories remind you: Paris is very pricey compared to the rest of France, it’s surprisingly easy to eat badly if you’re not careful, and Parisians are not necessarily the world’s most courteous or servile people. This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, of course, it just…is.
I grew up in Paris, I can fully con Parisians into thinking I’m one of them—and still, during my short vacation here this past week, I’ve experienced some of those dining pitfalls. So, in the interest of helping others avoid the same mistakes that I’ve made this week, please find below a short list of the some of the eating and drinking experiences that can go terribly awry in this tough town.
Croissant aux Amandes
The almond croissant is my absolute favorite flaky-pastry pastry, or viennoiserie as the French call that genre of pastry that includes croissants, pains au chocolat and apple turnovers. It’s an epic calorie bomb that tastes as divine as it is dense—pastry layered with almond cream, layered with marzipan, topped with powdered sugar and slivers of toasted almond. And like all Parisians, I have my favorite source. It’s a little boulangerie-patisserie on the short rue Mouton-Duvernet, in the 14th arrondissement, one of the city’s most quiet and pleasantly inconspicuous neighborhoods. It is, however, my mecca. I turn up this past Sunday, stand in line searching the display case, and immediately locate my target. But when I ask for a croissant aux amandes, the baker’s wife tells me that they only have chocolate almond croissants left ! I am crestfallen. Paralyzed. Incredulous. Who knew they would run out of the classic kind? It’s only noon! Now, I’m going to have to accomodate a thick vein of dark chocolate running the whole length of the pastry—every single bite, chocolate and almond, chocolate and almond. Woe is me.
I buy it because I have no choice—but don’t let this happen to you. Get there early.
You know that feeling: you’ve been on your feet for hours, shopping, strolling, taking in a few exhibits, meandering down streetlets and up boulevards. But suddenly your feet feel like lead, your legs are fomenting mutiny, and just really need to sit down and have a bite. Of course, you’d like to find a little terrace or garden, somewhere you can enjoy the summer breeze and the people-watching and the fact that it’s 2pm on a Tuesday and you have nowhere else to be. The problem with Paris is that there are just too many places to do this.
Take, for instance, the 10th arrondissement near the Canal Saint Martin. This is a neighborhood just north of the Bastille, built around this lesser-known cousin of the Seine river that’s controlled by ancient iron locks, and lined with cobblestone walks and trees and benches. It’s a neighborhhod that’s been gradually hipster-fying over the past few years, with boho-chic boutiques, galleries and trendy innovative restaurants springing up. Primo people-watching. But do I go to the Chinese take-out—these traiteurs chinois now pullulate in Paris, and they’re actually cheap and good, nothing to do with their New York counterparts—and get a Vietnamese spring roll and some dumplings to go and picnic on a shady bench by the canal? Or do I grab a sidewalk table at one of the two cafes facing each other on the corner of the rue Lancry and the Quai de Valmy, that both appear to serve delicious-looking salads, if the food that the hipsters already eating there is any evidence? And if so—which one ? This one offers a tuna tartare with fresh dill—the consummate French summer dish—and this one serves a Salade Océane, a trio of poached fish on a bed of dijon-dressed frisée…
All I’m saying is that this is a dilemma you never want to face, so just do your best to think ahead.
Sancerre v. Water
And then of course, there’s the café situation. Café waiters are notoriously surly. Some may even appear mean. This is in their job description, if not their DNA. They do not have the patience to field questions, especially not about the drink selection or their prices. But in fact, one of the stranger aspects of the café economy in France is the pricing. Who knows whether it’s a question of supply and demand, mischievousnous or French wackiness, but a glass of wine in any given café is among the cheapest beverages you can order. A glass of chilled Chinon, or a pleasant little Bordeaux is, quite literally, cheaper than a Perrier with lemon. A glass of Sancerre costs less than a cappuccino.
I know this seems strange. I know it’s only 4 o’clock in he afternoon. But don’t ask your waiter for any explanations—just suck it up and resign yourself and order the wine. And just so you’re fully warned, if it’s any time near-ish apéritif time, you may be compelled to pick at a dish of complimentary herb-marinated olives, as well.
In conclusion, just try to be careful. Be on your guard. These pitfalls can be very hard to avoid in Paris, so you may just need to learn to live with the fate that befalls you.