Getting off tour feels like finishing a marathon. Maybe we’re not all heaving and sweating, but I must say, we smelled much better at the start of our journey too. It’s exciting and rewarding but also quite physically draining. That said, I couldn’t think of a better way to wind down and recharge than spending a week in Paris with my girlfriend. No plans, no worries, and no gas station food (thank God).
**HEADS UP. Sip on that espresso, this post is going to be a bit longer than usual. But what did you expect? A week in Paris followed by a paragraph on where to get the best chocolate croissant? C’mon now.
“You Can’t Handle the Truth!” (about the classic French bistro)
I think the best way to begin this post is by starting with the end. For our last dinner here, Michelle and I decided we should really cap our trip as earnest tourists and dine at a classic French bistro, something that we actually ventured away from quite a bit during the week. I know from experience that while many places are still reproducing high-quality classics like they have for generations, the classic French bistro has truly become a dying breed.
Places like Le Dôme Café, once a hangout for greats like Hemingway, are now rest stops for over-exhausted children in strollers and starving tourists who happily down a plate of pre-frozen French fries. And our meal at the bistro that shall not be named – call it “Bistro X” – ended with a bad, overly-salted taste in our mouths. Although we had previously confirmed the hundreds of fantastic ratings for Bistro X, our meals were plopped onto the table in a manner that could only be described as a standard operating procedure – Michelle’s beef bourguignon resembling a lukewarm Lean Cuisine of tough gristle and a side of barely-steamed broccoli. Though disappointing, this meal was a moment of enlightenment for both of us. We could lament over the deteriorating integrity of French bistro food, but I believe this would be the same as a Parisian in the 1920’s longing for “La Belle Époque” (Midnight in Paris reference).
The heart and soul of Paris remains the same. The architecture. The lighting. The smell. The bread. These are things that cannot and will not fail to make you fall in love. However, Michelle and I discovered that there is a cultural shift happening in terms of food and wine, and that the most French place to dine here might not appear traditionally French at all. Here’s how to strike the perfect balance between tourist and local on your next visit…
If your shoes aren’t comfortable, don’t bring them.
I don’t think there’s a better place in the world to wander aimlessly, which is exactly what you should do on your first day here. Drop your bags off, stop for an espresso or a bite to eat, and just go. This way, you immediately get acquainted with the city and immersed in more culture than you would if you made a beeline for the Eiffel Tower. If it’s sunny out, I’d suggest taking a break to lounge on the grass at Place Des Vosges and strolling over the Seine to check out Notre Dame. Maybe pop into the historic bookstore Shakespeare and Company and meander through the Latin Quarter. After you’ve gotten your bearings a bit, I’d highly recommend making use of vélib – their public bike sharing system. You’ll see more of the city than you would via metro, you’ll get to your destinations quicker via nice, flat bike lanes…AND you’ll work up an appetite.
Eat all the cheese.
Michelle and I wound up conquering most of the left bank on Day 1, and stopped by Barthelemy – arguably one of the best cheese shops in Paris. I’m not kidding when I say that we found our way here by smell. We were at the corner, not exactly sure where to turn, and sure enough, an incredible waft of stinky cheese led us to the charming green exterior of the tiny shop. For all you non-cheese connoisseurs, you should know that in America, we are f*cked. For years, the FDA has banned unpasteurized raw milk cheeses that have been aged less than 60 days. AKA, those bougie limited edition Nike sneakers you just bought? They’re complete knockoffs by cheese standards. There are many traditional French cheeses – Camembert, Muenster, Epoisses, etc. – that you will probably only have the opportunity to truly taste abroad. So, pick up several to enjoy throughout your stay. And, if you’re like me, don’t forget to pack a liberal amount of Lactaid. #Worthit.
Eat all the bread.
You must go to Du Pain et des Idées and get the pain des amis, or “friendship bread” (I wrote about it already previously, but it deserves repeating). Honorable mentions include the pain au chocolat et banane (banana chocolate croissant) and the l’escargot chocolat pistache (a snail-shaped pastry with pistachio cream and chocolate). That said, bread is pretty much a safe bet anywhere you go in Paris. Even tourist traps will likely have better bread and butter than your typical white tablecloth restaurant in America. Hell, I’m writing this post on the airplane on our way home eating the dinner roll that came with our meal and even Air France takes this sh*t seriously.
Drink all the (natural) wine.
Similar to the way Parisian chefs are challenging the prescriptive recipes of classic French bistro fare, there exists a growing schism between age-old tradition and a progressive style of wine making. What I’m referring to here is “natural” (or “biodynamic”) wines. This natural wine movement is to Paris’s culinary scene as punk music was to culture in the 70’s and 80’s. A modern proletariat rising up against the bourgeoisie, if you will. These wines must be made from organic grapes, with nothing added or removed during the process (i.e. no use of the almost 200 additives legally permitted). Such bottles with abstract label artwork – and much more approachable price tags – are going against the status quo and gaining popularity while creating controversy amongst traditional French wine authorities.
After a week of drinking both new-school and old-school French wines, I am completely on board with this new style. While exploring Île Saint-Louis (one of two natural islands on the Seine) on our last day, we stumbled upon a natural wine shop called L’etiquette. Fascinated and wanting to learn more from the owner (who was quite a character), we spontaneously opted in for a wine tasting. “They all hate me here,” he said, referring to the other store owners there who think his shop detracts from what visitors expect from the touristy island. (His situation was very much like the film Chocolat – woman moves to town and opens up a non-traditional chocolaterie, the town loves it but the woman is still shunned because she is going against tradition…Just watch the movie.) We picked up two bottles (Yamag Gamay and Pur Breton) by Olivier Cousin, a wine maker who was sued by French wine authorities for the comedic pun used on his labels.
Relax on the Seine.
On the same island as the wine shop mentioned above, you’ll find Berthillon – known for selling the best ice cream in Paris. Whether you feel like treating yourself to a double scoop, some rosé wine, or just a moment in the sun, lose track of time along the Seine at least once during your stay. Simple and absolutely priceless…This never gets old.
Shop at the flea market, Not the Champs Elysées.
Unfortunately, that romantic vision of the Champs Elysées Joe Dassin sang about is now over-crowded and lined with more stores like Gap and Adidas. The only reason to go down there is to see the Arc de Triumph. To score some real Parisian gems, venture to the outskirts of Paris to the Saint Ouen Flea Market, considered the largest antique market in the world. When you first get off the metro, you’ll be surprised to find it appears similar to a swap meet or New York’s Times Square – scammers trying to sell you knock-off designer purses and stands selling last season’s Adidas. But, don’t be fooled! This is not actually the flea market. This is simply the tourist trap of “fat” surrounding the actual “meat.” Cut through all this nonsense, continue past the underpass, and hang a left on Rue Des Rosiers. A couple blocks down and you’ll hit the jackpot. Michelle and I wound up spending several hours here sifting through vintage costume jewelry, Beatles records, artwork and antique furniture that far surpassed the experience of navigating through swarms of people trying to snap a pic of the Mona Lisa.
Following the sound of live music, we stumbled upon Chez Louisette, the real pulse of this artistic community. More than a restaurant, this place is an establishment that has been there for over one-hundred years before literally being engulfed by the flea market. Its long-standing history made it a sure bet. But I must say, the cheesy disco lights, decorative banners likely from the Christmas of 1937, photos of an infamous Edith Piaf impersonator, and Euro band of men ages 70 and up made the pickled herring and cheese plate appetizer taste that much better.
Eat at a bistro if you’d like, but experience modern French cuisine too.
Our night spent at Le Verre Volé was the Midnight in Paris-esque event of our trip, except instead of going back in time to the 1920’s, we were immersed in what felt like a postmodern think-tank of Parisian diners. This was the epitome of what I touched on at the beginning of this post – French chefs straying from tradition and experimenting with regional flavors, serving fine dining-quality plates in an egalitarian fashion – with lower prices and a casual atmosphere. One of the best things we tasted on our trip was this sea urchin pictured below – acting as a vessel for a mousse of brown butter and cream, containing a surprising crunch from toasted buckwheat seeds. Like tasting the ocean trying to impersonate the richness of foie gras…You’ll question if this is even legal. Next came pan-fried duck hearts served with in-season white asparagus and then roasted guinea fowl over a classic potato purée, likely consisting of 80% butter. You’ll want to refrain from conversation so you can savor a personal moment with each bite. So good. Goddamn.
La Verre Volé initially got its reputation as one the forerunners in the natural wine movement. Here, you decide on what you’re eating and the waiter then recommends one or two specific bottles based on the food and your taste in wine. As if he was a wine-whisperer, our waiter picked out the most incredible bottle he knew we would enjoy. Four hours later, after sharing multiple bottles with the French couple next to us and the waiters themselves, and me stepping in to DJ the music at times, we closed the restaurant at 2 AM. Then, back in our horse and buggy (aka Uber) and our Midnight in Paris experience was now a fantastic memory of unexpected flavors and new Parisian friends.
You MUST picnic.
Hop on your bikes, throw your supplies in the basket, and find your little slice of heaven. Michelle and I picnicked at the Luxembourg Gardens, but other great spots include Place Des Vosges, the Tuileries, in front of the Eiffel Tower, or along the Seine. Don’t forget to pack utensils, glasses, and a wine opener.
Go to Marché des Enfants Rouges.
True life: we waited in line for two hours alongside fellow foodies for a sandwich. BUT, it wasn’t just any sandwich, it was from the legendary Chez Alain Miam Miam at Marché des Enfants Rouges. Though this is the oldest marketplace in Paris at 400 years old, it is perhaps most well-known for the culinary nutty professor seen below, his lab coat a Supreme t-shirt that doubles as a kitchen towel to wipe his hands. Imagine the fairy godmother in Cinderella as she transforms the pumpkin into a carriage and the four mice into white horses…except his wand is a vegetable grater as he haphazardly throws together outrageous quantities of fresh vegetables, cured meats, and cheeses. There aren’t really areas to eat in the market, so head down the block to Square du Temple and lovingly wolf this sucker down on a park bench.
Explore the Marais and eat falafel.
Located in the 3rd and 4th arrondissements on the right bank, I believe the Marais is the best place to stay when visiting (and where Michelle and I stayed). What used to be Paris’s lively Jewish neighborhood is now a fashionable district full of trendy restaurants, shops, and cool galleries. Yet, it’s an easy walk or bike ride away from Notre Dame and the left bank, and really accessible to the 1st and 2nd arrondissements where you’ll find the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, etc.
Whether you choose to stay here or not, definitely check out this area and plan on getting falafel for lunch. Head to Rue de Rosiers where you’ll find a large strip of falafel shops all competing to be the best. L’As du Fallafel seems to hold the title. Pop a squat on a curb and dine with fellow tourists all there for the same garlicky smushed cornucopia of vegetables, sauces, and fried balls that have somehow become a quintessential Parisian food.
Enjoy all the cheese, bread, and wine but don’t forget your veggies.
The French stay thin somehow, and I’m convinced it’s because of the incredible fresh produce that overflows from the stalls of farmers markets and corner stores in Paris. Being from California, we’ve both been spoiled with access to farm-fresh fruits and vegetables grown only a few miles away, but nothing beats the lettuce here. Every salad looks like a plate of Henri Matisse’s paper cut outs and tastes like a work of art.
Pick and choose tourist-y things.
You can’t possibly enjoy the Parisian lifestyle if you’re waking up at 7am and jam-packing your days trying to hit every museum and landmark. I think the best plan is to shoot for one or two things per day, and leave the rest of the day up to chance. Instead of tackling the Louvre, Michelle and I opted for L’Orangerie, a much less overwhelming museum famous for its murals of Monet’s waterlilies that span entire circular rooms. Enjoy the art here, and then head to Cafe Marly for a glass of champagne as you drink in the rock star view of the Louvre and surrounding architecture.
Another lesser-known treasure is the Museum of Montmartre and the Renoir Gardens, located down the street behind Sacré-Cœur. Although packed with tourists, the view and the church itself is truly incredible. Definitely worth a visit.
The streets directly to the right of the church are full of Disneyland-esque restaurants and souvenir shops. But venture down the road a bit further, hang a slight left, and you’ll find the quaint museum which houses paintings that depict the history of the neighborhood and gardens designed to mimic those in Renoir’s paintings. Their cafe – enclosed entirely by glass windows – is perfect to enjoy a pleasant afternoon tea with views of the garden. Pinky up.
Both Sacré-Cœur and the museum are conveniently positioned to be paired with a post-tea stroll through the colorful cobblestone streets of Montmartre. You could get here early to try and avoid crowds, but it’s especially magical as the lighting changes at dusk.
C’est la vie.
While unpredictable spring weather might appear to foil your plans, it could also enhance them. You’ve heard it before, Paris is more romantic in the rain. You could plan your trip out by the hour, see all the sights, do all the things. But you would not get the real Parisian experience. To do that, you need to embrace ambiguity, get lost, kiss in the rain. This is what it means to be a “flâneur” – a term the French came up with to describe this sort of romantic wanderer. So, I invite you to take all of my recommendations for restaurants and things to do, but I don’t really think they’re necessary. Stumble upon your own hidden gems. Make spontaneous decisions. After all, that stinky, moldy, funky-looking cheese you find in the local fromagerie may very well be the most delicious, exciting bite of your trip.