Selecting just one restaurant in Paris for that special night out is a daunting task. So I’m not going to do it. Instead, I’m going to suggest that you choose a genre of restaurant for a romantic meal – the brasserie.
When we asked our Parisian artist friend Marie Theres Berger where visitors should not miss eating in Paris, she immediately suggested the brasserie experience “because you know what you’re going to get – the service and food are consistent – and the surroundings are just so beautiful,” she said.
We totally agree. Even the foodies and chefs we spoke to said that a brasserie experience is a must-do in Paris for the same reasons. So what’s so special about the brasserie experience?
Firstly, what really makes the brasserie distinctive from other restaurants is its décor. Most brasseries date from – or recreate – the Belle Époque era from the late 19th century to the First World War. The rooms are almost always sumptuous, with lots of golden light illuminating the room from ornate chandeliers, red velvet drapes framing enormous picture windows, leather booths, and big mirrors, all of which belie their beginning as breweries. ‘Brasserie’ is the French word for brewery. You’ll rarely find a microbrewery on the premises these days, so order a bottle or at least a couple of glasses of champagne and sit back and take in the ornate Art Nouveau or Art Deco décor.
Secondly, while the service is almost always professional, the brasserie has a more relaxed atmosphere than a traditional fine dining restaurant in Paris, which can be a stultifying experience unless you’re familiar with French cooking terms and don’t feel burdened by a wine list running to a hundred pages and often hundreds of Euros a bottle. In the brasseries you won’t find waiters rolling their eyes when you don’t order that bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In fact, you’ll see plenty of diners happily sipping the house wines unless it’s a special occasion.
Thirdly, it’s the food. A brasserie is all about the classic dishes and if you love food you need to try the old-school classics in Paris where they were made famous – some dishes many decades ago. For starters, in the colder months order some plump oysters that don’t need any fanfare – just set them free and slurp them down with the seawater. Don’t like oysters? We’ll forgive you. You can order homemade terrine, onion soup ‘au gratin’, or for the more adventurous, frog’s legs or escargots. Or a salad if you must – but salad isn’t very ‘date night’!
If you’re enjoying the fruits of the sea, go for a seafood platter for two as a main or the classic sole meunière, that is, fillets of sole dredged in flour and cooked in butter with a dash of lemon. If you’re going for meat you can try the Alsace speciality choucroute garnie (sauerkraut with various meats) but more romantic is a dish for two that’s intended to be shared, such as a Châteaubriand (the best of beef tenderloin of which there is only enough for two!) or a Côte de bœuf. Don’t order your meat any more cooked than saignant, which, although it translates to ‘rare’ in French, is actually medium-rare for the rest of us.
It is date night, after all, which means that you’re going to have to have dessert, probably involving chocolate! Moelleux au Chocolat or molten chocolate cake is an obvious choice, although there is nothing more traditional than profiteroles (the ball shaped sweet pastries stuffed with a cream filling with a hot chocolate sauce). Tarte Tatin (an upside down apple pie) is also a firm brasserie favourite.
You might not have eaten at the latest restaurant that everyone’s blogging about, but we can guarantee you that you’ll probably enjoy it a whole lot more, and you’ll certainly have had a romantic and quintessentially Parisian dining experience.
Our favourite Paris brasseries
Le Grand Colbert (pictured) 2 Rue Vivienne 75002 (Tel: 42 86 87 88)
Brasserie Flo 7 cour des Petites-Ecuries, 75010 (Tel: 47 70 13 59)
Bofinger 5-7 rue de la Bastille, 75004 (Tel: 42 72 87 82)
Brasserie Lipp 151 boulevard St-Germain, 75006 (Tel: 45 48 53 91)
Au Pied de Cochon 6 rue Coquilliere, 75001 (Tel: 40 13 77 00)