Paris is, for many, the heart of modern cuisine and is often called one of the best eating cities in the world. The problem is that today eating out in Paris reminds us that it’s just one of the best dining cities and not the best dining city in the world.
The truth is that Paris today is a difficult city to get a great meal in unless you have inside knowledge – to score the hot tables or hear whispers of the latest chef – or have planned your eating in the city like a military campaign, taking all the spontaneity out of your visit.
As I write this, the French cuisine pundits are in a state of shock: Paris doesn’t have a restaurant in the world’s top ten according to the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2010. Spain has four and the USA (quelle horreur!) has three. Just to rub fleur de sel into the wounds, the best restaurant this year, Noma, is in Copenhagen. You know, Denmark. Yes, Denmark. So what’s going on and why is it so hard to get a great meal in Paris these days? There are a few reasons…
Firstly, Parisian cuisine has stagnated in comparison to other fine eating cities in the world, such as Barcelona. One Parisian chef told us that he thought that the city had “sat on its hat for 20 years”. One of the problems is that much of what we know of Parisian cuisine is actually from the provinces of France and these dishes are so well established and traditional that nobody wants to touch them. Innovation has to come from outside influences or from the minds of inventive chefs like Pierre Gagnaire.
Hints from the cuisines of Spain, China, Thailand and Japan feature in the more progressive French cuisine, although, amusingly, some chefs deny the influences. Much of the creative cuisine is either from French chefs who have worked overseas and returned energized or foreign chefs wanting to leave a mark on one of the landmark – if not the landmark – culinary cities of the world.
The second reason it’s hard to get a great meal in Paris is the quality-price ratio. While many foodies, especially expats who call Paris home, have been championing a bistro movement where the food takes precedence over aesthetics, the ones we tried did indeed have a ramshackle ambiance and poor service, but also average food and a significant mark-up on wines.
Then there are the cafés, bistros and brasseries aimed at tourists that generally under-deliver on quality and overcharge. The classic brasseries have actually improved in quality, due to some of them having been purchased by noted restaurateurs and upping the quality of food. See our story on that here.
When it comes to the Michelin-starred restaurants, the Michelin guide has widened its scope with Yam’Tcha, a Chinese-influenced restaurant, and Passage 53, with a Japanese chef, earning stars in 2010. But they were the only new entries on the one-star list.
But if you’re thinking that a Michelin star equals stuffy service in Paris these days, you need to go to Ze Kitchen Galerie, which has plastic tablecloths and tables so tightly packed that diners talk to other diners three tables away! The tables were so close the woman at the next table was commenting on Lara’s restaurant notes as she wrote them. The food overall was divine, but for ambiance in a Michelin-star restaurant we’ll head to one of our favourites in Barcelona, thanks.
Thirdly, a combination of the release of the 2010 Paris Michelin guide, stories in The New York Times, the myriad (mainly American) bloggers writing on the city in English, and the ubiquitous guidebooks with their ‘must-do’ meals, means it’s a lot harder now than it used to be to get a booking at anything remotely deemed à la mode.
Booking a bistro three months in advance is lunacy as far as we’re concerned and while we did have success just walking in and asking for a table at two highly fancied Michelin-starred restaurants (for dinner even!), this is not something the average food-loving visitor to Paris is likely to take a punt on.
But having said that, don’t be discouraged, forewarned is forearmed! If you’re lucky enough to get a table, there is nothing like having a great meal in Paris and then walking the elegant streets afterwards. It just feels right.
In part two of our Eating Out in Paris post, we’ll tell you where you can get a good meal in Paris, based on where we ate during our two week stay.