The biggest lie I’ve heard about Parisian food is that you can’t go wrong. Well, wrong. You can go wrong and I have. Paris gets millions of tourists and there are businesses that cater to crowd. So if you’re in Paris looking for authentic, well, French food, a little research and preparation go a long way.
This is a delicate topic so note that the title of this post is "The How of Where to Eat in Paris", not "Where to Eat in Paris". That's my big, fat caveat because although I have had amazing food in Paris, I'm not an expert in Parisian dining. There are websites dedicated entirely to that, and this attempts to compile those that I've used.
1. Go local. The surefire way to find out about an amazing restaurant is to still consult a local or at least someone who’s lived there. I have taken recommendations from The Fat Kid Inside who’s half-French and has actually lived in Paris, and both places were knockouts. See his long list of go-to's here.
One of the places Erwan sent us to was Restaurant Saturne which is THE Parisan meal to remember. It's a neo-bistro with only a tasting menu, centered on what is freshly sourced that day. For dinner, we had a six-course degustation of one delicate, perfect, and artful course after the other. This is a place I would strongly recommend for gourmands, but it could get pricey and requires reservations.
2. Read, will ya? But be picky about where you forage information. I personally distrust Trip Advisor and Yelp for utter snobbery. Those writing reviews could have entirely deviating philosophies about food than me (they enjoy Macaroni Grill, for all I know). I'd rather trust people who know their food. For Paris, I trust Le Fooding and Paris by Mouth. I also enjoy David Lebovitz' website which has in-depth accounts of his food experiences in Paris as a local.
3. Make reservations in advance. And please, dress the part. Some of the more avante-garde and popular places draw cults and in Paris, places typically have small-scale kitchens. Real estate is precious here so dining rooms are intimate and cozy, i.e. seating would most likely be limited. And in France, dining guests are allowed to linger, so snagging a table in advance should not be taken for granted. Some places allow online/email reservations. They need your number because they typically call the night before to confirm. About dressing the part, when having dinner (and actually, when visiting Europe at all), I implore you, please leave the tennis shoes at home. This is not about snobbery or pretentiousness. There is a reason why Paris is so beautiful. It's because the people who choose to live in Paris appreciate and love beauty. Americans get a poor reputation because they show up to dinner in jeans and sneakers. If only to get better treatment and service, please just leave the running shoes for what it was intended for?
4. Unless you want to overpay for underwhelming pretend-French food, I suggest you steer clear of Quartier Latin. Except… kitty corner from Shakespeare & Co. is a small place called Ribouldingue which is a small restaurant. When we were there, there was a sole woman serving the entire restaurant. No wonder she didn't think it funny when I locked myself in the bathroom by accident (the door knob was ancient, okay?).
Seek out arrondissements where locals live, therefore, where they end up eating. On my last trip to Paris, a friend took me to the 10th arrondissement where locals crowd Canal Saint-Martin. I discovered a vibrant and young local scene and sidewalks were dotted with modern cafes and eateries. Montmartre also has a rich local food crowd.
5. Hold out. Some of the prestigious restaurants are not easy on the pocketbook. This is where the hold-out is an indispensable strategy. Lunch is generally cheaper than dinner, but if you're after the experience and the same attention to quality without breaking the bank, I suggest going for lunch. They would typically have a formule, or more recognizable in the States, prix fixe - a set menu of a starter, main, and perhaps a small dessert. This strategy works well too if you can't get a table at the more popular ones that tend to book up. This strategy also works on the converse. You could have a small bite at lunch, then splurge at dinner.
6. Be a bar fly. In places where you show up and they can't sit you, ask to sit at the bar, where they don’t require reservations. You could luck out and have the best seats in the house - the ones fronting the kitchen!
7. Go to market. By market, I mean the food markets or open air ones, and not the supermarche. You'll find a cute little list here. Go to a boulangerie for bread, perhaps a fromargerie for cheese. This could be lunch! Simple and inexpensive, but good! And this is food shopping the Parisian way!
8. Parlez-vouz Francais? You don't have to have a Masters in French, but trust me, you'll get a lot more smiles and respect if the French could watch you struggle with the language the way they do with English. These guys at Radio Lingua are amazing at teaching people beginner French. On your drive to work, listen to Coffee Break French podcasts a month or so in advance before your trip and you should be somewhat equipped to venture beyond "Merci" and "Si'l vous plait". I also find that a different place, a different experience is revealed to you if you understand more of what's going on around you.
9. Explore beyond the macaron. This statement could generate a lot of heat, but macarons are just blase. There's more to expanse of the French pattisserie beyond the sometimes (overrated) macaron. How about these eclairs from L'Eclair de Genie in the Marais?
10. Go with your gut. Yes, pun intended. When you're walking about and something smells good enough to stop you in your tracks, you should go in. There are two places I keep coming back to in Paris because they are very personal to me so much so that they've transcended to a ritual. They are places that opened up Paris to me when I was freely wandering the city. They are places that warmed me up to an often misunderstood people who have found me sincere and somewhat amusing in my attempts to have conversations in my stammering broken French - the ones who happily bagged me madeleines and extra sweet treats all for free because I had the look of earnest wonder at ovens churning freshly baking bread. They were not places I've read in a guidebook, rather they're places that I stumbled upon while making sense of this utterly magnificent city, and in finding these two places, in a sentimental way, I feel they are mine, that Paris has become my own.