Where We Ate in Paris
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
This post is a long overdue follow up to my Paris Travel Diary, focusing on the food and drink we enjoyed during our week there in 2019. With our next visit just around the corner in a few week’s time, I've been thinking a lot again about Parisian dining, and it's brought me back to this post that I'd started so long ago.
The Parisian dining scene hadn’t been top of mind prior to researching for our first visit. The French kitchen is essentially the mother of the modern western kitchen, and because classical French cooking is such a juggernaut of tradition, I thought it might have too heavy a grip for new styles and boundary-pushers to make much headway. I knew the food would be excellent, but I didn't think it would be exciting. I was quite wrong.
In fact, Paris is a vibrant food city brimming with charismatically insouciant establishments, strong influences of Japanese and Nordic cuisine, and a surprising amount of fruit, much of it executed with the precise technique characteristic of French fine dining. Also, despite the rich history and industry dominance of traditional French wines, Paris was an early cradle of the natural wine movement; the fresh, the young, and the funky were well represented in what we tasted.
Planning Ahead is a Must
I cannot stress enough how critical it is to think about where you want to eat ahead of time and to make reservations at the restaurants that accept them. At the more popular establishments, reservations can be difficult to get unless you put in some effort and time.
We did a lot of online research when deciding where to spend the limited number of meals we'd have there. One resource I always use, if available for the destination, is the Bon Appetit City Guide. While browsing their travel guides some time ago, I looked at their guide for NYC. It includes many of my absolute favorite places, and overall provides a visitor what I think would be a diverse and delicious taste of New York. Because I agreed so much with their guide to my hometown, I decided that I would trust them in my travels as well.
Another great resource that I found after the trip is the book The New Paris. It features food and drink heavily and provides interesting insight on the establishments it highlights.
When it comes to actually completing bookings, we use calendar reminders to try to snag reservations as soon as they're released. Kev and I also have the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, and the Visa Concierge service comes with membership, which helps you book reservations among other travel assistance services. We've used it for every trip we've taken since getting the card, and it's really come through for us, particularly in the handful of situations where restaurants only accept reservations by phone.
We were there during the fall, and it was clear that zucchini and figs were in season. I loved finding that so many places featured these ingredients on their menus. The zucchini we had in Paris was really good, which is wild for me to say as zucchini is not at all exciting to me. In Paris, the zucchini was sweet, fresh, and cooked to retain some crunch. Figs, which I love, were used in composed dishes, desserts, and baked goods.
When in Paris
Idiosyncrasies of Parisian dining that jumped out to me include, again, the absolute need for reservations, especially for dinner. Without them, you would likely be limited to bistro fare every night, and as a result miss out on some varied and amazing experiences.
Another small quirk I noticed was that people don’t use bread plates. Everyone simply places their bread on the table next to their plate in between bites. I also enjoyed that places we visited had a dedicated bread slicing station from which crumbs were flying in all directions.
What I noted in my travel diary about exchanging greetings with shop owners applies to restaurants and cafes. We would greet every employee we encountered from the time we entered a restaurant to the time we left, and it really goes a long way. I know it sounds like an obvious common courtesy, and while that's true, it's a much stronger thread in the social fabric there than we're used to here in the States. Say your bonjours and bonsoirs.
A couple of etiquette resources:
A post from The Everyday Parisian on cafe etiquette
Coffee Break French, a podcast that teaches you French. Episodes 15-18 of season 1 will teach you a few phrases that'll come in handy at cafes and restaurants
An Aside: French butter
I mean... does France have magical cows? What’s their secret? Why is it so consistently scrumptious? Everywhere we went the butter was served room temperature and perfectly spreadable, and everywhere it was so so good. At L’avant Comptoir de la Mer, the butter seemed to also be kind of a cheese. Why hadn’t I encountered this incredible, immediately obvious mashup before? When can I go back for more?
In chronological order, here are the places where we ate.
Our first meal in Paris was dinner at Frenchie on Rue du Nil (AKA Frenchie Street). We walked from the AirBnB, arrived early for our reservation, and decided to check out the other shops on the street. We discovered an ecosystem, of sorts, filled with small storefronts that were all Frenchie-affiliated: a wine shop, a butcher, a produce market, a seafood market, a boulangerie. Frenchie sits in the middle of the block, across from Frenchie Bar à Vins and a few doors down from FTG (Frenchie To Go). This would be an amazing street to live on.
The dining room isn't very large, which contributes to the scarcity of reservations. Throughout the night, we noticed servers from Frenchie and Bar à Vins dashing between the two establishments, borrowing a wine glass or an appetizer dish from the other. It made the whole scene feel like a fun community that you'd want to be a part of.
The food was colorful, fruit-filled to my surprise and delight, and bursting with fresh ingredients. Dinner here is a manageable five course tasting menu and will run you about 90 euros per person.
We sat at the counter at Au Passage, a lucky break after the restaurant's reservation system lost ours, along with that of another pair of diners who arrived just after us. At the bar, we had the added benefit of chatting with the bartender who waited on us. She sounded like an American-expat, she was super helpful with translating the menu where Google Translate failed, and she was the reason that we ended up at her friend's wine bar, Margo, after the meal.
I think Au Passage was perhaps my favorite meal of the trip in terms of the overall experience. It's the only one we put on our list as a repeat when planning our second visit.
The restaurant is located down a quiet walkway, off the main street. Its dining room is rustic and casual. The dishes were simple, delicious, vegetable forward, and obviously made with beautiful, fresh ingredients. I loved the white beans we had, the cockles, and the zucchini. The place felt laid back overall, and the vibe reminded me of Roberta's, our Brooklyn favorite.
As mentioned in my travel diary, I was hungover for this meal so my assessment is not quite fair due to my lack of an appetite as we sat down to dine. However, despite my struggle to get through the heart of the meal (i.e. the meat dishes), the plum dessert gave me life by the end, and I left Clown Bar feeling much much better than when I entered. I can't say the same for Kim and Kev though - they had to eat my portion of a bunch of dishes (and these portions were not small) and were very very full when it was time to leave.
We really liked the tomato salad. Reactions were mixed on the famous brain dish. I thought the fish slices in the crudo were cut too thick, it made me hyper-aware that I was chewing too much flesh with each bite. The cream based drizzle on top was also a little bland. I mentioned in my Paris travel diary that as someone who doesn't love meat, I couldn't bring myself to try the bocce-ball sized meat pie in my hungover state. Again, the plum dessert was very good.
To my surprise, compared to all of our other outstanding dinners on this trip, this one came in near the bottom. But I think that says more about the quality of our other meals than it does about Clown Bar. This place is such an institution, and one that's worth checking out. I think we would have had a better meal if we'd ordered less (as Kim said, we weren't anticipating American-sized portions). The wine we ordered, a rose pet-nat, was delicious. I would therefore recommend treating it more as a wine bar, and ordering a few dishes that look good to you rather than trying to sample too much or feeling pressured to order their well-known dishes.
Before lunch at Clamato, Kev and I had spent the morning exploring the left bank after switching accommodations from the Le Marais AirBnB to Hotel Monge. When it was just about time to head over to meet Kim, we found that the 37 minute walk across town would only take a few more minutes than the metro, so we decided to go on foot.
Clamato doesn’t take reservations; we’d arranged to meet right when it opened for the day. Our efforts were rewarded with a choice booth in the back, which had a view of the sweet garden that Clamato shares with Septime, its sister restaurant.
The walk over primed us for lunch, and we ordered a nice selection of seafood from the menu, freshly printed for the day. We enjoyed it with glasses of golden white wine, which sparkled in the sunlight that streamed in through the window. While I greatly enjoyed the dishes, especially the crudos, that we had, I will note that looking back, the flavors weren't particularly French, if that is a consideration for you. The French-ness of Clamato was in the origin of the seafood rather than the preparation techniques. What you get here is really good, really fresh seafood from the waters around France, prepared with great accompanying ingredients. This is a combo which you can (happily) find all over the world, and I'm happy to have visited this Parisian iteration.
I learned from The New Paris that Clamato was inspired by a visit to Brooklyn's Maison Premiere, one of our well loved places (that may have shut down during COVID - unclear, and the website seems to be back up as of October 2020) that serves fresh seafood alongside fancy cocktails. I totally see the influence, and love the cross-city pollination of ideas that this exemplifies.
Our meal at Verjus was lovely and fun. The restaurant is located halfway down a discreet alleyway and sits perched beside a flight of stairs. We had the corner table, with a view of both the cozy, narrow stairs and the adjoining street below through open windows. From this table, we enjoyed a pink sunset as we dined.
Plenty of English was spoken in this dining room too, as was the case at Frenchie. One older gentleman at the table in the middle of the space filled the room with joy throughout the night with his easy, contagious, gigantic laughter.
The food here was very good, and there were many courses of it. It's a French take on new-American cuisine, which is funny since in many ways new-American is our take on French cuisine. It works.
The dining room at Septime is a beautiful space. Navy trim and shutters on the huge windows opened to the street. A tall floral arrangement on the bar. An antique, mottled mirror. Well worn, wide-planked wood floors. Low lighting complemented by plenty of candles. A wrought iron spiral staircase to who-knows-where.
The service here was great, as it was at so many of our dinners in Paris. At one point, our waiter stumbled on the translation of a word and was adorably bashful about it, rather than annoyed that he needed to do the translation in the first place. It was just Kev and me at this meal; Kim had left Paris by then to return to London. Our time was winding down as well, and I recall trying to savor this meal as much as possible, by then having fallen in love with the city.
The food was as our other meals had been: seasonal, delicious, technically excellent, and beautifully plated. The bread was freshly sliced at the station in the dining room. Our bottle of orange wine, illuminated by the candle at our table, gave off a warm amber glow. Night had fallen by the time we left Septime, and we were buoyed by that wonderful meal for our walk back to the hotel, where we had a second dessert of Pierre Hermé macarons which we'd picked up earlier in the day.
Our last dinner on this trip was at the newly opened Maison Sota, by Sota Atsumi whose talent was behind Clown Bar’s rise to acclaim. I was astounded by the greeting - since we were visiting within the restaurants’ first week of operation, the hostess may have thought that we were among the friends and family who’d come to support. We were greeted in Japanese, and I, so completely thrown by it, could only conjure Kev’s full name in response, even though the reservation was actually in my name. The hostess was so taken aback as well that it took her a moment to realize I was speaking English. Throughout the night, I’d hear her switch seamlessly between French, Japanese, and English, and she wasn’t the only one among the staff who did so. Impressive, and not a little enviable.
The chef put thought into seemingly every detail of the place and the experience he would host. He designed the logo, of course. He created a special red ink and a special blue ink and had his menus printed at a local Parisian print shop. He had Japanese potters make ceramics in the style of French tableware. He had French metal-smiths make cutlery in the style of Japanese knives. I loved learning these tidbits; they are indicative of such a beautiful dialogue between the cultures from a person whose heart clearly belongs to both.
Pain Pain for a baguette
Maison Kayser for a chocolate croissant
Du Pain et Des Idées for breakfast pastries (escargot and banana croissant) and coffee
Fragments for coffee and avocado toast
Boot Cafe for coffee and fig & honey cake
L'Avant Comptoir de la Mer for counter service seafood and wine (since changed to L'Avant Comptoir de la Terre, and no longer seafood-centric)
Breizh Cafe for crepes and cider
Pierre Hermé for macarons in the most interesting flavors
Berthillon for ice cream
Le Petit Grain for baked goods
Our Upcoming Visit
We're nearly set with our reservations for our trip in May. We'd started working on our dining itinerary around January when we booked the flights. This time, we're targeting a few more places that don't accept reservations, and our plan is to go right at opening to try to snag a table. We're also taking a cue from the city and booking later dinner reservations (around 8pm) so that we can perhaps fit in an apéro in the early evening, which would allow us to try out more places on our map.