where will i eat today? or choosing a restaurant while visiting france
Eating well in France is important to me. Sometimes I organize my day around eating in a specific restaurant.
I live in France six months during the year, three months in Antibes, two months in Paris, and one month in Marseille. During those six months, I will eat lunch in a restaurant every day. Most of the time I will not repeat a restaurant. One can do the math. I eat in French restaurants 180 times each year.
If I am going to fly to France twice a year and spend between $1,000 and $1,500 for each ticket, I do not want to eat sandwiches or pizza or other fast foods while I am there. When I leave the apartment or hotel room in the morning, I do not want to carry a sack lunch nor do I want to eat “grab and go” meals. I want a good hot meal and I want to drink some wine. I will not become French when I am in France, but I can certainly pretend.
How does a visitor to France pick a restaurant? After all, eating in France should be an experience in itself. I suspect that most tourists choose a restaurant on the spur of the moment. If they are at Notre Dame, they will look around and choose one nearby, or select one that offers a menu that they understand, or pick a place that seems inviting or does not appear threatening.
That is a mistake. But, what should one do?
What do I NOT do?
Rarely will I rely on Yelp or TripAdvisor. (In fact I have blocked TripAdvisor on the my browser.) I am in France. Why would I take the advice of English speaking tourists, mostly Americans, when choosing a French restaurant in France?
I do sometimes make an exception. On the advice of Annie Sargent from The Join Us in France Travel Podcast, I have begun looking at Yelp reviews written in French by the French. That means typing into the search engines yelp.fr instead of yelp.com.
I do not read American travel books, such as Rick Steves or Fodors. They are very popular, especially Rick Steves, and I do not want to visit restaurants where a lot of tourists will eat. Maybe for the first time traveler, they may serve a purpose. With a bit of research before boarding the plane, however, I believe that one can avoid their recommendations and can still eat well.
Where do I find my ideas for restaurants?
I am a fan of French culinary guides written in French: the Michelin Guide, the Gault & Millau, and the petit futé. Granted, these guides are in French, but for the most part they use symbols that transcend the language. Knowing French is irrelevant.
I rely on restaurant reviewers as well. I read 1) Le blog de Gilles Pudlowski “Les pieds dans le plat,” 2) Alexander Lobrano ￼Hungry for Paris & France The Ultimate Guide to Great Eating in Paris, France and Beyond, 3) le Bouche à Oreille, 4) David Lebovitz, including his Instagram site, 5) Simon Says and 6) LeFooding. Four are written in French and two in English.
Sometimes I get names of restaurants from others; I talk to the French. I asked my French professor in Villefranche about the restaurants in Nice. Could he recommend some? I explained what I liked. His suggestions so far have been spot on.
While checking into an hotel in Toulouse, I asked where I could find a correct “cassoulet à Toulouse,” and again explained what I wanted. His suggestions were excellent.
What do I want? I ask for restaurants where locals eat, where the tourist do not go, or their presence is minimal. I want to drink good wines, too. I wonder if it is a bar à vin.
Some years ago I was browsing in a bookstore in Paris, maybe Gibert Joseph on Boulevard St Michel. I spotted two books about Parisian bar à vin restaurants. Each one page chapter described and discussed a bar à vin. Many of these small restaurants were famous; they had long histories. I bought both books, even though my reading French at the time was struggling. I would rely on these books for several years. I have the names and addresses of many of them in my contacts.
I walk a lot and look. I pause when I see a promising restaurant or an “ardoise,” the menu slate outside a restaurant. I take a photo with my phone and do some research later. Many of my favorite local, neighborhood restaurants were discovered this way. Their presence on TripAdvisor and Yelp is often nonexistent or minimal.
Does the menu appear in English and French and maybe in other languages? If so, I ignore the restaurant.
When I record a restaurant in my contacts for future reference, I will always include the mailing zip code or quartier of the city. Later, when I do a search, I will use that number. It is more efficient than typing in city names. Paris is large and has many restaurants. If I type “75014,” the number for the 14th arrondissement, a reduced list of restaurants will appear, for example.
Let’s experiment. Let’s pretend that you are wandering around Notre-Dame de Paris; it is on the Île de la Cité in the fourth arrondissement–75004. You are hungry, it is lunch time, and you want to eat somewhere. You pull out the smart phone, and look for the Michelin Guide web site. You see two long boxes. In the top one (or left one) named “OU ?”, you type “75004” and hit “Rechercher.” Several restaurants will appear, including some Michelin starred. I will sometimes click “Sélection du guide MICHELIN” (to the right on a computer browser) in order to narrow the search. Choose Bofinger, for example, and see what information you are offered.
Try the Gault & Millau site, using the same search criteria. Try limiting or narrowing the search with les filtres.
Sometimes I see articles about eating in France in major American (the New York Times, the Washington Post), British (the Guardian), and French (Le Monde) newspapers and magazines. I might note their suggestions.
I learn about “official” designations for local cuisine. For example, there is a true bouillabaisse, un vrai bouillabaisse. Restaurants that serve it are given a stamp of approval. Many of them are in the Marseille area. The bouchons in Lyon receive a similar designation. I learn the names of these restaurants and choose one.
I have been collecting the names of restaurants for many years. Generally, I will know where I will be during the day. Or not. When I want to eat lunch, I will take out the smart phone, type in a zip code number or a city, and there I will see a number of options.
Sometimes I make notes in the contacts: whether I have eaten at the restaurant in the past, whether it was good, the type of cuisine, maybe a few sentences that describe it, whether it is a Michelin restaurant, and so forth.
While visiting France then, each day I will walk a lot, see a lot of wonderful sites, and most often I eat well.