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on finding the perfect restaurant in france

When I am in France, I eat lunch in a restaurant every day. I am in France six months each year. One can easily do the math. That makes 180 days each year in France, eating in restaurants 180 times each year.

Many restaurants new to me come to my attention while walking through neighborhoods. I have learned to assess a restaurant by its cover: that is, from the ardoise outside that lists the menu for that day with its prices and the suggestions; by the decor that I can see through the windows; and whether there are many people seated or if there are people waiting.

Most tourists traveling to France do not have the luxury to wander the streets like a flâneur before choosing some place to eat. Time is precious. The trip to Paris is a dream come true after all, and the restaurant should live up to that special experience.

Not too long ago, I was interviewed by Annie for the podcast Join Us in France Travel Podcast. We talked in “How to eat like a local in France, Episode 286” about how to find good restaurants in France. We asked: “How can one choose a restaurant without walking the neighborhoods? Is there a way to plan in advance for a visit to a restaurant?”

I do not ever look to Yelp or TripAdvisor. I do not trust crowd sourced comments, nor do I trust English speaking tourists to advise me about eating in France. Yelp and TripAdvisor have French language versions, but I prefer to put my faith in those who are experienced with French food.

Where do I turn for my ideas?  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

I love the Michelin Guide restaurant search engine. I use the French version. The site has been revised so the language does not matter; an English version is available.

Next, I look to authoritative guides online. These are individuals and web sites who make a living thinking and writing about food and restaurants. I trust their judgements and comments.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

Writing in English, I like the following in no particular order: David Lebovitz, Patricia Wells, Paris by Mouth, and Alexander Lobrano. Americans will certainly recognize David Lebovitz and Patricia Wells.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

Writing in French, I turn to Le blog de Gilles Pudlowski, Le Bouche à Oreille, Les Grands Ducs, Simon Says,  and Lucky Miam. Not understanding French should not be a problem with a translation application. Copying and pasting the reviews into the translation application will offer a reasonably good idea of what the reviewer thought.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

Some restaurants are historically significant and for that reason worthy of consideration. You are interested in the arts, such as painting and books, or political personalities or enjoy heated discussions over complicated topics (or not); you would certainly want to eat or, at least, enjoy an espresso at one of the brasseries for which Paris is justly famous.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

On or near Saint-Germain-des-Près, one should look to Brasserie Lipp, Café de Flore, Les Deux. Magots, and I would add to that list Le Bonaparte, which is one block away and my favorite.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

Near the Jardin du Luxembourg and at the confluence of Boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse are several historical restaurants that have attracted the intelligentsia—Le Dome, La Rotonde, Le Select, and La Coupole.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

The meals and coffee at these restaurants will cost a bit. You will be paying a premium price to enter and be seen. La Rotonde was President Macron’s favorite restaurant. If you want to be truly hip, which would you choose with current trends (2020): Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots (hint: not the sticks)?

Another type of historical restaurant in Paris is the Bouillon. They have the word “Bouillon” in their names: Bouillon Chartier, Bouillon Racine, Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse (formerly Montparnasse 1900), and Bouillon Julien. (Bouillon Pigalle is not one of them.) These restaurants are elegant, have rich Belle Epoque interiors, and can be expensive. They have an historical pedigree that belies their interiors and menus.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

One  might consider eating at the oldest restaurant in Paris, Le Procope. Again, you are paying to eat at an historical destination where the food is all right and the clientele consists often of tourists. I have eaten there, and I would on some occasion return. Why not?  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

What about cities other than Paris? When I stay in Lyon, I eat often in the bouchons. In Marseille I look for la bouillabaisse, Tunisian restaurants, crustaceans, most likely at Toinou Coquillages, and couscous. The cassoulet will be one of my first meals in Toulouse.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

France has many, many franchise restaurants, but I tend to avoid them. However, I do love the Relais d’Entrecôte (or simply Entrecôte) restaurants. They are as formulaic as it comes. The waiter might ask if you have eaten in one, and without offering a menu, ask you what you want. I like those moments; it makes me feel French-like, not a tourist. Basically, the only choice you can make is the cuisson of the meat (à point or saignant) and the color of the wine.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

These remarks only touch on a small, small part of French restaurant food. I write a lot about Paris and then some major cities. It behooves the voyageur to prepare those other areas before visiting them. The Michelin Guide restaurant search engine mentioned above will be helpful.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

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