City guide: Paris

Paris was one of the last places I visited before the start of the pandemic: I was there in November 2019, when only the very well-read and well-prepared had even the slightest inkling of what was in store for all of us. It was my first trip there with Zoë, although back in the day I used to go there on a practically annual basis, and we stayed in the Marais, my favourite part of the city, eating in all my favourite places.

It was a parade of greatest hits. We grabbed a table at L’As du Fallafel and ate their legendary many-layered falafel wrap, studded with sticky cubes of aubergine and all the good stuff. We went to the Marché des Enfants Rouges for lunch and hunkered down at a tiny table to eat Japanese food at Chez Taeko. We had pizza at Briciole in the Haut Marais, surrounded by people infinitely thinner and more fashionable than us. Maybe they were those share-one-pizza-between-two types: I was too busy eating mine to notice.

We strolled out past the Canal Saint Martin, an area so hip I’ve never really tried to explore it, and had a wonderful meal at Le Galopin accompanied by a wine that, at the time, was too funkily advanced for me: I wonder if now, many lambics later, I’d like it better. We sat side by side in Boot Café, a ludicrously Instagrammable place that seats, and this is no exaggeration, the grand total of four people. Imagine living here, I must have said, about a thousand times. We had some iffy meals too – you can’t win them all – but we were in Paris and so really, did it matter that much? At the end of the trip, replete and far more skint, we got onto the Eurostar at Gare Du Nord and I remember parting company with the city with real sadness. We’ll be back soon, I thought. But then three years passed, so it turns out that I wasn’t.

Finally returning this month, I was comforted by how little things had changed but perhaps slightly disconcerted by how much I had. I think my taste for crowds, such as it was, evaporated entirely during the pandemic, so often I found myself thinking that there were just too many people, everywhere. But it wasn’t just that. I think the kind of cities I like spending time in has been subtly changing for years; I like smaller, scruffier, less touristy cities now.

I think that whenever you go to a city on holiday you only really scratch the surface, but in a smaller city you can at least fool yourself that you’ve managed that. In a city as vast as Paris, one you could spend a lifetime exploring, you’ll never come close. That wouldn’t bother everybody, but for a lifelong FOMO sufferer like me it just meant a constant worry that I was missing out on better meals, better coffee, better wine, better bars. I mentioned this on Twitter and someone told me he’d had exactly the same experience when he went to Budapest at the start of the month. “I felt like I was just doing it wrong”, he said.

Anyway, despite all that I managed to have a marvellous time. I tried to pick carefully, not do too much, not beat myself up too much about all the places I didn’t go and generally keep my glass half-empty tendencies in check (in fairness, in Paris, if your glass is half empty it’s never too long before you’re filling it again). It may be a while before I return again, but I know I will: Paris isn’t the kind of place you quit once it’s got under your skin, not really. Besides, just imagine living there: short of re-watching Amelie, holidays are always the next best thing.

This piece doesn’t even pretend to be any kind of definitive guide, but it’s a collection of places I loved eating and drinking on my most recent trip, and they’re geographically spread enough that they might come in handy if you’re going there yourself. I wasn’t sure whether to write this up, but in the run up to going plenty of people said they’d be watching my social media with interest as they had a trip lined up. One person even booked one of the restaurants in the list below and went there the weekend before my visit, a huge vote of confidence.

But I know that Paris is so huge that you might only find one or two entries in here that appeal to you; when I said I was going at the start of the year and asked for recommendations I got plenty that were probably excellent restaurants, but in parts of the city I wasn’t going anywhere near. In any case I hope it gives you food for thought, or even just transports you during your lunch break. There remains something incredible about the city – even if you visit it, as I did, on a week when the chic pavements of Saint Germain-des-Prés are lined with walls of black bags full of uncollected rubbish and crossing the boulevards involves zigzagging through hordes of well-tempered demonstrators.

Where to eat

1. Parcelles

Parcelles was probably the fanciest of the places I visited on this trip – the epitome of the perfect Paris restaurant, all bare stone walls and tasteful terrazzo floor, the warm glow seeping out through the huge windows on to the Marais pavement outside. I’ve seen a lot of buzz about it and bookings online come available about four weeks in advance, so this one requires a little forward planning.

The best of the food was close to perfection too – a slab of pressed beef cheek with a glossy foie gras core, burnished sweetbreads tumbled onto the most buttery mash, the whole shebang surrounded by a moat of jus so shiny you could almost see your face in it. And the chocolate tart was heavenly, liberally topped with candied pecans.

It wasn’t completely flawless – there are good tables and not quite so good tables, and we got the latter only to see later arrivals ushered to the former. And the pacing was a little breakneck, until we reined it in by ordering a bottle of dessert wine and two desserts, one after another, a life lesson I learned from Nora Ephron (and my friend Al). The dessert wine, by the way, a 1996 Coteaux de Layon, was ambrosial – honeyed and golden, so beautiful that somebody from a neighbouring table wandered over to ask what it was.

It was a full-sized bottle and the waiter told us we could save any leftovers, take them home and have them with our French toast in the morning. But that didn’t prove necessary, and we rolled out on to the street afterwards full and happy, drunk on life, drunk on Paris and drunk on all that wine. It was my birthday, after all.

13 rue Chapon, 75003 Paris

2. Double Dragon

Parcelles may have been the fanciest meal of my trip, but I think Double Dragon was my favourite. Out in the 11th arrondisement, this unpretentious and buzzy place served Filipino-French cuisine including some truly astonishing dishes.

Bao came filled with Comte and XO, a combination I would never have dreamt of in a million years: fortunately, Double Dragon did. A tartare made with smoked beef and Korean pickles, humming with gentle heat, might well have been the best tartare I’ve ever tasted. But the piece de resistance was the main, a huge piece of pork roasted, paraded in front of us and then taken away to expertly back into pieces.

It came back as an adventure playground of flesh and stunning crackling, ready to be eaten with plain white rice, papaya and a chill sauce with the sweet funk of something equidistant between gochujang and hoisin. This felt a million miles from chocolate-boxy tourist Paris, and all the better for it. When I return to the city, this will be at the top of my list to rebook.

Double Dragon
52 rue Saint-Maur, 75011 Paris

3. Cafe Du Coin

When I got to Café du Coin I discovered that there had been a mix-up with our reservation, which had been lost, so the only space left was up at the bar. We took it, even though it gave me a fantastic view, in a look what you could have won sort of way, of a bright, well-lit and convivial space being hugely enjoyed by other people. It is, as the name suggests, on a corner and looks like much of the decor hasn’t changed in seventy years (let’s just say, from this trip to Paris at least, that Formica is having something of a resurgence). But even so I instantly took to the place.

And the food, at lunchtime at least, was belting. A simple menu of three starters, two mains and three desserts where you take your pick and it’s yours for twenty-four Euros. No wonder the place was packed. Despite a single misfire – you can bread and deep fry tête de veau and serve it with the nicest kumquat ketchup on earth but nothing can completely conceal its true, worryingly wobbly nature – everything else was superb, whether it was a puffed up pizzette resplendent with scamorza and wild garlic pesto, a densely delicious ingot of bavette with roasted beetroot and crispy capers or a marvellous piece of pollock with bright peas, roasted cauliflower and a creamy sauce made with cime di rapa and tarragon.

For dessert we both devoured a stunning quenelle of chocolate ganache whose only fault was how quickly it vanished, with a sharp, fresh ice cream. Wines were six Euros by the glass and included an extraordinary orange Riesling from the Alsace, and by the end of the meal I would happily have gone back and eaten their food in a broom cupboard it it was all that was available. Do yourself a favour, do a better job of booking than I did and, if you’re ever in Paris, go.

Café du Coin
9 rue Camille Desmoulins, 75011 Paris

4. GrandCoeur

GrandCoeur, on some levels, is the restaurant you’re most likely to visit from this list – it’s a stone’s throw from the Centre Pompidou, so easy to work in as a pre-culture treat or a post-culture reward. It’s also formed a little tradition for me, being the last place I lunched in 2019 before catching the Eurostar home and playing the same role in 2023. It’s a really attractive room, all exposed stone and wood, marble tables and opulent banquettes, although – that Paris thing with the bad tables again – they initially sat us at a crap table looking out on a gloomy rain-spattered courtyard. The restaurant was empty at the time: what is it with that?

But the food! Well, the food redeems all. Zoë’s wagyu cecina with a few slices of pungent garlic bread was knockout, my hamachi served simply with toasted almonds, verdant coriander oil, blobs of ponzu gel and judiciously applied flakes of salt was as pristine and refined a dish as I enjoyed on my holiday. We both gravitated towards the same main, a square of slow-cooked lamb shoulder, surrendering to the fork, nestled on a sticky-sweet tumble of soft-edged sweet potato, shallot, dates and black sesame. If the dish had more of autumn than spring about it, it was far too tasty to quibble. That said, you could quibble the pace – everything came far too quickly (why is it that the more you spend in Paris, the quicker they seem to want to get rid of you?), so if you go make sure you get them to slow it down a little.

This, by the way, was the restaurant I mentioned at the start of the piece that one of my readers visited the week before I did on the strength of my recommendation. Happily, she loved it.

4 rue du Temple, 75004 Paris

5. Chez Janou

Now if we’re talking shit tables, Chez Janou gave us one of the shittest tables I’ve ever sat at. It was rammed into a corner of the restaurant which said “this is how we maximise our profits”. Zoë and I sat at right angles to one another: she was facing the wall, and I was facing a group of people at significantly better tables than ours. I honestly don’t know whose view was worse.

Fortunately, after a better table came clear I begged and cajoled and the super-efficient, patient wait staff let us move. And from that point on, it was all gravy (well, jus). Because Chez Janou is a packed, busy, madcap place serving Provencal cuisine, in that part of the Marais close to Place de la Bastille, and it’s a magical place to eat, provided you feel like you’re part of it.

The food isn’t really the point at Chez Janou – it’s very nice, not amazing, but not the whole of the Chez Janou experience. Despite saying that, everything we had was solid and, in its way, quite delightful. I had goats cheese baked with sweet tomato to start, the kind of dish made for dragging crusty bread through until not a mouthful remains. My tuna with braised fennel was a joy – and a huge, expertly cooked piece of tuna at that – and Zoë’s confit duck with duck fat roasted potatoes and a shimmering rosemary jus gave me a little stab of menu-based regret.

I don’t think Chez Janou is for everyone, and you have to throw yourself into it. We were sat next to a couple from Kent who seemed ill at ease. She had asked for the tuna but without the fennel and with the sauce on the side – Sally Albright she definitely wasn’t – whereas he’d accidentally ordered the entrecôte with salad and then had to flag a waiter down to ask for a separate helping of potatoes. I think they’d have been happier somewhere a little less French.

And they made the fatal mistake of not ordering the chocolate mousse: someone comes to your table, plonks a plate in the middle of it, dishes out an enormous dollop of it from an earthenware bowl, hands you two spoons and leaves you to it. Reason enough to go to Chez Janou in its own right, believe you me.

Chez Janou
2 rue Roger Verlomme, 75003 Paris

6. Le Petit Marche

Le Petit Marché, just tucked away off the Place des Vosges, is a restaurant with sentimental attachment for me. I’ve been eating there, whatever twists and turns my life has taken, for the best part of fifteen years. And in that time it really hasn’t changed – it’s a lovely corner spot on the edge of the Marais, it’s dark and cosy and conspiratorial, you sit cheek by jowl with all sorts of people, the wine by the carafe is fucking A and there are few better places to spend an evening. There are dishes on their menu I know so well I can close my eyes and imagine them now – cubes of just-seared, sesame-encrusted tuna with a couple of dipping sauces, or medallions of soft lamb with a basil cream sauce and the best mash in the world. In another life, on my frequent visits to Paris, it was the place I always ate on my first night. It’s how I knew I had arrived.

On this trip it seemed fitting to have my first meal there, for lunch on my birthday, which is how I learned that it’s just as pretty a restaurant in daylight, is ridiculously busy even then and has a real bargain of a set lunch. The first of the French season asparagus – asparagus was everywhere on my visit – was glorious, my blanquette de veau was exemplary, served with a mound of pearl barley and Zoë won lunch, as she often does, with a beautiful piece of haddock served with a sauce corail which was a thing of beauty. They even have a website now, something most French restaurants wouldn’t have been seen dead offering when I first set foot in Le Petit Marché, all those years ago.

Le Petit Marché
9 rue de Béarn, 75003 Paris

7. La Palette

One day we headed along the Seine and across the Pont des Arts, denuded of its legendary padlocks, on the way to the Left Bank and to Saint Germain des Pres, Paris’ most glamorous quartier and, I understand, the stomping ground of the really annoying eponymous heroine of Emily In Paris.

On the way, heading down roads lined with imposingly expensive-looking galleries, we stopped at La Palette, a ridiculously gorgeous street-corner cafe which has been around for yonks and, back in the day, played host to the likes of Cézanne and Picasso. It’s an unbeatable place to sit outside and watch people wafting past, wondering why everybody in Paris seems inevitably more stylish than their counterparts the other side of the Channel. It’s funny how gilet is a French word but somehow it’s hard to imagine that a Parisian would be seen dead in one. Of course, if they did I’m sure they’d carry it off, but I’m equally sure they’d draw the line at fleeces.

Anyway, this was a chance to indulge one of my favourite things – boards of cheese and charcuterie groaning with delectable things and far better than they needed to be, given what a great spot they have. Everything was spot on – small soft cheeses that had given up the fight for structural integrity and were ready to hang over the edge of the table, Persistence Of Memory-style. Multiple other cheeses, unnamed, a mixture of sharpness and tang, all magnificent in subtly different ways. A Comte and a blue, because no cheeseboard is complete without both. Dried ham and an abundance of cornichons to wrap it around, big hunks of saucisson sec to slice and chew in wordless glee. Cubes of terrine with a slight honk of offal, completely compelling, and a deep gamey rillette to slather on bread. Plenty of bread, by the way, with more when you ran out, and the most incredible unsalted butter to boot.

All that, Margaux by the glass and an endless parade of your fellow flâneurs wandering by, a procession you would join just as soon as the archetypal Paris lunch had come to an end. What could be better? Just one thing: finishing the meal with a tarte tatin, all soft apple and golden sunshine, or the most exquisite eclair, piped full of chocolate mousse. How are the French thin when they can eat like this? It must be that mythical quality, self-restraint, that I’ve heard so much about but never possessed.

La Palette
43 rue de Seine, 75006 Paris

Where to drink

1. Le Barav

I often make the mistake, on holiday, of having my main meal at dinner time. Well, it’s not a mistake per se (although Paris’ menus du jour can make lunching both a bargain and a pleasure) but it does mean that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found myself drinking in a cool bar only to have to grab my coat and scramble to a restaurant, or wandering past cool bars after my meal to find that I’m full, the bar is too and I just can’t face it. Just me?

I was determined not to make that mistake with Le Barav, a bar on the edge of the Marais that I’ve frequented and loved for years. So I had a decent lunch and made sure I was at Le Barav when it opened. There are no reservations, so we grabbed a table in their front room and started making inroads into the wine list.

It really is a wonderful place, and although it was empty when I got there every table was taken within a couple of hours, seemingly none of them by tourists other than mine. Again I got that sense of the real life of a city, not just the Instagram filtered kind (although of course I still put a picture on Instagram: you kind of have to).

The wine is great. Around a dozen – red, white, sweet and sparkling – are available by the glass and everything I tried was terrific. If you feel like really settling in, a bottle from their shop next door attracts a deeply modest corkage fee; I ended up buying something to take home, though I bet it tastes even better drunk on the premises.

Equally importantly, Le Barav has a superior range of bar food. Fuet, a Catalan salami, was sliced thin and fanned out on a plank. Saint Marcellin was baked with honey until it was a decadent, gooey mess, perfect for scooping up with torn baguette. Beef carpaccio was dressed with pesto and Parmesan, every mouthful a beauty. And toasted sandwiches with truffled brie or truffled ham were golden-striped from the grill, cut into meat triangles and perfect for sharing.

Many units and calories later I left my table with a heavy heart, hoping that the next people to sit at it would understand just how lucky they were.

La Barav
6 rue Charles-François Dupuis, 75003 Paris

2. L’Etincelle

Another leading light in the Great Formica Revival Of 2023, L’Etincelle (it means “spark”) is a fantastically scruffy, lively bar just off the Boulevard Beaumarchais. Inside it’s all neon and a slightly unreal pink light with a hugely varied crowd of hipsters, would-be hipsters and people who don’t give a shit whether they’re hip or not: naturally, they are the hippest of all. It reminded me very much of another bar I love, La Perle in the heart of the Marais, but the real difference here is the wine – much of it organic, natural, biodynamic stuff. But unlike some natural wines, everything I tried was intensely gluggable.

I managed to grab the last free table in the place – admittedly the one nearest to the lavatories – and had, as so often, that slight twinge of knowing that my search for the next big thing (the evening’s restaurant reservation, as usual) was depriving me of the opportunity of fully enjoying the current big thing. The menu contained bao and spring rolls, interesting stuff, and I could have consoled myself with the knowledge that it was probably crap. But then, just as we were about to head out into the night, I saw one of the staff bringing a plate of chips out from the kitchen. And wouldn’t you just know it, they were hand cut, irregular, golden and wickedly tempting. Damn it. Next time, I told myself. Next time.

3 rue Saint-Sebastian, 75011 Paris

3. Magnum La Cave

Arguably the yin to L’Etincelle’s yang, Magnum La Cave is a chic little wine bar in Village Saint Paul, a gorgeous, sleepy bit of the Marais that hides in plain sight between rue Saint Antoine and the river. It’s on rue Beautrellis – fun fact, this was where Jim Morrison spent his last night on earth, popping his clogs and joining the 27 club in the bath in an apartment just down the street – and I chanced upon it during a wander down to the Seine. We made a mental note, returned the next night and loved it.

Again, it has a great selection of wines by the glass, what look like a cracking set of small plates and the service was warm and welcoming. Again, I didn’t see any other tourists in there. And again, I left sooner than I wanted to with a dinner reservation to make. Perhaps that’s how I’ve been doing Paris wrong all these years. But what I was really thinking, as I shut the door behind me, is that Reading’s not really had anything like this – no, Veeno doesn’t bloody count – and I wish someone would take a chance on opening one. But I’ve been saying that every year for the last ten years, with a brief break when The Tasting House looked like it might become that sort of place, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I do it for the next ten, too.

Magnum La Cave
26 rue Beautrellis, 75004 Paris

4. Liquiderie

Liquiderie, on the other hand, I went to for a post-dinner drink after my stunning meal at Double Dragon, and I’m so glad I did. It’s deeper in the 11eme arrondisement, on the edge of Belleville, but easily walkable from the nearby restaurants earlier in this piece. It’s a really fantastic craft beer bar – not a side of Paris I’d ever seen before – with a friendly buzz and a proper neighbourhood feel.

Again, it has a good menu if you want something to accompany your drinks but really, it’s all about the beer here. Quite aside from an impressive fridge featuring lots of sours and lambics they have fourteen lines and plenty of names from home – Deya, Beak and Polly’s all make an appearance. But I wanted to try some of the local beer and had a devilishly sharp fruit beer (with a hint of Pickled Onion Monster Munch) and a elegant, restrained imperial stout from La Brasserie du Mont Salève, a little brewery near Annecy, along with a DIPA singing with Sabro and tonka from Brasserie Cambier, not far from Lille. Heaven for Untappd geeks like the person I have unexpectedly become, and the icing on the cake of a gorgeous evening.

7 rue de la Présentation, 75011 Paris

5. Yellow Tucan

Yellow Tucan was just round the corner from my hotel and it was a really welcome stop, post pain au chocolat, at the start of a day exploring the city. A far cry from the exposed chipboard not-especially-chic of many of the U.K.’s third wave coffee shops, it was a bright, tasteful yet calming space which, more importantly, did a very accomplished latte. Great merchandise too, so if you want a mug with their distinctive toucan on it, or an equally snazzy tote, this is the place for you. One of the latter found its way back to Reading in Zoë’s suitcase.

Yellow Tucan
20 rue des Tournelles, 75004 Paris

6. The Beans On Fire

First of all, hats off to the name: it’s not the most accurate reflection of what happens in the roasting process, I’m sure, but perhaps the owners are just really big fans of Julie Driscoll or Absolutely Fabulous. However they picked such a random moniker, I’m prepared to overlook it because TBOF’s coffee was among the nicest I tasted in the city. They have a nice little outside space in the 11eme arrondisement overlooking a little square – with a boules court! – and I liked it so much that, no higher praise than this, we gave up our plans for a pre-lunch amble and stopped for a second coffee.

A bag of their beans made it back to Reading in my suitcase, and when it makes it into the V60 I will remember a very happy morning shooting the breeze with no particular place to be. Incidentally they have a second branch in Montmartre, so it’s worth checking out if you’re making a visit to the Sacré Coeur.

The Beans On Fire
7 rue du Générale Blaise, 75011 Paris

7. Recto Verso

Many years ago, when I wrote a very different blog to this one, there was an American in Paris who wrote a blog called Lost In Cheeseland and we read one another’s stuff. Fast forward twelve years or so and Lindsey Tramuta – that’s her name – is the author of two authoritative books about the New Paris with an envy-inducing Instagram feed and almost a hundred thousand followers, while I’m sitting on my sofa writing this. Still, I bet she’s never eaten at Clay’s, the Lyndhurst or Kungfu Kitchen so who’s the real winner here, that’s what I’d like to know.

Recto Verso was a tip from her Instagram and is the newest venue in this piece, opening this month in a sidestreet off the rue des Archives. And it’s a really attractive spot, all stone and wood, reminding me of some of the cafés I’ve known and loved in Bologna, much further afield. We had just fought our way across one of the boulevards, the streets thronged with protestors and seemingly every sidestreet teeming with life, and we really, really needed a coffee. And there in that peaceful space I got quiet and caffeine, and the great reset button of life was gently pressed until you heard a click. Nothing mattered after that.

Incidentally, a street full of aerated Parisians is tricky to cross. But they should try getting across Friar Street this Sunday when the Reading half-marathon is on: these French agitators don’t know they’re born.

Recto Verso
6 rue Portefoin, 75003 Paris

(Click here to read more city guides.)


2 thoughts on “City guide: Paris

  1. Alfie

    Thanks so much for this! We were heading to Paris the Saturday after this was posted. We went to Cafe du Coin and GrandCeour. Cafe du coin was absolutely popping on a Monday night – it seemed to be full of locals and few tourists. Amazing food and vibes – what a find! Grandceour the more refined of the two but hugely warm and welcoming. The pithivier for our main was the highlight. Another place we really enjoyed was Bonjour Bonsior in Montmartre. A tiny place where the owner is the only waiter and there’s one chef you can see through the hatch in the tiny kitchen. Food and service was wonderful. Maybe one for your next trip! Thanks so much for the recommendations, they were both spectacular!

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