Dining & Drinking, Paris
I read here that tourists had been drinking "French champagne" in a well known cabaret in Paris.
Actually "champagne" can only be French because no sparkling wine is allowed to call itself champagne if not produced in the area of Champagne (33.000 hectares). As a general rule, grapes used must be the white Chardonnay, or the dark-skinned "red wine grapes" Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.
The champagne producers are very strict on their label protection. Some years ago they sued a French manufacturer of perfumes because he used the word champagne for one of his perfumes bottled in a flask copying the champagne cork!
Nevertheless it might happen that a tourist is served a glass "champagne" which is in fact another sparkling wine. Probably he will not taste the difference because they produce in France sparkling wines by the "méthode champenoise" (double fermentation process) which are called "crémants" and are often very good. The method of production is nearly the same as champagne, the grapes "cépages" are from others parts of France.
Personally I often observed that the difference in taste between a good "crémant brut" at about 10 - 12 €/bottle in the shops is much smaller than the difference in price with a champagne. Well known commercial brands of champagne are sold in France and Belgium (we are the number 1 champagne drinker per capita outside France) at about 25 - 30 €/bottle in any shop large or small. Of course there are superior types of champagne like the "milésimés" vintages whose prices start at 50 € and can reach 400 €.
My preference goes to the "Crémant d'Alsace" but that's a question of taste. The grapes are: cépage pinot blanc, pinot gris, chardonnay or riesling.
Others might prefer a"Crémant de Bourgogne" or a "Crémant de Loire".
My philosophy is consequently champagne on the great occasions, crémant in daily life.
In most countries a brasserie = brewery is a place supposed to brew beer. Not in France where a brasserie is a place where one can drink beer, wine, coffee, sodas all the day but also eat breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The difference with a restaurant lies in the fact that the food served in a brasserie is generally (with exceptions) rather simple, less elaborate. Most served are salads, omelettes, toasts and steak frites. Nothing complicated to prepare especially at noon time when the brasseries are often full because employees have lunch there as well as people doing their shopping in the centre.
Do not assimilate the food of a brasserie to that of a Fast Food; there is an ocean of difference. A cultural difference and a dietetic difference. The problem of overweight is linked here to the "Burger" type food and the Parisiennes and Parisiens are, from what I observed, keen on staying slim especially in the areas with luxury shops like around La Madeleine or Place Vendome
You will see in a brasserie that most women eat salad. There are usually a dozen different ones on the menu. But even salad is not cheap in Paris, often around 12 € for a "Salade Caesar" type.
To be slim is a necessity when eating or drinking in a brasserie because the seats and the tables are so terribly close to each other.
Inside is non smoking; outside on the terrace is for smokers.
Back in Montmartre’s cabaret heyday in the late 19th century, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his fellow gang of merry artists and writers spent many an evening swimming in a hallucinogenic sea of absinthe.
Also known as the 'Green Fairy' , absinthe was an anisette-based liqueur with a bit of poisonous herbs that didn’t just get people drunk, but also apparently turned them mad.
So absinthe was banned and the party ended.
A few years ago it re-emerged in a legal version that tastes the same (a bit like pastis, which was the original absinthe alternative), minus the poisonous bits.
Of course, the new versions have different names, such as 'Versinthe'.
You can purchase it in most liquor stores in France, although it’s still sort of a novelty so don’t expect to see it served in the corner café.
There’s a method to serving it that involves a water tank with a spout, a flat silver spoon with holes in it, and sugar cubes.
If you’re interested in an introduction to the whole tradition, stop into the Hotel Royal Fromentin (11 rue Fromentin, 9th; right around the corner from Pigalle), a former cabaret known as Le Don Juan with a lovely bar specializing in absinthe.
Try popping in after dinner when the night staff aren’t too busy and can give you the full presentation. (And guests at the hotel even get a little color booklet about the history of the beverage)...see website below for more info.
I should not have been surprised to see wine tasting offered in the street market, but I was. We went with GUYON to rue Mouffetard for a stroll through the Sunday market which is wonderful. I don't know why anyone in this quartier cooks - you can just get everything you would want here. We did see some people doing serious wine tastings with appropriate reactions - "yum" or "yuck." I missed getting an actual taste, but the man in the photo is ready when you are. This little street has so many delightful shops you could spend all day just looking and eating. Even the buildings are artistically appealing. At the lower end of the street is the Church of St. Medard and graveyard where, in the 18th Century, miracles were reported years ago involving the 'miraculous' healing associated with a leader buried there. Eventually a sign was erected forbidding God from performing miracles here by order of the king. It was probably not official but there is now an official sign denoting the history.
Parisians take their food VERY SERIOUSLY! It's almost like a religion. Recently they pared down their work week from 40 hours to 35 and one of the reasons, I'm certain, is to enjoy those long lingering lunches with family & friends and to get home earlier so that they can linger over their dinners as well.
When dining in a nice bistro or brasserie, especially if it's a place with a fine reputation, expect to spend at least 1-1/2 hours to 3 hours for lunch and even longer for dinner. They want you to enjoy the food, to savor, have time to digest it, drink in the surroundings, engage in discussion with people at the next table. In fact, a great many restaurants are open for only several hours for lunch, they close, then open up again later for dinner!
People who rush through a meal are looked at rather askance! Why you haven't had a chance to even taste the food! It's practically an insult to rush through a meal.
If you want something quick yet Parisian, your best bet is to go to a café (although these are great places to linger over, too). You can stop in a café, order just an omelette, or quiche, or salade, crêpe, drink a quick cafê and be off to the next musée or jardin. For even quicker (and cheaper) service, stand at the comptoir (bar). It's quick, stand-up service.
I have fond memories of Le Vieux Bistro - I had a wonderful time there, spent almost 3 hours - I will definitely go back there!
Please click on the photo at left to view the full ménu!
Photo: April 2003
Follow the mist from the Seine that drifts into the city just before dawn, clinging to bridges and lampposts---start early to capture Paris at its famed black-and-white best.
Begin your day with a visit to the neighborhood bakery that spins out warm, flaky treats each morning, and enjoy these tasty delicacies all day, or lunch on a sandwich of apples, brie, and sweet walnuts at the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes.
Spend a rainy afternoon (you're sure to have at least one) taking tea in a 'salon de thé' and then while away the evening in a piano bar, sipping a whiskey and listening to Piaf impersonators.
Or, you might try lunch at a bistro---you won't be disappointed; beautifully trimmed with brass, these neighborhood locales serve up well-sauced plats and fine red wines.
Paris will still be there waiting for you after your meal.
Europe's capital of culture, the city has more movie theaters and film festivals than any other on earth.
You might be fortunate enough to catch Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Quai des Orferes," a detective thriller that won Clouzot the best director prize at the 1947 Venice Film Festival.
The real delight of this 'film noir' is in its mood and atmosphere. From the seedy music halls of Menilmonant to the dank police headquarters of the Quai des Orferes, it captures the underbelly of post-World War II Paris in the most glorious black and white you've ever seen.
But...if you miss this one, there are always others....this IS Paris, after all.
In French restaurants you don't have to order wine or bottled water. We always get a "carafe d'eau" (pitcher of tap water) for free. It is perfectly all right to ask for this; no one will think you either strange or cheap. We often get a bottle or glass of wine as well, but not always. We have noticed many people do this, especially if they are driving.
If you want to save money, there are lots of ways to do it. When you do order wine, be sure you know how much you are paying for it. The one time we didn't ask, we ended up with a 54 euro bottle of wine. It was good wine but that is way beyond what we will usually pay. We learned a lesson . . . always ask.
Part of the absolute charm of being in Paris is the custom of enjoying an aperitif. You will see all Parisians doing this and you should take their cue and do the same.
Two types of aperitif are kir and pastis. Kir is made with a mixture of white wine and creme of cassis which is a black currant liqueur. It is pure heaven. To spike it champagne is added and then it's called a kir royal.
Pastis is an aniseed flavored drink. It's served alongside a glass of water and you mix them together. Usually it's about a 1:5 ratio (one part pastis to 5 parts water). The mixture will look milky hence it's nickname 'the milk of Provence'. Due to aniseed it is licorice flavored.
So order up one of the above and savor it slowly. It leads to the upcoming meal which is eaten slowly and itself savored. No rush at all when you're dining in Paris.
It is easy to confuse menu (in English) with menu (in French). They are two different words. What is referred to as a menu in English is called a "carte" in French. In French the menu is a prix fixe choice of set menu items for a specific price. (The one price is for all the items listed for that particular prix fixe menu.) Sometimes the "menu" is called a Formula or the Special du Jour. All of these are a selection of set dishes at the given price. There may be only one or you may have 3 or 4 different Menus at different prices.
First, you ask for the Carte to get a list of food offerings. Next, when you read the carte, you will see one or more menus offered at one or more prices. Each "menu" is quite specific as to what you may order, e.g. a starter, a main course and a dessert. You may have a choice of several items in each section . . . or for a very inexpensive prix fixe menu, you may have no choice at all. You take what they give you. (Don't worry, it's usually great.)
When you order a menu, you simply call it by the price, e.g. I would like the 25 euro menu. If there are choices on that menu, the waiter will then ask what you want in each section. If it's a 25 euro menu, the cost is 25 euros for whatever is listed under that menu on your carte.
You will be charged for drinks unless they are listed as part of the menu. You may ask for a carafe of tap water and no one will think you odd. Ask for a "carafe d'eau." If you just ask for water, you may get mineral water and it's expensive.
You can also order "a la carte" or off the carte. Then you may choose anything you like. If you order several courses a la carte, it can be very expensive, often nearly twice as much as a menu. The prix fixe menu choices are a great bargain. In cheaper restaurants they are often the best tasting items on the menu because that is what the locals will order and the chef knows better than to provide poor food for his bread & butter clients.
A word to the wise: You will not get your bill until you ask for it. "L'addition, s'il vous plais." The waiters will not interrupt your dinner or your conversation so you must ask for the bill. If you don't, you may sit there all night waiting for it. It's considered rude to put it on the table while you are eating or talking . . . cultural difference. This is unfortunately slowly changing but is still the norm.
The service charge is usually added to the bill . Check for the words "Service compris" or just "SC" to see if service is included. It is okay to round up the amount to the nearest euro.
The institution of the French cafe has taken a beating from fast food and the frenetic pace of modern life ... yet some of the cafes survive and thrive!
Some basic rules: If you order at the bar, eat/drink at the bar. The prices are different between the bar and the tables. Once you have ordered something the table is yours until you decide to move. This young couple on Rue de Buci can stay there as long as they like! Service is included so the normal policy is to round up to the next euro.
In America, the expectation is fast and efficient service. It's rare for your drink or meal to be anyway near finished without a waiter asking how everything is and whether you need another drink. And when your meal is finished, the check typically comes quickly in an effort to get you up and on your way. That is how we do things.
That is not how things are typically done in France. I think the secret is to just relax and go with the flow. Hey, you are on vacation. What's the rush! And when your waiter does come, be aware that it may be a while before he or she comes back.
And bringing the check may not be automatic.
"J'ai fini. L'addition, s'il vous plait" (I'm finished. The check, please.) is a good way to practice your French and let them know you are ready to go.
The Place des Vosges in the Marais is a wonderful place to catch the Parisians in non-posing action. Amid the beautiful square are little parcs where the locals bring their bébés to play.
As I passed thru one day, I saw a young, chic maman trying to get her child to slide down a 2-foot 30º-angle slide and watched a little 3- or 4-year old expertly kicking around a soccer ball.
This is also a beautiful place to stroll when the hubbub of the Marais wears you down. Listen to the playful rush of the fountain as you admire the lovely apricot glow of the ancient buildings surrounding you.
Then stop off for un café at one of the sidewalk terrasse cafés (Ma Bourgogne or Nectarine) surrounding the square; a prime opportunity to people-watch and not nearly as touristy as the Champs-Elysées or St-Germain-des-Près.
Nearby is the Maison de Victor Hugo.
Photos: Feb 2006
I ate at the Restaurant Le Camélia and recommend it highly to gastronomes. Then I walked through the town and along the Seine, also highly recommended. It's really fantastic to get away from Paris traffic to spend a few hours in a village atmosphere only minutes away.
I know you can do all that in Versailles, and I love the sculptures and parks there, but by now, in my experience, I prefer places like Bougival, where artists used to go and paint.
In France, this golden crown of puff pastry with a creamy almond filling is the traditional dessert for Epiphany or Twelfth Night (January 6), the day the three Kings visited the baby Jesus. To add to the fun of the celebration, little charms are traditionally baked into the cake – we use small beans. The lucky person who gets the piece of cake with the charm wins a crown and is king for the day.
In the older days, the person who was King was expected to buy a round of drinks for the assembly! Some people were poor, and if they found themselves with the bean in their mouth they swallowed it! It is said that this is why nowadays pottery or porcelain charms are used.
Some of these charms are beautiful and are collectors' items. Most pastry shops have their own collection for the year, and will sell them off when January is over. Even a few years ago these "galettes" were only on sale for a few days on either side of January 6th; now they can be found right through January
Lo, the shiny brass comptoir! In any bar in Paris it is the cheapest place to get a drink. Go to the bar, order a drink, pay cheaper & drink it there. Prices go a bit higher if you go to a table & even higher on le terrasse, which affords fab people-watching.
This one is located at Tabac le Marly - 252 rue de Rivoli.