French food isn't all about haute cuisine and fine dining – some of the best food to be enjoyed in Paris can be bought for a couple of euros from a humble boulangerie. Here's our pick of the gastronomic highlights.
Don't leave Paris without trying...
1. Steak frites
For the quintessential bistrot dish, steak frites, head to one of Paris’ atmospheric French brasseries, complete with brass fittings, linen tablecloths (red gingham optional) and smart, aproned waiting staff. These restaurants are so integral to the city’s dining scene, even multi-Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse has opened one: Champeaux in Les Halles.
The simple pairing of a grilled steak with various optional sauces and chips is elevated to serious heights when the meat is well selected and carefully matured, and the potatoes are fresh, hand-cut and double-fried. Choose your cut of beef, your ‘cuisson’ (order ‘à point’ for medium-rare) and a sauce, be it Béarnaise or peppercorn, and crunch those crispy frites with a side order of squeaky haricots verts.
Try making your own classic French steak with pommes frites with our easy recipe.
2. A cocktail at the Bar Hemingway
The city’s most famous bar is tucked away inside The Ritz and celebrates the life and work of its most famous barfly, Ernest Hemingway. Try a sublime cocktail mixed by legendary British barman Colin Field, who has run the bar since 1994.
His two signature cocktails are the Serendipity, which mixes calvados with fresh mint, sugar, ice and champagne, and the Clean Dirty Martini, which features a frozen cube of olive juice at its centre. You’ll have to guess the other ingredients – Field says he is taking the recipe to his grave.
Until supreme patissier Pierre Hermé reinvented these small, smooth meringues filled with ganache, they were a fairly unassuming item in the extensive range of French patisserie, coming in just four flavours: vanilla, chocolate, coffee and raspberry. This delicate pastry has taken the world by storm but its birthplace is resolutely Paris.
Hermé took these colourful treats to another level with flavours such as lemon, orange blossom and Corsican honey (this is called the Jardin de l’Atlas) and rose, lychee and raspberry (the Ispahan). For those who like one flavour only, his ‘Infiniment’ range takes one ingredient – lemon, chocolate, coffee and many others – and uses it to create different layers of flavour in one macaron. Macarons are two-bite delights, but it is worth seeking them out from reputable pastry shops that actually make their own – many just hop on the bandwagon and sell factory-made ones that aren’t worth your time or dime – and go easy on the rainbow-style food colourings.
4. Israeli food
The French aren’t known for embracing the cuisine of other cultures, but Paris is currenlty undergoing a gastronomic revolution and the focus of many chefs is Israeli food. One of the hottest tables in town is at Balagan where chefs Assaf Granit and Dan Yosha and their team are serving fresh, vibrant vegetable, fish and meat dishes lifted with perfectly pitched spices, tahini and citrus.
For the best seat in the house, grab a stool at the kitchen counter and enjoy the chefs’ theatrics as they serve dishes, sing and knock back shots of cucumber and mint-enhanced absinthe.
This brasserie staple originally hails from Alsace, the border region in eastern France, but it came to the French capital at the end of the 19th century when the region was annexed by Germany and refugees fled to Paris. Choucroute is the French word for sauerkraut, a huge serving of white cabbage cooked in riesling, duck or pork fat, with herbs and garlic and topped with sausages and pork knuckle.
It’s the perfect dish to share between two, and at Bofinger (which boasts stunning art nouveau décor and a glorious stained glass atrium) it's served on a heated stove so it stays warm as you work your way through it.
6. Cédric Grolet’s Patisserie
Is it really an orange? As you slice into its shell, you soon realise patissier Cédric Grolet’s extraordinary desserts are something very special – this is actually mousse filled with mandarin and timut pepper compote. At just 32 years old, Grolet has established a worldwide following (mostly thanks to his Instagram account) for his fruit desserts, which look every bit like the real thing.
Each one takes around a week to complete, from the outer shell made with cocoa butter, to the mousse and compote inside. Grolet and his team make around 200 a day, serving only the best to teatime guests at Le Meurice, a luxury hotel on the Rue de Rivoli.
7. A baguette
French President Emmanuel Macron has called for the French baguette to be given UNESCO recognition, but many Parisian bakers have already ordained their baguettes with a superior status. An annual competition to find Paris’ best baguette (official title: Grand Prix de la Baguette Tradition Française de la Ville de Paris) has been running since 1994, and each year the baker of the best loaf wins a medal, €4,000 and the chance to supply the Elysée Palace for a year. Don’t forget to tear off the crusty, still-warm tip and nibble on it as you walk away, as any self-respecting Parisian does.
8. Jacques Genin chocolates
While the internationally-famous Ladurée and Pierre Hermé carve out their global operations, the chocolatier of choice for discerning Parisians is Jacques Genin. Head up to his elegant boutique and salon de thé (133 Rue de Turenne) not far from Place de la République to indulge in his exquisite and unusual flavours such as caper and basil, to sublime effect.
9. Coffee (or tea)
‘Un café’ used to mean just one thing, a bitter espresso consumed alongside a Gauloise cigarette (possibly while contemplating existentialism) but over the last few years Parisians have embraced a new generation of good coffee, where beans are carefully chosen, roasted and brewed. Taste it in the surrounds of one of Paris’ trendy coffee shops, many of which have sprung up near the hip districts of Canal Saint-Martin or The Marais.
It’s not all about the flat whites and latte art, however. Tea (or thé) predates the coffee trend, with elegant salons de thé attracting a well-heeled clientele to try such brands as Mariage Frères or Dammann Frères – but before you come over all English, these are consumed without milk. One of the most elegant and popular salons de thé is Angelina on the Rue de Rivoli, where tea and coffee should come with their signature patisserie, Le Mont Blanc.
10. Rhum baba
This dense cake with rum and vanilla cream dates from the 18th century and owes its place in French culinary history to King Stanislaus of Poland, who was exiled in Lorraine. The king had fond memories of raisin brioches served with Tokaji wine and so charged his chef, Nicolas Stohrer, with the task of recreating the dish, which he named rhum baba in keeping with his passion for the Arabian Nights stories.
When Stanislaus’ daughter Marie married King Louis XV, Stohrer relocated to Paris and opened his own bakery, and the rhum baba’s Parisian future was sealed. Chef Alain Ducasse adores the dessert and it's a signature dish in many of his Parisian restaurants.
Most brasseries and cafés in Paris offer non-stop service, and a staple of their menu is the croque-monsieur, an oozy and crisp grilled ham and cheese sandwich usually moistened by a touch of béchamel sauce. If you’re extra hungry, get the croque-madame, which adds a fried egg on top.
Try making your own… croque-monsieur
12. Duck confit
Originally devised to preserve fresh duck meat for future consumption, the confit method consists of cooking duck thighs in their own fat, until the meat is spectacularly moist and fork-tender. Few Parisian bistros make their own, but they pride themselves in selecting the best producer, typically from the southwest of France, and serve them seared until the skin turns golden and crisp. The classic side is pommes sarladaises, heavenly garlicky potatoes sautéed in duck fat. (And duck fat is good for you, right?)
Try making your own… confit duck
Like all city dwellers, Parisians often need to eat on the go, and the jambon-beurre is the most Parisian of sandwiches. You can buy it from corner bakeries or order it from the counter at most cafés; in both cases it will come as a fresh half-baguette, its insides smeared with cool butter and garnished with ‘jambon de Paris’, a pink-hued cooked ham, with optional cornichons.
14. Raw-milk artisanal cheeses
Paris is truly the gastronomic hub of France, and nowhere is it more apparent than in cheese shops, where you can buy the makings of a cheesy Tour de France and taste your way through each region’s stars, from the mildest to the sharpest. Always favour raw-milk cheeses (unless you have a compromised immunity) and ask the vendor what’s best right now, as the production of artisanal cheeses is a seasonal affair.
Walk past any bakery in the wee hours of the morning and you’ll be instantly spellbound by the warm buttery smell of fresh croissants escaping from the air vents at pavement level. This is your cue to step in and get your golden prize, which you can tuck into and savour on your morning walk as the city awakens. Sadly, fewer and fewer French bakeries make their croissants from scratch – they buy them frozen instead – so it’s worth asking to make sure your boulanger still engages in that noble, delicious craft.
Try making your own… croissants
Named after a long-established bicycle race that sees competitors cycle from Paris to the tip of Brittany, this is among the best-sellers in Parisian pastry shops. The wheel-shaped choux pastry shell garnished with praline buttercream and sprinkled with caramelized almonds is guaranteed bliss for sweet lovers.
Try making your own… mini white chocolate Paris-Brest
17. Street-stand crêpes
Walking around Paris, you’ll see street stands selling crêpes everywhere. One of the few truly native street foods, the crêpe is indeed a lovely treat to indulge in when it’s time for an afternoon snack. Be sure to pick a stand that cooks crêpes to order (rather than reheating them from a pile cooked earlier), makes them thin (nothing worse than a gummy, undercooked crêpe) and is kept spotlessly clean. Though you may be tempted to try all kinds of stuffings, serious aficionados stick to the beurre-sucre (butter and sugar) for the true, unadulterated crêpe experience.
Try making your own… crêpes
Clotilde Dusoulier is the French food writer behind Chocolate & Zucchini, a blog that’s all about the fresh, simple, and seasonal foods she cooks in her Paris kitchen.
Check out our ultimate foodie guide to Paris for more essential travel info and must-read guides on our travel hub.
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What's your favourite French food? Leave a comment below...
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