I'd feel cheated if I traveled to Paris and could only afford to eat in bistros. Or drink coffee at a café standing up at the bar. (It's cheaper than sitting at a table.) Or order only pâté sandwiches and Beaujolais at wine bars. But with the dollar so weak, many of the city's newest and most ambitious restaurants are ludicrously expensive. You want dinner at La Table de Joël Robuchon, the superstar chef's latest ingredient-driven outlet? Get ready to pay about $130 a person.
But I discovered on a recent trip that restaurants in Paris are still a great value no matter the cost, because the overall experience is so satisfying. In place after place, I found the freshest ingredients, endless creativity and waitstaff who were knowledgeable without being arrogant. Getting reservations was easy, too, now that the discouraging exchange rate is making Americans thin on the ground. (At press time, the exchange rate was 78 cents to the euro.) Even so, it helps to know where the best bargains are. Here, my strategies for dining out on a budget.
Book a Table at a Grocer's
I made one of my biggest discoveries in what seems like an unlikely location: an épicerie, or grocery store. At the year-old Les Papilles, one of Paris's newest food-shop-cum-restaurants, you get a four-course, $39 prix-fixe meal good enough to be served on fine linen, instead of on a small wooden table squeezed against shelves, with shoppers reaching over your head. Chef and owner Bertrand Bluy's portions, served on tables crowded with orchids in vases and sea salt in shot glasses, are very generous, so sharing is not only sensible but perfectly acceptable. And you can buy one of the store's reasonably priced wines—like the $32 Bourgueil from artisanal Loire producers Catherine and Pierre Breton—to drink with your meal.
It probably would have been cheaper to make dinner at home with ingredients bought at Les Papilles (the name means "taste buds"). But Bluy, who used to be the pastry chef at the Michelin three-star restaurant Taillevent, is a better cook than I am.
As part of his four-course menu, Bluy set out a white porcelain tureen of velvety artichoke soup; the foie gras mousse, shaped into two little eggs and placed at the bottom of the empty bowl, melted creamily when I ladled the steaming soup over it. Bluy uses the same supplier Taillevent does for his incredibly tender and flavorful hanger steak, which he featured in his petite marmite du jour (a kind of blue-plate special in a covered copper casserole). The pan-seared meat with carrots and spring onions, all seasoned with cumin seeds in a thyme-infused veal broth, was wonderful. After the steak came a cheese course—a soft, runny slice of Sainte-Maure chèvre with greens and a tapenade tartine—and, for dessert, the same silky crème brûlée Bluy used to make at Taillevent for customers, who paid much more.
Follow the Young Protégés
Another clever way to eat cheaply and well in Paris is to track down the young, up-and-coming chefs who, like Bluy, trained at Michelin-starred restaurants. Over the past ten years, these cooks, starting out on their own or working with first-time restaurateurs, have created an entirely new genre, the gastro-bistro, devoted to spins on the classics at modest prices. The original gastro-bistro, La Régalade, inspired dozens of others—most recently L'Ami Jean, L'Ourcine and La Famille, to name just a few.
The 18-month-old Café Moderne is one of the youngest of the bunch, with 29-year-old chef Sébastien Altazian—who trained with Michelin-starred chefs Michel Rostang and Guy Savoy—in the kitchen. I had doubts about getting to Café Moderne in time to try the three-course, $39 prix-fixe menu I'd heard so much about. I was delayed and didn't arrive for lunch until almost two in the afternoon, near the time French restaurateurs typically close the kitchen. But when I got there, the plush red banquette was still packed with media people and bankers. (There are five banks within a short stroll of the restaurant, which is across the street from the Bourse, Paris's old stock market.) Fréderic Hubig, a co-owner, caught me eyeing a dish of fresh-caught langoustines. "I'm delighted to have you here for a late lunch," he said. "But, unfortunately, at this hour the kitchen has run out of the daily special." That wasn't entirely a disaster, because I was already having trouble choosing from among Altazian's offerings.
Café Moderne isn't really a café, and Altazian does more than cook the hard-boiled eggs you see on every café counter. As a starter on the fixed menu, for instance, he lightly breaded soft-boiled eggs then fried them so the yolk flowed onto a silken spinach puree and mixed with strips of crispy, salty bacon. His lamb shoulder entrée was cooked until it was falling off the bone, then shredded and packed into a ramekin lined with dried, plumped apricot halves. What a great idea. Dessert, a molten chocolate cake, was more predictable, but absolutely perfect.
The restaurant's affordability extends to the wine. "I get lost looking at a regular wine list," Hubig told me. So at Café Moderne he arranged the choices by price. And he loves sharing co-owner David Lanher's discoveries. He directed me to a $35 bottle of 2003 La Vieille Ferme Perrin, from Provence's vanguard Côtes du Ventoux wine region. This easy-drinking, fruity red just kept getting better as I sipped it with lunch. Serious wine drinkers will want reservations at Café Moderne's Monday-night Grand Cru dinners, when the restaurant pours wines like Château Guiraud Sauternes 1er Cru classé and Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste Pauillac Cru classé—at cost!
Eat at a Cooking School
Having a student cook for you is guaranteed not to cost much, but you never know just how well the pupil has learned the lessons. Two cooking schools in Paris, however, offer an amazing (if charmingly imperfect) culinary experience. The four-course meal at the fourth-floor restaurant of the École Supérieure de Cuisine Française Ferrandi, for instance, includes a vast selection of cheese and costs only $23, $28 or $45, depending on the day of the week and who's cooking (second- or third-year students).
My meal was, for the most part, surprisingly good. The menu is not a rehash of Escoffier's 20th-century classics but composed of completely contemporary recipes, such as roasted sea bass in a red wine sauce and thyme-scented rabbit with a potato gratin and caramelized onions. The service is chancier than the food, because the waitstaff includes many first-year students; my server had to hide the chocolate tart because half of it skidded across the floor when he tried to slice it in front of me. Though mortified, he persevered with grace.
For the best possible deal, take a lunchtime cooking class at the eight-month-old Atelier des Chefs—then eat what you make. For $20, you spend 30 minutes in a modern, glass-enclosed kitchen with up to 21 other students, making a one-dish meal under the direction of an instructor. The day I was there, the teacher was Jean-Sébastien Bompoil, a young, English-speaking chef from the Ritz. There are no recipes and practically no lecturing; you get to work as soon as you've washed your hands and donned a plastic apron. There was at least as much chattering as cooking going on as my fellow students and I companionably shared the tasks of peeling potatoes to make mashed potatoes with olive oil and scallions, and paring off the thin, viscous membrane that surrounds a monkfish fillet. We pushed chunks of fish flavored with salt, pepper, lemongrass and olive oil onto lemongrass skewers and took turns pan-frying them before it was time—too soon—to move into the adjoining room for lunch. The two brothers who created the Atelier, François and Nicolas Bergerault, have taken pains to make the lunch more than an afterthought. You can buy a glass of wine to have with your meal, as well as cheese, coffee and dessert, which you can linger over at the small bar.
Go to the Grand Restaurants at Lunch
While top-drawer restaurants aren't giving the food away, many of them do offer the deal of the century at lunch—often a complete prix-fixe meal for the cost of a single entrée on the à la carte menu. Le Grand Véfour, Le Cinq and Le Bristol, among others, all have fabulous prix-fixe menus for under $105.
One of the least expensive with the most choices is the set lunch menu at the Hôtel Meurice's Le Meurice, on the Rue de Rivoli across from the Tuileries Gardens. Chef Yannick Alléno has garnered two Michelin stars and a great deal of buzz since he took over a year ago, and he has lots of impressive customers; I sat near the daughter of the President of Gabon, who was celebrating her marriage at the Meurice that afternoon. Yet Alléno is ferocious about giving good value. For $87, I was served a meal that included the same amuse bouche as the new bride, but I forgot to write down exactly what it was because I was too distracted by the Meurice's gilded, Corinthian-columned, laurel-wreath-motif opulence. The baby-lamb chops in the fricassée des Pyrénées might have been too fearsomely tiny for some people—they were the size of a man's thumb—but I loved the way the roasted pink meat contrasted with the dark, deeply flavored pieces of braised lamb shoulder. There were truffles, along with apples, celery and chestnuts, in the broth surrounding my beautifully roasted scallops. And the menu even included foie gras, which came in a terrine layered with quince, a notoriously hard fruit that Alléno managed to make as tender as the duck liver. The sommelier steered me to the wine list's most interesting and affordable handcrafted wines, including a spectacular $49 bottle of 2003 Domaine St. Nicolas Fiefs Vendéens.
Trust in Serendipity
I don't know exactly why Angl'Opéra, Gilles Choukroun's year-old restaurant, is so inexpensive. The $49 I spent for an à la carte meal was stunningly modest, given the quality of the food, which is some of the most wonderful and inventive in Paris.
The restaurant is on the ground floor of the Hôtel Edouard VII on a corner of the Avenue de l'Opéra. I didn't love the awkward room, which is shaped like a pie wedge, or the clichéd Christian Liaigre style: dark wood and striped velvet banquettes with red and green throw pillows. But I've hardly ever tasted anything as good as Choukroun's $14 fried langoustines, coated with bread crumbs and ground pistachios and served with a salad of cilantro and sliced, blanched almonds dressed with olive oil and chile pepper. You want to scrape and suck the langoustine shells to get every bit of the crust. Some of his ideas are just so smart: I adored his roasted duck magret served with a reduced beet juice sauce, because the richness and sweetness were balanced by earthy green lentils and a shot glass of the lentil cooking liquid. It was as memorable a dish as any I've had in the past few years—and at $25, I left with enough money to start planning a return trip to Paris.