Berets and cool stripy sweaters aside, food is the cornerstone of French culture, and French food is widely considered to be the best in the world. Why? Because it’s delicious, made to a high standard, and with fresh, seasonal ingredients... or at least, it was.
These days, even the folks at Michelin are giving Japan the accolades, and the diet of the average Parisian is beginning to closely resemble that of the average American eater -- and not the organic Whole Foods super-vegans, either. The fat kind. So why is this, what's to be done about it, and more importantly, where can you still get the good stuff?
Outside of the US, who has the most McDonald’s? Yup, it's the home of Freedom Fries itself, France. When Burger King opened up in Paris in November, people stood in line an hour and a half to order. As it turns out, the French love their fast food, and more importantly, they love burgers. In a recent study, 1/3 of restaurants cited the hamburger -- sorry, "le hamburger" -- as their top-selling dish. Which is probably why one out of every two sandwiches sold in France is in fact, a hamburger. In 2007, it was one out of every seven. Au revoir jambon beurre.
The fallout is that nowadays about one in 10 adults in France is obese, and almost 40% of the entire population is overweight.
So, uh, what the hell France?? Where did it all go wrong? Well, for one, the rise of the supermarket has pushed traditional food artisans out and processed foods in. In fact, 2/3 of the food market is controlled by food giants, and French-based Carrefour is the world’s second largest retailer after Walmart. Actually, hypermarkets -- the big box chains where you can buy a power drill, a Friends season two box set, and a bottle of whiskey in one place -- account for more than half of all of France’s food purchases.
But that’s at home. Restaurants must be different, right? Nope! The epidemic of low-grade food in the restaurant industry has gotten so bad that the government has literally had to step in, voting in a law that will require restaurants to label whether or not their food is made in-house -- as opposed to industrially pre-made meals that are nuked in a microwave -- indicated by the marking “fait maison”.
But good French food hasn’t disappeared in Paris. It's still Paris, after all. It's just gotten slightly harder to find. The scene is changing, and the city is embracing a far more diverse set of food cultures. The city is full of great restaurants, they're just not necessarily all French anymore.
As for the homegrown stuff? Here are six great spots, that make everything in house, with a little pride, and don't charge a zillion Euros for the privilege:
If you want truly local, seasonal fare then look no further than Terroir Parisien. Yannick Alléno’s spot is devoted to reviving French classics using local ingredients (and when we say local we mean hyper-local, hence the name).
The latest in the fresh and open neo-bistros, Caillebotte is a popular place for discerning locals and the staff is known for being... wait for it... astoundingly nice and helpful. It's clean fresh food that’s creative enough to remind you that you’re in the French gastronomic capital.
Pierre Sang in Oberkampf
No reservation, no menu, no telephone -- despite barely qualifying as a restaurant, this spot's got a Top Chef finalist, Pierre Sang, at the helm, and the food is reasonably priced (an astoundingly cheap 35€ tasting dinner menu) along with the wine.
Cafe Trama has a classic Paris resto feel and puts the focus on good, quality ingredients. This is simple, tasty cooking done well (truffled Croque Monsieur, folks), and they're also known for a good list of all-natural wine.
Le Verre Volé
A cave a vin near Canal Saint Martin, you can pop in to Verre Volé to snag a bottle of bubbles to go and drink by the water or you can stay for dinner. It’s small and cozy and jammed full of wine bottles, and's kind of the quintessential Parisian experience you always imagined it might be.
Du Pain et des Idées
Bakeries have the same problem as restaurants, and while you might think you’re getting a freshly made baguette, there’s a large chance the dough was popped in the oven frozen. Not so at Du Pain et des Idées. Baker Christophe Vasseur spends 48hrs letting his Pain des Amis rise. Not to mention his croissants, which are faultlessly crispy.
If you want truly local, seasonal fare then look no further than Terroir Parisien. Chef Yanick Alleno’s spot is devoted to reviving French classics by using local ingredients, ensuring all dishes are as fresh as possible.
At Caillebotte you’ll get a marble tabletop at the bar, things doused in fancy sauces, and lots of smoked and steamed options (how 'bout oysters?). There’s even a family garden that supplies some of the vegetables on your plate, so you know your food is fresh.
Don't try to make a reservation (you can't), don't try to call (there's no phone number to call them), and don't ask for a menu (they don't have 'em). But what they do have is a Top Chef finalist chef and reasonably priced (and delicious) food.
This cafe with an Art-Deco design serves up classic French fare using only fresh ingredients and produce, and there is plenty of foie gras and charcuterie for your French fix.
It might not be the biggest resto/wine bar, but it's cozy and is great for dinner and a glass of vino (or just snag a bottle to go!).