When in Paris as a visitor, the history and atmosphere of a restaurant—just how Parisian it is—matters a lot. It informs our dining experience, it satisfies our expectations, it reminds us that we’re in Paris! In this guest post, Doni Belau of Girls’ Guide to Paris suggests six brasseries that bring the goods in an authentic way.
Aux Lyonnais. Photo: Pierre Monetta
There’s nothing quite like your first night in Paris. Ideally it’s spent at one of the city’s historic bistros or brasseries, the kind that make you feel you’ve really arrived in the French capital. But nowadays, so many restaurants are owned by large restaurant groups or are so chock-full of tourists that you won’t even hear any French spoken. The experience might be diluted and disappointing. What’s a visitor to do?
Fret not, for there are still a few historic spots left in town that will give you that vrai Parisian atmosphere without making you feel like you’re stuck in a tourist trap.
1. La Palette, located in the 6th arrondissement just off the rue de Seine and its art galleries, has been frequented by artists since it opened in 1905: Cezanne, Picasso, and Braque were all once patrons. The food is fairly standard café or bistro fare; it is really the ambiance that draws one in here, as it’s long been a meeting place for artists studying at the Beaux Arts school around the corner. (You’ll see evidence of their work all over the walls.) In warm weather, the charming outdoor terrace is a particularly lovely place for a fast lunch or une verre (a glass) in the afternoon. Given the area, tourists will be around, but you’ll also see a lot of locals. And while service is French brusque, the atmosphere alone is well worth a stop. Price: 20-30 euros pp at lunch.
cafelapaletteparis.com; 43, rue de Seine; +33 (0)1 43 26 68 15
Photo: Pierre Monetta
2. Aux Lyonnais, a bistro dating back to 1890, has been revamped by none other than superstar chef Alain Ducasse, but none of its ambiance has been spoiled. You’ll quickly notice that the food and service is far superior to most bistros in town, and your waiters will likely speak perfect English. Nevertheless, you’ll be dining next to (mostly) French speakers. This place was restored to perfection; the tiled and mirrored walls, the vintage clock and floor tiles, the red banquettes, the dark wood staircase, and the period paintings add just the perfect touch. When the waiter comes over and offers you an aperitif, be sure to take some of the restaurant’s house white wine, poured from the biggest bottle you’ve ever seen. Even the frog legs are finger-licking good. Price: 50-70 euros pp at dinner.
auxlyonnais.com; 32, rue St Marc; +33 (0)1 42 96 65 04
3. Chez Georges feels as if nothing has changed, on the menu or inside, since it opened in 1968 in central Paris’s 2nd arrondissement. When I was last there, we noticed a very well-made-up woman in her eighties with her very genteel husband, taking their grandchildren out for a multicourse lunch. It was clear they’d been frequenting the place for decades; perhaps they had even dined next to Julia Child when she used to eat here. The food is served in enormous portions, so be sure to share. The restaurant is famous for its sardine starter, the sole Georges, and the steak au poivre. Price: 40-60 euros pp at lunch.
1, rue du Mail; +33 (0)1 42 60 07 11
Chez René. Photo: Sylvia Sabes
4. More vintage than antique, Chez René is a Lyonnaise outpost from the 1950s with art posters on the walls and a focus on comfort food. This would certainly be a family favorite if you lived nearby. Classic bistro dishes abound, such as confit de canard, boeuf Bourgogne, coq au vin, and green salad with warm goat cheese. Located right on Boulevard Saint-Germain, it is a great alternative to the more well-known, touristy (and less tasty) Le Procope. Price: 45-50 euros pp at dinner.
14, blvd. St.-Germain; +33 (0)1 43 54 30 23
5. Opened in 1908, Chardenoux, a belle epoque bistro, comes complete with antique tiles, a pewter bar, and classic French bistro fare ranging from tartare de boeuf and croquet monsieur to more innovative foie gras with macaroni. Chef and owner Cyril Lignac, from the Aveyron region, has worked with such masters as Alain Ducasse and Pierre Herme. The French version of the celebrity chef, Cyril is regularly seen on the French channel M6, the equivalent of the U.S.’s Cooking Channel. This bistro is classified as an historical monument, and the service is positively charming to boot. Price: 35-50 euros pp at dinner.
restaurantlechardenoux.com; 1, rue Jules Vallès; +33 (0)1 43 71 49 52
The terrace at Drouant. Photo: Marie Clerin
6. Beloved by Parisian society, Drouant is a notch above most historic restaurants in Paris. Charles Drouant, of the Alsace region, opened this bar and tobacco stand in 1880; it was a very modern concept at the time, and Drouant continues to innovate. The current chef, Antoine Westerman—also from the Alsace—produces thoroughly modern French cuisine. You’ll find no heavy sauces here, yet a nod to humbler beginnings is evidenced on the menu by the continuing presence of Alsatian sauerkraut, homemade paté, and oysters. Among the more interesting starters are the four mini-plates of seasonal vegetables (€26), each more delectable than the next. The interior is quite modernized, so you won’t notice as obvious a link to the past as the others on this list, but what you will find is a very elegant atmosphere, a serene and beautiful terrace, a stylish Parisian crowd, and absolutely delicious food. Price: 50-100 euros pp at dinner.
drouant.com; 16-18, place Gaillon; +33 (0)1 42 65 15 16
About the author: Doni Belau is the founder of GirlsGuidetoParis.com, an all-encompassing online city guide with more than 5,000 pages of fun ideas, services and insider tips for shopping in, dining in, and visiting Paris—all tested and selected with care by Doni and her team of locally based editors. GG2P offers readers a Travel Club, downloadable walking tours, and a weekly radio show.