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15 Guidelines for Eating in Paris

Culinary Deals and Delights

1. Choose a good food guidebook. Although Michelin and Gault-Millau are the "official" food books for the French, for my money you're better served with the Time Out Paris Eating & Drinking Guide or the Zagat Guide to Paris. Both give you the skinny on what real people like or don't like. If you have time for a longer read, get Patricia Wells' Food Lover's Guide to Paris. It's too heavy to carry around while traveling, but it is absolutely reliable.

2. Study your map of Paris. Guidebooks will tell you which area, or arrondissement, you are looking for. If all you have is a postal code, look at the last two digits. For example, 75004 is the 4th arrondissement.

3. Save money for a good meal. Drink your coffee or cola standing at the bar (sitting down doubles the price). If you only want a quick refresher, stop in a small grocery store and pick up a bottle of water or cola for five francs. If your hotel doesn't include breakfast in the rate, strike out on your own. Most cafes will have a breakfast special of coffee, juice, and croissant for 4 euros-much less than a hotel breakfast.

4. Check for lunch specials. While an evening meal at 3-star restaurants can easily run $500-$1,000 for two, many have special menus at lunch time-more like $200 for two. Try Lucas Carton by the Madeleine or Arpege by the Musée Rodin. If your heart is set on a meal of a lifetime, it is advisable to call one or two months ahead of time and book a table.

5. Try the new "baby bistros." At these lower-priced annexes to the main restaurants like La Rotisserie d'en Face in the sixth arrondisement, you can sample the specialties of some of the greatest chefs around at much lower prices.

6. Avoid highly touristed areas. If the menu outside is in five languages, chances are it's not a culinary jewel.

7. Go for the prix-fixe menu. Most restaurants will have a fixed menu giving several choices for the appetizer, main course, and dessert. These are almost always cheaper than ordering à la carte.

8. Think picnic. All of the grocery stores in Paris have a wine section, and you can always find a decent Bordeaux for 5 euros. A trip to a fromagerie, or cheese store, is in itself a sensual delight. Unlike America's overprocessed cheese, French cheeses are living things. Ask for a cheese that is ready to be eaten today (pour aujourd'hui, s'il vous plaît); if you like smelly cheeses, ask for fort; if you like sweet, mild cheeses, ask for doux. Stop off at the local boulangerie for a baguette and you have a meal fit for a king. For dessert, stop into a chocolate shop or a patisserie (pastry shop).

9. For a fancy picnic, try a traiteur. There's no exact translation for a traiteur; it's best described as a purveyor of fine foods that are ready to eat. Here you will find such dishes as jellied eggs and salmon, fish mousse, and stuffed eggplant. If you are uncertain exactly where to find a traiteur, try one of the five largest in Paris: Hediard, Fauchon, Flo Prestige, Galeries Lafayette, and Bon Marche. The Flo boutiques can be found around the city and offer an array of delicacies. Galeries Lafayette has a very large food court with everything from paté to caviar to Mediterranean food. And Bon Marché, on the Left Bank, has a food store beyond compare. Imagine the most extensive gourmet food store you've ever seen and then quadruple it.

10. Explore the neighborhood outdoor food markets. These moveable farmers' markets bring the freshest fruits, vegetables, olives, cheese, poultry, etc. A few-like the one on the rue du Buci in the Latin Quarter-are open daily. A particularly fascinating one is on Sunday mornings under the Metro overpass on line 6 between Dupleix and La Motte Picquet-Grenelle in the 15th.

11. Check for the neighborhood spots. One bistro that serves our favorite duck with garlic sautéed potatoes to die for is located in Pigalle, of all places, right near the leather boots, studs, and whips (Le Gascon at 47 rue de Pigalle). Small gems are out there waiting to be discovered.

12. Look for regional restaurants. France has many regions, each with its own specialty. Chez Jenny by the Place de la République has many different types of choucroute. Léon de Bruxelles specializes in mussels. Thomieux has cassoulet that will knock your diet back three weeks, and it's worth every bite.

13. Don't limit yourself to French food. Two of the finest Italian restaurants we've found anywhere are in Paris: Chez Vincent in the 19th and daMimmo's in the 10th. Both have phenomenal antipasto buffets. As you wander through the Marais in the 4th, you smell old world pastrami and falafel. Wasabi, behind Galeries Lafayette, offers sushi at less than 1 euro a piece!

14. Get The A-Z of French Food by Scribo. Stay away from a food dictionary sorted by type of food. If you don't know what pétoncle is how are you supposed to look it up? The Scribo book is alphabetical and also describes the preparation, such as "à la Bordelaise" or "à la Française."

15. Try one of the Bouchons de François Clerc. His five restaurants serve wonderfully creative food and wine at retail prices. You can try that Margaux you've been wanting without paying $300 a bottle.

These tips will help you avoid wasting a precious meal in Paris on a mediocre restaurant. What I can't help you with is the dilemma of choosing between returning to a restaurant you love or trying something new. Bon appétit!