Travel writer Amy Mcpherson discovers where the locals go when it comes to eating out in Paris…
“Don’t go for a restaurant that lists onion soup in its menu,” said Leo Goldstein of Eating Europe Tours when I asked him for his advice on how to choose a good place to eat in Paris. “Onion soup is not traditional. It was created for the tourism industry!”
How dare he tell me that my favourite soup is a marketing ruse? However, Leo is a born and bred Parisian whose passion about showing people the real Paris culinary scene led him to design a food tour itinerary specifically to show visitors just what they are missing out on in the city of light.
I’ll be frank. I never much liked Paris. I’d rather be sunning in the south of France, hiking in the French Alps or enjoying the colourful towns of Alsace than having to spend time in a city environment. I used to think that the food wasn’t all it was made out to be. I’ve had better food elsewhere in France.
And it seems, even Leo himself went through similar emotions with this metropolis.
“I moved to California when I was 18. I hated Paris, it was chaotic and there was an attitude,” he admitted when I asked whether he had always loved the city. “You know what? I came back three and a half years ago and see that things have changed. I am in love with the city once again.”
Get off the beaten track for a delicious taste of Paris
We meet at the gate of Jardin Villemin, a community park just around the corner from the busy Gare de l’Est in the heart of the 10th district. Not in the main touristy bit, it isn’t somewhere I would normally choose to visit, yet, Leo was determined to prove me wrong.
“Because it’s where the major train stations are, this area is considered to be the travellers district,” he explained. “It’s bohemian, it’s open, it’s ethnically diverse and it’s tolerant. That’s what I love about the 10th.”
Leo disappeared then returned with paper bags that smelled like our first course.
“Voila! Here are the best croque monsieurs you will ever eat!”
We were given two varieties – the traditional with ham and cheese, and a modern version with honey and pistachio nuts. Absolutely delicious. Along the canal, Parisians were meeting and greeting friends and the atmosphere was vibrant and friendly. This is where real Parisians come to hang out.
“If you ever find yourself stuck with nothing to do in Paris,” Leo said, “come here with a bottle of wine. I can promise you will walk away with a friend of two!”
We continued our walk across a bridge into the heart of the 10th district. The streets are lined with the iconic Haussmann’s apartments which were built largely to transform Paris into a great world city in the 19th century. On a glorious autumn day, with the trees turning their fifty shades of earthy hues, I felt myself to warm to this forgotten corner of Paris.
Eating is a ceremony in France
The next few hours were spent largely eating. At a deli by the simple name of TSF (Thomason Sophie Folie) for wine and charcuterie, we nibbled Jambon Prince de Paris (‘Ham Prince’ of Paris) perfect with a sip of pinot noir from the Loire Valley.
“Normally before we have our formal dinner, we have something light like this. Ham, cheese and wine and an aperitif,” Leo explained. “We like to socialise and gossip before the formal proceedings of dinner begins.”
Speaking of formal dinners, the tour is structured loosely on the concept of a French dinner. A pre-meal snack (aperitif), entrée, main course, cheese and dessert.
To the French, a meal is more than just time to refuel. It is a ceremony, accompanied by a set order of proceedings, conversations around the dinner table, the pairing of wine and food and the presentation of each plate. Gastronomy is so important in France that it is listed as an Intangible Heritage by UNESCO!
So why then, have I sometimes been disappointed with the meals I’ve had in Paris? “You are probably like the rest of us modern Parisians,” Leo shrugged. “You most likely went for the convenience rather than really taking care of choosing a place that will serve you a great meal.”
Paris | Intangible food heritage
Fast food in any form, whether McDonald’s or restaurants using frozen ingredients to meet the demands of having an extensive menu, are becoming the norm in busy Paris. Young parents don’t have the time or energy to cook every night. As Leo lists the reasons, I spied two Deliveroo bikes roll past. It seems this intangible heritage really needs some protection after all.
“But don’t worry, as long as you know where to go, you can still get a really good feed in Paris!”
And with that, we marched into a small Algerian eatery run by a husband and wife team, with a simple, no fuss service. Couscous is France’s third favourite dish. Nasser and his wife spend three hours a day, six days a week preparing and grinding semolina. Nasser watched, smiling with pride as we hungrily tucked into the golden pile of fine, fluffy couscous, served with a meat stew and merguez, a spicy beef and lamb sausage, popular all over France.
Then it was time for cheese and dessert. I polished off a fabulous éclair Caraibe by France’s mega-pastry-God Yann Couvreur.
They say a way into someone’s heart is through their stomach. I suppose, I can say I am falling for Paris again. Although perhaps I’ll stop ordering the onion soup.
Amy McPherson is a London based travel writer whose works has been featured in international publications. Cats, cycling and food features heavily in her writing and her blog at www.footprintsandmemories.com. Amy joined: Eating Europe for her delicious foodie Paris tour.