It goes without saying that one of the greatest assets to living in Paris is the arms-length access to some of the world's finest foods. But navigating the warren of restaurants can be as difficult for locals as for visitors. The prevalent use of industrially produced or frozen ingredients has been a specter haunting the city's food scene for a number of years, only adding to that challenge. Fortunately, young talents, both French and foreign, have made great inroads and largely restored faith in the capital's culinary prowess.
And there is perhaps no one better suited to discuss the vagaries of the city's food scene than food writer Alec Lobrano, Gourmet Magazine's go-to man in Paris for ten years and adopted Parisian since 1986. Today, the Connecticut native writes regularly (on France and beyond) for The New York Times, The Guardian, Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Traveler and Town & Country and is a contributing editor at Saveur. But what hooked me to his work and initiated my own interest in food was his book Hungry for Paris: the Ultimate Guide to the City's 102 Best Restaurants (in exciting news, an updated version is in the works). With pitch-perfect recommendations, Alec is by far my reference for dining out and should be yours if he isn't already.
Here, he talks cuisine and congés (vacation), two of the most important tenets of a French lifestyle.
Describe what you love about France in three words
Its food and wine, history and aesthetics. (And what I don't like about France in one word? It's politics!)
Things most people overlook when they travel to Paris?
Aside from such major public gardens as the Luxembourg and the Tuileries, Paris is truffled with small public gardens that are delightful places to read, study the surrounding architecture and strike up a conversation. Bill Graham's Parisians' Paris suggest many of these. Otherwise, most visitors completely overlook the 16th arrondissement, dismissing it as stuffy and residential. The realityis that it has some of the best museums in the city--the Musée de Marmottan and the Musée Guimet among them, some gorgeous architecture and some beautiful parks.
Your go-to spot in France to relax?
If money is no object, I love the Hotel du Palais in Biarritz, La Ferme aux Grives in Eugenie-les-Bains, La Mirande in Avignon and the Domaine de Murtoli in Corsica. Otherwise, I also like Le Touquet (Hotel Westminster is great value for the money and they're some good restaurants up there), Lyon as often as I can get there for the food and cultural life, and Savignac in the Lot.
Three not-to-be missed eateries for first-timers?
I'm going to give you and upstairs/downstairs answer to this torturous question.
An experience of serious French haute cuisine is a spine-cracking pleasure that everyone should have. For traditional French cooking at this level, I'd go to Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Le Bristol or Guy Savoy in Paris. For inventive haute cuisine, Pierre Gagnaire is a genius, and I also love Mauro Colagreco in Menton, and Alexandre Gauthier at La Grenouillere.
But more than anything else, you should do one of the rare surviving old fashioned bistros in Paris, like A la Biche au Bois, and similar places in the provinces--a real buchon in Lyon like Chez Hugon, a real estaminet in the north of France like L’Estaminet de l’Ancienne Maison Commune in Hondghem, and other old-fashioned regional tables. And to see how brilliant the new generation of French chefs are you'll need to try places like Septime, Roseval or Le Pantruche in Paris, Palegrie in Lyon, Le Grain de Sel in Marseilles.
Most amusing interaction with the French?
I've lived in Paris long enough now that people are never quite sure where I'm from. So they guess--Belgian? Swiss? etc. I love the expression on their faces when I say nope, New England!
Thanks, Alec! For one of the web's most extensive collections of restaurant reviews from all over the city (with some diversions elsewhere in France), visit Alec's website Diner's Diary and pick up a copy of his book Hungry for Paris (an update is in the works). Follow his food and travel updates on-the-go on Twitter: @AlecLobrano and get your bookshelves ready for his newest food compendium Hungry for France which will be released in the Spring of 2014.