23.1.14

Some Paris Food Myths That Need to Die

Last April, a food article by Rome-based writer/blogger Katie Parla went viral and for good reason - it addressed several myths about the local food culture that needed to be put to rest. It was a fun and extremely helpful read which got me thinking: what if I tackled some of the many food myths about Paris that drive locals bananas? Katie gave her tweet of approval and I sat down with my pal Bryan Pirolli to compile a non-exhaustive list of what we agreed to be some of the most grating exaggerations.   

Paris Café terrace

French cafés should be avoided.
Are you a coffee snob? That’s fine, we can work with that in Paris. But if you think for a minute that a New York style coffee shop in Paris has the same charm as a traditional café, we daresay you’re mistaken. Many trendy, high quality coffee shops don’t even offer Wi-Fi because they don’t want their patrons lounging in the precious few seats that they have. Cafés, on the other hand, don’t care if you sit with your laptop and a few espressos for hours on end (though be sure to buy something). The café is an extension of the Parisian home, an office area for some, a relaxation station for others. A true flâneur knows that the café is a place to sit, watch, and be watched, no matter what they’re drinking. We get it, they don’t serve the best coffee, but that’s no reason to ignore these institutions. Plus, they do serve tea…

Ladurée Christmas window

Ladurée has the best macarons.
Each day, this pastel-dipped fairyland of edible cute swallows up ogling, queue-happy tourists embarking on serious macaron missions. Lines don’t lie, right?  The iconic tea salon has earned a reputation for peddling some of the city’s best macarons but whether it’s true supremacy in taste or image is up for debate. We won’t refuse one of their dainty treats but you’re more likely to hear my stomach grumble for the macarons at Pierre Hermé, who has an equally loyal fan base around the world. We've also enjoyed the varieties at Pain de Sucre and the Basque iterations from Maison Adam among countless others. If the goods are accessible in your hometown, opt for something more local and compare.

Don’t go to Chartier.
Like many other “touristy” restaurants found in guidebooks and reviewed on TripAdvisor, Chartier has gotten a bad rap. But not going to these institutions because you’ll eat less than stellar food (OK, they use some frozen food, get over it) means you’ll be missing out on a potentially memorable experience. All of these big brasseries offer superb settings and old-world wait staff who may be abrupt and snarky, but they can also be a lot of fun if you know what you’re getting into. As for Chartier, the rock-bottom prices to sample some traditional French fare in a century-old eatery doesn’t pretend to be anything else. If you want high class fare and a bit of pretention, there’s plenty of that in Paris. If you aren’t as interested in photographing your food as in living an experience, then there’s no reason to avoid Chartier.

Baguette

All bread is created equal.
It isn’t just France’s status as a culinary leader that has waxed and waned over the years. The iconic baguette has experienced its own well-documented fluctuations. The French bakery staple suffered periods of decline for years after World War II as the pursuit of time-saving techniques (commercial yeast instead of levain, for one) yielded mediocre baguettes. While the state of bread making has largely rebounded (though consumption is down overall), modern methods evidently left their mark on bakers more concerned with production than quality. Yes, the bread is fantastic here, even in hole-in-the-wall shops. But like any comestible, there are duds among the greats. If you’re on a mission to eat nothing but bread, cheese and wine, the diet of many visitors, do a little research first and make sure you understand what makes a stellar loaf rise above the masses.

More bread reading:
How to Find a Good Baguette (David Lebovitz)

Touristy neighborhoods are devoid of good dining spots.
Well, given that almost every Paris neighborhood has some sort of attraction within a stone’s throw that is liable to appeal to visitors – a museum, a gallery, a park, an iconic shop, a wrought-iron tower – we'd say this is a fallacy. Ultra-dense touristy pockets like Saint-Michel or the Champs-Elysées aside, it is most certainly possible to find great meals and drink options all over town. The neo-bistrot Le Richer is only a couple blocks from the neon-lights and commercial din of the Grands Boulevards, Verjus claims the Palais Royal as their backyard, David Toutain’s venerated new restaurant is tucked between the Eiffel Tower and Invalides and Semilla, one of our favorites, is in the beating heart of Saint-Germain. A good strategy in any city: avoid places with multi-paged menus in fifteen languages and plan ahead when you can. 

Travelers should expect poor service in any Parisian food establishment.
Well, let’s chalk this up to cultural confusion. If you want your waitress, Kimmy, to be at your beck and call every five minutes, constantly refilling your water and interrupting your meal to ask how things are, then by all means, complain about French service. But diners in France take their time, as do servers. Not getting your bill is not always a sign that they don’t want to help you, you just have to ask for it. You need to wait on water? So do children in Africa – chill out, it will come. They won’t alter the dishes on the menu for you because you are a 5th level vegan with an allergy to peanuts and garlic? There’s always bread for you (or is that off limits, too?). Remember that French servers get paid real wages, not tips, so a restaurant doesn’t always have a whole team of underpaid lackeys painting on smiles trying to earn your affection. One or two servers will take on a whole restaurant sometimes, rarely expecting tips, and unconcerned with their performance. So when a waiter is being nice to you, remember that they are humans first, and servers second, and humans are, when given the chance, inherently nice. Lesson: manage your expectations -American service is far from a universal standard.

Marais market

Everything is fresh and local in Parisian restaurants.
Among the many perennial surprises of the food scene, perhaps the most disheartening is the fact that, faced with mushrooming social charges, labor costs and pricey commercial spaces, many restaurant owners are cutting corners to save money. Sadly, this means they’re excising homemade quality to rely on canned ingredients and frozen meals that simply need to be microwaved. And if you’re willing to bend the definition, then yes, these ready-made meals purchased at Metro, a wholesale supermarket for professionals with several locations in and near Paris, can be considered ‘local’. Not quite the image visitors (or residents, for that matter) have of Paris as a culinary powerhouse. But the chilling effect of this unfortunate reality simply means it’s even more important to do your research. The recommendations you find on local food blogs like Alec Lobrano’s Hungry for Paris, Paris by Mouth, Not Drinking Poison in Paris, David Lebovitz and even this site, among others, point you in the right direction. And if a proposed bill for greater transparency gets approved, restaurateurs will soon be forced to list dishes sourced from industrial suppliers, making it much easier to dodge unscrupulous establishments.

Update: a new NYT piece discusses this very issue! In France, a Battle to Keep Menus Fresh
  
It’s not worth eating international/ethnic food in Paris.
Would you not eat curry in London? Do you think Chinese food was born in Manhattan’s Chinatown? Paris is a very cosmopolitan city with different cultures pouring out of every neighborhood. To avoid international food is to ignore a very Parisian experience, or at least the Parisian version of a favorite ethnic cuisine. As a former (or current, if you’re French) empire, France has its share of multicultural influences, meaning great couscous, delicious Vietnamese fare, and many Lebanese take-out places that will surprise you. We’re not advocating you run to the closest burger joint for American-style food (though they Frenchify the great American burger as well), but don’t write off ethnic food in favor of steak frites and magret de canard for every meal. The allure might wane after a couple of days.


Any other food myths you'd like to see debunked? 

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