Almost every visitor arrives in France intent on tasting the renowned cuisine about which he or she has heard so much. Who has not heard endless paeans of praise for its fabulous quality and allure? To be sure, it is one of the world’s culinary blessings, and a well-deserved source of French pride and joy.
But how does a visitor know where to go to sample some of the best? If you can afford high end establishments, it is relatively easy. Luxury restaurants that have earned stellar reputations usually have continuity from one year to next, often from decade to decade. The Grand Vefour and Tour d’Argent in Paris have been doing it for centuries.
If you are not ready to spend a fortune on your experience and are looking for something reasonable in cost, the challenges mount. Many of our clients rely on word-of-mouth from friends and relatives who have visited before, and they often consult with us to compare notes. Sometimes we are astonished by what they have in their lists: from faded stars of yester-year to establishments hardly worthy of mention.
It is not easy to give good advice if you do not have a point of reference. My view of great Italian cuisine evolved considerably after I left Providence, and was blessed with wonderful experiences in Italy. If your friends or relatives have not had much experience in France, they might easily be impressed by a modicum of quality. If their last visit to France was a few years ago, some of the affordable places they experienced then may have eroded in quality since, and those former gems may no longer be standing on their pedestals.
There are, of course, the guides; but can you trust them? As far as I know, no one has written a guide of guides, so let me attempt that here, on a small scale. The classic is the Michelin red guide http://www.viamichelin.fr/web/Restaurants. It is often flawed. Most of their three and two star recommendations are reliable, but I have already implied above that throwing a lot of money at having a great dining experience takes little talent.
I have learned, also, after about 200 experiences, to equate the Michelin single star status as the equivalent of a fifty-fifty gamble. Many dining establishments kill themselves to get the first star, and then coast, in terms of effort to please, while extracting as much as the star and traffic permit. It would be interesting to know how much turnover there is per year in the single star category. I suspect it is high.
There is one Michelin designation that I have learned to trust, almost with my eyes shut: it is the Bib Gourmand, which the guide attributes to establishments that offer good food at moderate prices. Having tried scores of them, they almost always deliver, and when I am in unfamiliar territory, I seek them out. I have almost never been disappointed, and it is impressively reliable.
What about the Pudlo guide http://www.littlebookroom.com/lepudlo.html? My experiences have been very mixed: often their reviews are accurate, but just as often they are not. It is as if two very different personalities are reporting, and they come from different worlds with different standards. There is no way to know in advance which one is providing advice. Whatever the explanation, I do not trust their commentaries.
The Paris Zagatt guide is pretty good, once you get over some of their outrageous inclusions, such as Hippopotamus (right next to Hiramatsu!) and Lina’s (a sandwich chain) and its glaring exclusions, such as Il Ristorante. Hippopatamus is a low-end steak house chain, where standards could hardly get any lower. See http://www.zagat.com/paris. I have compared notes on about 22% of their 1016 listings and found most of their remarks accurate and fair. Its greatest defect is its cloying obsession with pricing. I don’t mean to suggest that value is not an important issue, but one of the greatest culinary values in France is the set meal at 35 euros at the Potager du Roy in Versailles, which Zagatt qualifies it as “a little dear.” That is sheer, undiluted nonsense.
If you read French, the indisputable king in Paris is the Lebey guide. With over six hundred listings, I have experienced about one third of them and I have always resonated with its commentaries, without exception. It is the only guide I know that never leads you astray. Alas, it is not available in English, and there is no Lebey guide for the rest of France. There is one that focuses exclusively on Parisian bistros, which is equally reliable, and also only available in French. I suspect that the critiques are written by one very astute and discerning person, or perhaps two or three with very similar tastes and identical points of view.
So if you have a friend who speaks French, get hold of a current copy of the Lebey guide and ask him or her to choose some of the highly recommended restaurants and bistros near where you will be staying in Paris. It provides all the information you will need, including the cost of the last meal sampled and a list of set meal prices. Set meals offer choices of starters, main courses and desserts, or more.
If you don’t have a friend who speaks French, book a tour with my company and we will report the Lebey (or our own) recommendations, free of charge: www.parisluxurytours.com. Otherwise, visit this blog from time to time. I plan to report on some of my favorite dining establishments in France, in different regions, from time to time.