Into everyone's life a three-star meal in Paris should fall. There's nothing like sitting in a big cushy chair at a magnificently set table while waiters deftly administer to your every wish and need: The wine sparkles, the forks dance and one of the world's finest chefs personally sauces your meat and potatoes. Of course, when the after-dinner chocolates are gone, the coffee is dregs and the table is crumbed for the very last time, you'll pay for your pleasure -- $200, easy. And that's assuming you came to this gourmet palace all alone.
But you can relax that grip on your wallet: Piqued by an economic "crisis" that has forced restaurateurs to scramble, the Parisian dining scene is beginning to function in ways it never has before. Never have so many restaurants been so eager to save you money, and never has there been such a wide and interesting choice in the 200-franc-and-under category ($33, including tax and tip, but not wine and coffee).
Yes, a select clientele still tucks into truffled sauces in Michelin-starred dining chambers, where the cuisine is to die for and the ambiance is as hushed and reverential as in a church. But the vast majority of great places have no stars at all -- and no intention of going after them. They aren't ministering to the masses, but to an increasingly frugal upper crust whose motto seems to be Save by Spending. "They seek a good ratio of price to quality," says Eric Frechon, who works hard to keep the cost of four courses at his eponymous 19th-arrondissement restaurant below $34.
Frechon learned his trade at the stuffy Hotel Crillon, as did several former colleagues who have also opened new-generation restaurants and bistros (the distinction between the two being fuzzier than ever). In the old days, they would have worked behind the scenes at the Crillon's two-star Ambassadeurs restaurant another 10 years before thinking about saddling
themselves with debt and opening their own lushly appointed restaurants -- all in hopes of meeting Michelin's exacting standards and acquiring a star or two of their own. Then, after 40 exhausting years on their feet, they could retire.
Today's generation of star-worthy cooks doesn't necessarily want to wait that long. Increasingly, some of the best are opting out of the traditional haute cuisine competition and opening small places where the decor may be nonexistent and the working conditions difficult, but the ambiance is relaxed and the food typically much better than anything we could buy back home for the same money.
Think of such places as France's answer to category killers, or discount operations where customers make compromises to get the best deals. Prix fixe meals, confusingly known in France as menus, enable chefs to buy in volume and pass along the savings. You may find you are eating a little on the early or late side so the restaurant can benefit from two seatings. On Saturday nights you may have to stay home altogether.
Bargain hunters also largely forgo niceties such as nonsmoking sections and learn to forage for their coats even if it means climbing over other customers to get to the hat rack. They travel to parts of town like the eastern 11th and 12th arrondissements, where rents are lower than, say, the Champs-Elysees. And they learn to pour their own wine.
There's been lots of talk lately about the failing French economy. Taxes are crippling, the work force inflexible and globalization is taking its toll. But if one segment of the French economy works the way Americans like, it's the Parisian dining scene. "We've slashed our margins," says Chef Franck Paquier of L'O a la Bouche, who feels obliged to keep his prix fixe lunch below $16. "We don't have a choice."
Which isn't to say that the customer comes first -- we're still in France, after all. But customers often get what they want: low prices, innovative cooking and fresh ingredients.
Except for green vegetables. They can be as hard to find as a table at L'Epi Dupin on a Friday night, as I learned during a recent pilgrimage in search of some of the best $33-or-less meals Paris has to offer. (For all telephone numbers below, drop the initial 0 and add 011-33 when calling from the United States.)
In Paris, as elsewhere, the hottest restaurants seem to come out of nowhere, creating an overnight buzz through skillful public relations and word of mouth. L'Epi Dupin, a small, smoothly oiled operation in the heart of a well-to-do Left Bank neighborhood, hasn't had a quiet day since opening three years ago with a prix fixe few could refuse: under $16 for two courses (starter -- or entree, as they call them in France -- plus main course; or main course plus dessert). As with many of the restaurants mentioned here, prices have started edging up -- it's now closer to $18 for two courses, and $28 if you include cheese and dessert. But still the budget gourmets keep coming, sampling chef Francois Pasteau's stylish takes on standbys like scallops in cream (his come with a trendy croustillant, or crisp "tulip" of anise-flavored dough), caramelized endive with goat cheese (here it mimics the upside-down apple pie called tarte Tatin) and roasted pears. Pasteau, 35, knocks off for the weekend, so reserve a table for lunch or dinner during the workweek.
L'Epi Dupin, 11 Rue Dupin, 6th arrondissement, telephone 01-42-22-64-56. Closed Saturday and Sunday.
Once upon a time, fine restaurants were known by bland names like Cote d'Or. These days they're as likely to take the name of their celebrity chef, which is the case with Le Restaurant d'Eric Frechon, formerly called La Verriere. Fans of Frechon, 34, haven't been discouraged by his location in the faraway 19th arrondissement, or by his plain-Jane decor. Service is relatively swift, as prices like these virtually require two seatings per evening. Look for such creative entrees as shucked-oyster salad or foie gras "raviolis," and main dishes like duck with honey and Asian spicing or lemon-scented lamb with couscous. "A revelation of the year," gushes the 1998 Gault-Millau guide, which is another way of saying "reserve well in advance."
Le Restaurant d'Eric Frechon, 10 Rue du General-Brunet, 19th arrondissement, telephone 01-40-40-03-30. Closed Sunday and Monday.
L'O a la Bouche was also named as a 1997 "revelation." This lively Montparnasse restaurant not only offers two delicious courses at $25 -- and an even smaller price tag at lunch if you order the specials -- but also a house wine that comes by the half-liter pot and costs so little you can order one in each color. Chef Franck Paquier, 30, sears sushi-quality tuna as an appetizer and serves rare duck breast with creamy orange-scented polenta. The roast chicken with potato puree is sublime; and if one of you orders a main course plus dessert, you can share something along the lines of a crisp banana and chocolate tart. Or go whole hog and order three courses each; at $32 this menu is practically a steal. Landing a table on Saturday night can mean sitting down by 8 -- a good hour before Parisians like to dine -- but who's complaining?
L'O a la Bouche, 157 Blvd. du Montparnasse, 6th arrondissement, telephone 01-43-26-26-53. Closed Sunday and Monday.
At Au Bon Accueil you'll be glad they seated you early; by 9 p.m. the tempo is so frenzied you can barely find a way inside. A gourmet friend who frequents the very best restaurants nonetheless maintains that Chef Jacques Lacipiere, 35, delivers one of the best quality-price deals in town. Word has clearly gotten around: The hordes that descend twice a day are half out-of-towners and half penny pinchers from this wealthy quartier at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The $24 three-course dinner menu is indeed impressive, with a generous selection of beautifully composed entrees, main courses and desserts, including a creamy chocolate souffle-pudding that melts en route to the mouth. Save a few more pennies by coming at lunch, when the menu is $22, or reserve a table at 7:30 and plan to be on time.
Au Bon Accueil, 14 Rue de Monttessuy, 7th arrondissement, telephone 01-47-05-46-11.cq Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday.
Cuisine du terroir, or authentic regional cooking, has become as popular in Paris as Nikes, but at the Bascou it has nothing to do with trends and everything to do with the Basque country roots of owner Jean-Guy Loustau. Chef Caroline Ozanne, 46, trained at the Eiffel Tower's Jules Verne restaurant, but she too keeps her heart in southwest France. Basque country straddles Spain and France, generating a delicate olive-oil-infused cuisine based on products that flow from the Atlantic, the Pyrenees, and the rivers and farmland in between. Among the standouts are milk-fed lamb roasted with olive oil, sweet red peppers stuffed with a salt-cod brandade, seasoned artichoke hearts served with tiny mussels and giant shrimp, and braised beef and anchovies served with France's favorite side dish: potato puree. Loustau offers no prix fixes except at lunch, when there's a two-course giveaway at $15. Lunch or dinner a la carte: about $37. The decor is warm, the ambiance relaxed, and there's only one seating most evenings. Reservations recommended.
Au Bascou, 38 Rue Reamur, 3rd arrondissement, telephone 01-42-72-69-25. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday.
The ambiance at Le Bistro d'Hubert is contemporary, thanks largely to an open kitchen where at any given time a team of three or four cooks can be seen whipping together $33, three-course menus for a happy, noisy crowd. A seasoned restaurateur, Hubert -- who goes by his first name -- is equal parts entrepreneur -- he keeps the bistro open seven days a week -- and creative artist. His menu cleverly offers "traditional" and "discovery" dishes, enabling guests to custom-design their set-price meals by mixing and matching from column A and column B. A thick hunk of rosy tuna might be offered in a trendy caramelized balsamic vinegar sauce, or for the less adventurous, a serving of garlic chicken from Hubert's favorite region of France, the southwestern Gers. Things get busy at night, so consider coming early or, even better, at lunch, when there are two additional menus at $17 and $24.
Le Bistro d'Hubert, 41 Blvd. Pasteur, 15th arrondissement, telephone 01-47-34-15-50.
You can eat quite handsomely at these three Right Bank restaurants while seeing neighborhoods most tourists never visit. Les Amognes (243 Rue du Faubourg-St.-Antoine, 11th arrondissement, telephone 01-43-72-73-05; closed Sunday and at lunch Saturday and Monday) is within walking distance of the increasingly hip neighborhood east of the Bastille. Chef Thierry Coue, 45, presents sophisticated cuisine, and you'll want to bring along friends so you can sample as much of it as possible. The four-course prix fixe is $33 at lunch and dinner.
La Connivence (1 Rue de Cotte, 12th arrondissement, telephone 01-46-28-46-17; open every day) has a prix fixe lunch at $14 and one at dinner for $19. Chef Marc Baudry, 35, specializes in light, creative cooking.
Les Zygomates (7 Rue de Capri, 12th arrondissement, telephone 01-40-19-93-04, closed Saturday lunch and Sunday) provides proof of a theory popular among new-generation restaurateurs: You can never put too many customers in a single small space, in this case a former butcher shop with nice architectural touches and -- better -- a nonsmoking room. Regulars are passionate about the $13 lunch package, which includes coffee. Evenings the prix fixe is $22, a reflection of Chef Patrick Fray's philosophy: If it's expensive, it won't work. Incidentally, a Fray-trained American has opened his own restaurant under the same name. But at a different address: in Boston.
Deborah Baldwin last wrote for Travel about the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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