For many, the informal mom-and-pop Paris bistro, with its simple decor, zinc bar, tile floor and paper tablecloths, embodies the quintessential French dining experience. On the menu you can expect an array of French classics, like lentil or goat cheese salad, steak frites and confit du canard (conserved duck). You'll probably discover newer recipes, too: perhaps a fricassee of wild mushrooms on a bed of greens, or skate fish in beurre blanc. Then, in due course, the desserts: rhubarb tart, cre{grv}me bru^le{acute}e or, if you're lucky, a warm moelleux -- a mousselike cake that oozes across your plate like chocolate lava.

You can blow $100 and up on this kind of gourmet experience. But why bother? The capital city of French cuisine offers hundreds of cheap bistros where one can happily dine for $25 or less. We've chosen 10 of the best -- some classic, others with more modern flair, but all making you feel like you've hit the price-for-quality jackpot.

We've listed the restaurants by neighborhood. Prices are per person, based on a three-course meal (appetizer, main dish and dessert) and don't include wine or coffee. A formule (fixed-price) menu can offer additional value. Strict vegetarians will eat with difficulty, but most menus offer chicken and fish options.

Bastille/Le Marais

* Baracane, 38 Rue des Tournelles, 4th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Bastille or Chemin Vert. Average price: $23.

Owner Marcel Baudis hails from southwest France, so the menu respects his country roots while still surprising jaded city diners. Begin with smoky Jerusalem artichoke soup or duck's neck terrine with mushroom, watercress and walnuts. Main dishes include pan-fried trout with hazelnuts, parsley and butter, and a pastry-wrapped croustade of roasted feta, mushrooms and vegetables. Try regional desserts like cooked grapefruit in sabayon, a sweet egg yolk and wine sauce, and the house specialty, an apple tourtie{grv}re with prunes and Armagnac.

* Cafe de la Poste, 13 Rue Castex, 4th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Bastille. Average price: $18.

On a quiet side street near the Place de la Bastille's overpriced tourist zone is this unassuming little place, where a cheap and pleasing meal can be enjoyed in a casual atmosphere, amid tiny tables, tile floor and funky art. The house terrine (like pa^te{acute}) with pickles is a good starter, or perhaps the cream-marinated anchovies. As with most small, independent joints, the menu evolves with the seasons, but expect main dishes like broiled salmon, steak and fries, duck breast salad and confit du canard, as well as predictable but well-executed desserts like fruit tarts.

* Chez Paul, 13 Rue de Charonne, 11th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Bastille. Average price: $26.

Your dream of a neighborhood Parisian bistro -- smoke-stained walls, crowded tables, ancient menus -- ought also to include Chez Paul, which has cultivated an attractive old-style ambiance. Best of all, the food is both high-quality and easy on the wallet. The eatery cooks up a fine steak at $12 -- half the price you'd expect back home, garnished with sauteed potatoes and seasonal veggies. The grilled fish medley or the simple goat cheese salad are also wise choices. Desserts include a huge cre{grv}me bru^le{acute}e, baba cake soaked in rum and fig tart. The classic menu has an excellent selection of reasonably priced wines.

* Le Trumilou, 84 Quai de l'Hotel-de-Ville, 4th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Hotel-de-Ville. Average price: $22.

Country crockery and sabots (wooden clogs) lend a rustic look to Le Trumilou, a restaurant/bar with an ample terrace overlooking the Seine. The menu features weighty dishes like country omelets, "grandmother's chicken" and sausage tart. Less heavy fare includes an endive and blue cheese appetizer and a delicate wild-mushroom fricassee sauteed in herbs. The huge portions, such as quail with raisins, arrive on a separate platter, making one wonder if dishes are meant for two diners, not one. Desserts are old faves, such as the frothy egg custard oeuf en neige.

Latin Quarter

* L'Ecurie, 2 Rue Laplace, 5th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Maubert-Mutualite. Average price: $21. No credit cards.

The humble L'Ecurie is pitched on a sloping street in the shadow of the Pantheon. In 1692, it was a horse stable; these days, the dungeon-like dining room serves up no-frills grilled meats and homemade desserts like chunky apple tarte maison and charred banana flambe. The salad of walnuts and blue cheese is de rigueur, while the tomato and red peppers a{grv} la provenc{cedil}ale reminds you why fresh-off-the-grill food can make one so happy. The lamb "saddle" is expertly cooked in rosemary and other herbs, as is the rump steak with pepper sauce. Well-fed and spirits warmed, you'll be ready to shoe a horse or shovel a stall.

* Helices et Delices, 8 Rue Thenard, 5th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Maubert-Mutualite. Average price: $24.

Helices et Delices (Propellers and Delights) offers a menu and ambiance inspired by international travel. With photos of distant destinations on the walls to encourage your next voyage, select from appetizers like a Camembert-and-escargot-stuffed baked potato, spinach soup garnished with hunks of spice bread or a daring smoked salmon and mango salad. The mackerel filet is spiced with cardamom, and the chicken brochette is infused with sesame flavor. Finish with the mandarin tart and fruit compote, or the dense moelleux oozing like a chocolate volcano -- and a glass of milk to wash it all down.

Menilmontant/Republique

* La Boulangerie, 15 Rue des Panoyaux, 20th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Menilmontant. Average price: $22.

"Bustling" is the best way to describe this out-of-the-way neighborhood bistro housed in a former bakery. Starters like the Granny Smith apple-celery root remoulade with mussels and the grilled corn and goat cheese crottin are both surprisingly inventive. The curried whitefish fillet doesn't skimp on flavor, nor does the crispy salmon sauced with sherry, onions and cream. Other creative dishes involve beef and duck, mustard seed and cumin. Desserts are above par: an almond-apricot tart and a chocolate cake with cinnamon and pistachio sauce. Chef Laurent Lahaye chooses new dishes every two months, so it's worth repeat visits.

* Le Parmentier, 12 Rue Arthur Groussier, 10th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Goncourt. Average price: $23.

Le Parmentier is another of those little-known bistros offering outstanding value in a feel-right-at-home setting. Choose your menu or a la carte selections from a frequently changing list of a half-dozen starters and desserts, and a dozen meat, poultry and fish dishes borrowing from French, Italian and Eastern traditions. Highlights are a delicate corn polenta dripping with Morbier cheese, curried rascasse (in the rockfish family) fillet in a sauce of toasted mustard seed, and fettuccine with shrimp and cream. Desserts are standard pleasers like apple crumble and smooth fondant au chocolat.

Nation

* Les Galopins, 35 Rue Sibuet, 12th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Picpus. Average price: $25.

"The Rascals" is an apt name for this bistro, tucked away in the rarely visited 12th. Run by the enthusiastic Dominique Noel, Les Galopins provides both meat-and-potatoes basics and some flashier fare to suit a range of inclinations. Appreciate the free sample of Lutece, the only beer brewed in Paris, until the arrival of your appetizer, such as a simple salad of fresh figs, ham, mint and olive oil, or ravioli stuffed with forest-fresh girolle and swimming in mushroom sauce. The main event is the double portion of crispy beef or lamb shoulder confit, served with a mountain of homemade fried potatoes and mushrooms on a wooden platter. The antique French ephemera on the walls adds to the friendly, attentive service.

Place d'Italie

* Chez Gladines, 30 Rue des Cinq Diamants, 13th arrondissement. Nearest Metro: Corvisart. Average price: $15. No credit cards.

Just south of Place d'Italie lies the Butte-aux-Cailles, a quiet neighborhood that retains a small-town feel. Chez Gladines is its best-known budget eatery, a harried and informal hangout where locals go for Pays Basque dishes like giant salads served in earthenware bowls, fried potatoes with broiled blue cheese, seared tuna in red sauce, Basque duck and the obligatory ga^teau Basque, a shortbreadlike cake with a cream filling. The bare brick walls, checked tablecloths and communal seating add to the down-home flavor.

Ethan Gilsdorf is a Paris-based writer and restaurant critic for Time Out.

At Cafe de la Poste in Paris, dine like the Sun King for less than $20.Paris's Les Galopins serves double portions of meat and mountains of veggies for $25.