Disembarking in Paris in late afternoon, we rolled our suitcases through sparkling streets, looking for a meal. Not easy at an off-hour; most Paris restaurants lock the doors at 2:30. As we were peering forlornly through the window of yet another shuttered restaurant, a young couple strolled by. “Where should we eat around here?” we asked. They considered carefully, as if this were a matter of great import, weighing the options. “I know!” the woman said suddenly, “We should send them over to La Cantine de Quentin, by the canal. It’s almost always open.”
The Canal St. Martin is like a small village in the city, and it is little wonder that it is the latest target of gentrification. La Cantine, a combination épicerie, wine shop, and restaurant, was indeed open, and so filled with baby carriages that nobody looked twice when we rolled in with our luggage. We shared a plate of charcuterie, a salad, and a couple glasses of wine. It was a perfect welcome to Paris—everything from the cheese to the slices of saucisson was excellent—and the bill came to about 25 euros. The tatin de boudin noir is also a lovely choice here.
“If you’re really looking for something old-fashioned,” said a local friend, “try Restaurant Chartier. It is exactly as it used to be.”
This superbly ancient bouillon—basically a soup kitchen for the working poor—has been turning out thousands of meals a day since 1896. With its brass, mirrors, and faux red leather banquettes it is a picture-perfect bistro, and the men who jot your order on paper tablecloths with stubby pencils are as brusque and grumpy as any movie waiterue
But they have nothing on the maitre d’, who manages the line at the entrance with smug authority, popping out periodically to sing out “Cinq!” From behind us, a party of five detached itself from the crowd and walked in, smiling. “Quatre!” he shouted, and more people from behind us went in. When we saw how hard it was to get a table for two we joined forces with the couple in front of us. But when the maitre called “Quatre!” and we presented ourselves he shook his head pompously. “Non, non, non, you are a fake four,” he said, moving on to the group behind us.
Having finally earned a coveted seat in the dining room, we found that we still had the waiter to contend with. Could we order? When he had time. How about some wine? When I get to it. And when the kitchen ran out of the blanquette de veau I had ordered, he was absolutely unapologetic. “Fini,” he announced lugubriously, “choose something else.”
But once it arrived, the food was very good. Leeks in vinaigrette were exactly what they should have been, and the shrimp with mayonnaise were perfectly cooked. There was a fine salad, good roast chicken, wonderful steak tartare. With a fair amount of drinkable house plonk—and a single dessert—the bill for two was less than 40 euros. And, although I hate to admit it, as well as being the city’s best bargain, Chartier was also great fun.
French friends had told me that they considered the 10.50-euro lunch at Fish la Boissonerie the best deal in town, so one afternoon we wandered down there. But the restaurant, which is particularly well-located, looked like such a tourist trap that we hesitated in the open door.
“C’est bon,” said a man tucking into fat filets of cod atop even fatter spears of asparagus, “don’t be afraid.” This turned out to be the perfect introduction to the friendliest restaurant in town.
At Fish, everyone talks to his neighbors. That might be because the list of wines served by the glass is so wonderful, or the service so cheerful, or merely because people are so pleased by the quality of the food and the reasonableness of the price. The prix-fixe lunch began with an enormous salad, followed by an even more enormous plate of pasta. For a few euros more we could have opted for the elegant fare that our neighbors insisted we taste; I especially liked the spinach soup embellished with Gorgonzola cream.
La Cave de l’Os à Moëlle is a little wine shop that serves a generous table d’hôte dinner for 20 euros. Strangers settle in at tables spanning the length of the shop to share an all-you-can-eat meal.
For the first few moments of our visit, there was an awkward silence. Then somebody opened a bottle of wine, and suddenly we were talking and passing platters as if we were all guests at a grand dinner party. There were mountains of food sitting on the table—enough crudités, pâtés, and rillettes to keep the conversation flowing. After an hour of munching and chatting, we all got up to serve ourselves fish soup (in mismatched bowls) right from the stove. It was lovely, and if the rest of the meal was not exactly memorable—beef stew and polenta—it was followed by excellent cheese and more tarts, cakes, and cookies than you can possibly imagine. This was not the best food I’ve ever eaten, but it was just about the best way I can imagine to make new friends.
Nothing about Café des Musées distinguishes it from any other corner bistro, but this really is a perfect little neighborhood spot in the heart of the Marais (the Picasso museum is nearby). We wandered in at lunchtime and sat in the open window; all the people hurrying by were throwing envious looks at our food. One man stared so longingly at the huge soup bowl of hand-cut French fries that came with the steak tartare that I was tempted to offer him a taste. But nothing would have possessed me to pass up a single bite of the beer-cooked duck on the 13.50-euro lunch menu. It was preceded by warm leeks in vinaigrette and accompanied by deliciously buttery sautéed potatoes and a huge salad. I’ll be back.
La Cantine de Quentin 52 R. Bichat, 10th Arrondissement (01-42-02-40-32)
Restaurant Chartier 7 R. du Faubourg-Montmartre, 9th Arrondissement (01-47-70-86-29)
Fish la Boissonerie 69 R. de Seine, 6th Arrondissement (01-43-54-34-69)
La Cave de l’Os à Moëlle 181 R. de Lourmel, 15th Arrondissement (01-45-57-28-28)
Café des Musées 49 R. de Turenne, 3rd Arrondissement (01-42-72-96-17)
More of Ruth Reichl’s inexpensive favorites:
L’Ami Jean 27 R. Malar, 7th Arrondissement (01-47-05-86-89)
Le Beurre Noisette 68 R. Vasco-de-Gama, 15th Arrondissement (01-48-56-82-49)
Christophe 8 R. Descartes, 5th Arrondissement (01-43-26-72-49)
Hier et Aujourd’hui 145 R. de Saussure, 17th Arrondissement (01-42-27-35-55)
Lapérouse 51 Quai des Grands Augustins, 6th Arrondissement (01-43-26-68-04)
Ribouldingue 10 R. St.-Julien-le-Pauvre, 5th Arrondissement (01-46-33-98-80)
Robert et Louise 64 R. Vieille-du-Temple, 3rd Arrondissement (01-42-78-55-89)
La Table de Joël Robuchon 16 Ave. Bugeaud, 16th Arrondissement (01-56-28-16-16)