Last Updated on June 29, 2023
The prestige of French food may have ebbed and flowed over the centuries, but there’s a general consensus among critics (and, of course, the French themselves) that Paris has a top-rate culinary scene with some excellent food. And often, experiences match expectations.
Exceptional produce and artisanal products are widely available in the capital, and Paris is also home to myriad legendary chefs excelling in both French and world cuisine. At its best, food in Paris is dynamic, delicious and exciting.
But what about its worst? When Julia Child – who famously brought French cooking to an American audience – asserted that in Paris she was “surrounded by some of the best food in the world”, she clearly hadn’t tasted a stale takeaway croque monsieur from Les Halles shopping mall.
Like every capital city, Paris is home to a fair share of touristy, underwhelming and overpriced eateries. I’d even go so far as to say that dining in Paris is disappointing a good deal of the time.
Chances are that if you wander into any old bistro or brasserie without much forethought or scrutiny, the food will fall short, and the prices will be high (particularly in heavily-visited arrondissements (city districts) such as the 1st, 5th, 7th and 18th.
Victim myself to one too many plates of hastily defrosted pasta dishes and canned onion soups, I quickly realized after moving here that if you’re going to eat out in Paris, you need to learn to be discerning.
While excellence can never be guaranteed, and individual tastes differ, here are some precautions you can take to separate the superb from subpar—and avoid a disappointing, or truly bad, meal in the capital.
1. Do your research using reputable sources
When it comes to restaurant recommendations, I always stick to advice from independent journalistic sources (i.e. not the restaurant sponsored or paid-for ones). Restaurants that crop up repeatedly on listicles (alongside glossy, Instagram-friendly pictures)might live up to the hype, but often they’ve been incorporated as part of a paid promotion.
This doesn’t mean that they’ll be bad — just that any writing about them might need to be read with a pinch of salt (if you’ll pardon the pun). Le Fooding, Paris by Mouth, Jonathan Nunn’s Paris column in Vittles, David Lebovitz’s reviews, and word of mouth/local recommendations are what I tend to fall back on. Oh, and avoid Trip Advisor: lots of reviews are fraudulent or biased (Marina O’Loughlin argues the case against it far more succinctly than I, here.
2. Little house icon on the menu? It’s a good sign — lots of stuff is fait maison (home-made)
The little black and white symbol — a saucepan with a roof for a lid — that you might see on some restaurant menus means that some (not all!) dishes are home-made: that is; according to French law, entirely prepared on site using unmodified ingredients. Generally, these dishes will be fresher, tastier and, importantly, won’t be a ready-made or frozen meal that’s been lazily defrosted in the oven (or worse, the microwave).
The ‘fait maison’ symbol isn’t totally authoritative, though; in fact, many restaurateurs have criticized it because there are exceptions to the rules (for ready-made products such as cheese, bread, pasta and wine for example). Nonetheless, from my experience, dishes with the frying pan-house symbol next to it are better than those without.
You can also look for restaurants that promise a “cuisine du marché” (market cuisine). At these places, chefs typically source seasonal fruit, vegetables, fish and other products used in their dishes from local markets, signaling higher quality and attention to seasonality. This is also a much more environmentally friendly way to operate restaurants: a side perk that’s nothing to sneeze at.
3. Don’t dine near tourist attractions
If you’ve just spent the better half of four hours trekking around the Louvre, I fully understand the appeal of plonking yourself down at the closest bistro or making a beeline for a nearby creperie (see a list of some of the best in the city here).
But I promise it’s well worth an extra 15-minute walk to procure some decent food. Areas surrounding the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysées, and all the major museums and tourist landmarks are breeding grounds for terrible restaurants and food stands.
Even if they look quaint and authentic (crisp white tablecloths and all) I can all but guarantee you that the cooking isn’t likely to be fresh. If you’re really not willing to travel,Paris by Mouth has a “Not Terrible Near the Eiffel Tower” guide and an excellent “Near the Louvre” guide too.
On a related note, if the menu is all in English, or in French but with hilariously bad translations such as “lawyers with mayonnaise” (avocat au mayonnaise; which actually translates to “avocado with mayonnaise”) — you haven’t walked far enough. Keep going.
4. Avoid lengthy menus
In general, places that offer epic menus—ones where dozens of main courses or on offer, or where burgers rub shoulders with pad thai and “authentic” pizzas—should be avoided. The likelihood is that the food has not been made to order (on account of there being so much to prepare), nor will it be particularly good, because the same chef who excels at pizza-making probably isn’t also a master at sushi.
Good French restaurants place value on eating seasonally, so restaurants that have small, well-considered changing menus are what you want to aim for: the key is quality, not quantity. As a side note — I asked my (Italian) partner for some additional tips, and he simply responded with ‘don’t eat pasta in Paris’.
There are (actually, several) exceptions to this rule (not least, Passerini, Il Cuoco Galante, and Come a Casa)—as well as other restaurants in our guide to a new, excellent crop of Italian eateries in Paris. That said, I wouldn’t order the spaghetti in a corner brasserie.
5. Make sure you’re au fait with French mealtimes
Restaurants in Paris are usually open for lunch between noon and 2:00 pm, for dinner between 7:00 pm and midnight (in popular areas), and you can expect breakfast formules (menus) to be on offer from 7 or 8:00 am until 11:00 am in most bistros and brasseries.
Eateries that are open all day and offer “service continu” (all-day service) usually cater to tourists, and thus you won’t typically find the freshest or tastiest food at such places. If you find yourself hungry around 3:00 pm and are in need of a goûter (snack), boulangeries, some street-food places and ice-cream shops are where to head! Which leads me to my next tip….
6. Don’t discount casual eateries such as boulangeries or traiteurs.
Pre-prepared food from a good traiteur (catering shop selling cold and hot dishes by the gram) is wildly different from supermarket ready meals: the former are often fresh and delicious.
From traiteurs you can expect homemade salads, stews, chicken, pâté, and more. There are also several different specialized traiteurs in Paris, such as Delitaly, which serves homemade Italian food.
Meanwhile,formules déjeuner (lunch deals) from city bakeries are what locals often eat for their midday meals. Fresh quiches and baguette sandwiches are the order of the day at local boulangeries — both of which make for great (and budget-friendly!) meals.
Finally, street food vendors are often open outside of “normal” meal times, making them a great option for inexpensive and quick snacks. See our complete guide to the best street food in Paris for tips on where to find the good stuff—and avoid the bad, of course.
7. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re not happy with your food or something goes wrong
Parisian waiters have a reputation for being intimidating and unapproachable (and many are!). However, for the French, cooking is a point of national pride, and if you don’t finish your food (portion sizes are smaller here than in the US) many will ask if there was something wrong.
If you’ve avoided somewhere touristy (see tip no. 3) and you are polite and respectful in your feedback, usually the waiters will rectify whatever is wrong (for instance if the steak is too tough – trop dur – or you’ve been served the wrong dish).
8. Reserve a table ahead of time.
My final tip for avoiding bad food in Paris is to reserve tables well in advance. Often you can call and bag a table on the day for casual places, but for popular restaurants, or those with limited place settings (i.e. most Parisian eateries!) you’ll need to book at least a couple of days in advance and a week or more for the most coveted tables.
Doing so will prevent you from wandering into somewhere disappointing. Top tip: if you can’t book online, call the restaurant around 11:30 am or 6:30 pm, as restaurant staff won’t always answer their phones during lunch and dinner hours.
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Paris Unlocked Associate Editor Rachel Naismith is a former micro-bakery owner and manager of a Glasgow-based food bank. She currently lives in Paris where she writes about the city’s shifting culinary landscape. Her work has appeared in publications including Palate Magazine, Travel Mag and the HIP Paris Blog.
You can see more about Rachel at rachelnaismith.com.