Harboring more Michelin-starred restaurants within its borders than many other countries combined, France is widely associated with “la haute gastronomie“: high-end cuisine that remains frustratingly inaccessible to many or most of us. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on eating out in Paris and elsewhere in the country. If you plan ahead carefully and avoid a few common mistakes, you can get away with enjoying some of the most delicious and memorable meals you’ve perhaps ever had, without going over your budget. Here are my key tips for eating out on a budget in Paris and around France.
1. Stay in rented accommodations, and cook some meals at “home”
One of the best ways to save money on meals out in France also might shave off some of your expected costs for accommodation. By opting to spend at least some of your trip in holiday rental apartments or other accommodations that offer access to a kitchen (and refrigerator), you can cut back significantly on expensive meals out.
The other advantage to this strategy? You’ll likely end up having a much more “local” experience, as you embark on the adventure of navigating French supermarkets (often fascinating, not to mention mystifying for their layout and logic).
Meanwhile, open-air farmer’s markets are also excellent places to stock up on ingredients. The cheerful, singsong cries of vendors selling everything from fresh purple artichokes to flowers and cheeses will immerse you instantly in the customs of daily life in France.
Plus, for those who enjoy cooking, this is a great opportunity to try your hand at some of those typical French dishes you’ve been collecting over months and years. Buy a nice bottle of wine, put on our ultimate playlist of songs about Paris, and get cooking. Little will make you feel less like a tourist and more like a temporary resident….I can pretty much guarantee it.
2. Nosh on some delicious, cheap street food.
When I first moved to Paris, there were (essentially) only three types of street food available: bakery sandwiches, crepes–served warm in triangular-paper-holdie-contraptions from outdoor stands– and…phenomenal falafels, procured mainly from the Rue des Rosiers in the Marais, and the centuries-old Jewish quarter there.
Oh, and I suppose ice cream and pastries might be considered street food, too– if we stretch a bit. It just wasn’t thought of in these terms. Eating on the street or on a park bench or riverside quay was mostly considered the province of tourists.
Since then, the concept itself of street food has exploded in the capital, with pop-up restaurants and coffee shops, food trucks, and markets proferring everything from burgers to Vietnamese Pho, gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches to Lebanese pizza.
If you figure out where the good places are and learn to steer away from the bad ones (believe me, after several bouts of food poisoning over the years, I can confirm that recognizing the latter is crucial), substituting a few sit-down restaurant meals for street food can be fun– all the while satisfying your inner Scrooge.
See my guide to the best street food in Paris for suggestions in the French capital, and scroll below for ideas on where to settle with your falafel, Bento box or galette with cheese and egg, watching the world go by as you dig in.
3. Stage a French-style picnic with treats from bakeries and markets.
If you’d rather put together a delicious spread yourself, the warmer months afford excellent opportunities for staging French-style picnics, from simple to elaborate.
Procure some good-quality bread and pastries from a bakery near your hotel, or on the way to your desired picnic spot. Pick up some cheese from a fromager, fresh fruit from a market stall (you can always wash any produce by bringing along some water specifically for the task), perhaps a bar of chocolate or other sweets, and (if desired) a bottle of wine or bubbly. Don’t forget to buy a mini bottle-opener (or pack one in your suitcase before your trip). Most wine bottles are not fitted with screw-off tops in France.
For an idyllic al fresco lunch, choose a spot with good people-watching opportunities, or a lush bit of lawn in one of Paris’ most beautiful parks and gardens. Not only will you cut back on eating in a sit-down restaurant. You’ll get some fresh air and slow down enough to really appreciate wherever you happen to perch for a spell.
See more on the best places for picnics in Paris (with some useful tips on how to assemble a typical French pique-nique.)
4. Take advantage of less-expensive lunch menus at higher-end restaurants.
This is hardly a secret, but it’s still an excellent principle to keep in mind: At most restaurants in France, even the most expensive and sought-after, lunch tends to be less expensive than dinner. Sometimes, particularly if you go for fixed-priced menus, it’s possible to taste Michelin-starred culinary creations (or ones of a similar calibre) for relatively reasonable prices.
Before deciding whether to lunch at a restaurant you’ve been dreaming of trying for months, try to visit its official website and get a hold of the lunch menu. If it’s all “a la carte”, it’s unlikely going at lunch will offer any significant savings. But if the restaurant offers fixed “formules déjeuner” or cartes de midi (noon menus), you may be surprised to note that the prices are significantly lower compared to the dinner menus.
If in doubt or the restaurant doesn’t have online menus, head out a bit early and visit the restaurant in person, asking if they have any aforementioned “formules déjeuner”. Many will include several courses, or a main course accompanied with wine or other beverage.
In short, don’t despair if you’re aching to try a restaurant you saw profiled on Condé Nast Traveler or your favorite food blog, but believe it’s out of range. Sometimes, the lunch-menu trick can easily solve that issue.
This is especially true if you use some of the other strategies for cutting back on restaurant costs mentioned above and below. Personally, I’d rather splurge on one or two fantastic meals and eat frugally the rest of the time, than spend the same amount on mediocre restaurants for every meal.
5. Go for brunch.
This one’s admittedly a little paradoxical, because brunch can be ridiculously expensive in France– especially in Paris, where it’s often an occasion less for eating and drinking and more for lounging around in the late afternoon to “see and be seen” in fashionable places.
Luckily, though, there are plenty of places in Paris (and elsewhere in France) that emphasize excellent food (plus tea, coffee, and/or brunch cocktails) alongside or over style and ambience. By holding off on breakfast and enjoying one large meal near the middle of the day, you can often end up saving money– not to mention cutting back on the fatigue of decision-making.
See our full guide to the best places in brunch in Paris, from American-style “greasy-spoon” diners serving huge pancake breakfasts, to places like the Breizh Café & Cider Bar, where you can indulge in a delicious brunch of savory and sweet crepes, salads, cheeses, and Breton-cider based cocktails, among other fare.
6. Avoid tourist-trap tables and areas.
I don’t know about you, but little irritates me more when traveling than spending unnecessary money on a mediocre or awful meal. Especially in a place like France, where you’d expect pretty much any restaurant to be serving at least decent fare, it’s both surprising and disappointing when you get a lemon– and ended up forking over a huge chunk of your daily food budget.
One simple way to avoid this scenario, aside from reading reviews of restaurants before venturing to try them out? Steer clear of restaurants in touristy areas that are obvious tourist trips. Usually, the easiest way to spot these sorts of places is the presence of staff standing outside and attempting to usher you to a table, or not giving you the space and time to examine the menu before insisting you’re in for the “best” seafood, steak, pizza, or cassoulet in town.
Avoid these sorts of places at all costs. And while I’m not suggesting that areas with high tourist traffic house only bad restaurants (this is obviously untrue), there are a few ways to figure out which ones to steer clear of. See more in my full guide to avoiding tourist traps and scams in Paris and France.
7. Check for special offers and discounts at select restaurants.
Finally, it’s possible to lock in significant discounts on lunch or dinner at many restaurants around France, through sites including The Fork. Just search for the type of restaurant you wish to book for, then filter results to show those offering discounts and other offers. These can rise to around 50% for certain restaurants and meals. If you already have an account with The Fork, you can also use “Yums” reward points towards the price of your meal.
There are hundreds of participating restaurants around France, many of which are decent to excellent. I’ve used The Fork many times to try tables that were otherwise a bit out range for my current budget.
There are, of course, other discount schemes for eating out that might include restaurants in France, but I haven’t tried them and so am unable to vouch for whether they’re any good.