I used to visit Paris a lot. My first visit was with my family when I was 11 and I had been learning French at school for a few months. My parents’ expectations of just how fast one can learn a new language were wildly unrealistic and I was woefully unable to translate menus or place orders in French, but I still loved the trip. Fast forward a few years and French was not only one of my favourite subjects, it was one I was pretty good at. By the time I did my sixth form college French language exchange I was able to confidently babble away in French, even though I knew there were still huge inaccuracies in my grammar. After spending a few months of my gap year working as an au pair in a teeny tiny village in France (during which I spent most weekends in Paris), I was finally pretty much fluent.
Paris quickly became a favourite city to visit and I went often – with various different friends, with my sister and with Pete, loving the role of showing them a city I loved, and being able to use my language skills as well. I lost count of the number of trips I spent exploring the streets of each Paris arrondissement, visiting the sights, jumping on and off the Paris metro, shopping at food markets and supermarkets, finding the coolest vintage clothes at the flea markets of St Ouen and eating gloriously cheap prix fixe menus in one of the plethora of classic bistros all around the city.
Paris was not only affordable, even on a student’s budget, it was a foreign city that was at the same time increasingly familiar. And of course, the food was a huge draw.
But somewhere along the line, my quest to see more of the world overtook the pull of the familiar and Paris fell from my thoughts. The last time I visited was when Pete and I took our niece Rosie to Paris when she was 13, and we delighted in sharing her discovery of the joys of travel. That was back in 2001!
Fast forward to earlier this year when I was invited to attend Paris Le Plus Grand Bistrot – an awards ceremony celebrating the best 100 bistros in Paris. As well as attending the awards themselves, hosted in the incredibly grand and lavish Marie (town hall) building, the itinerary also included visits to three Parisian bistros, a French cookery lesson, a food walking tour and a visit to Rungis International Food Market (more of which soon).
All 100 bistros recognised in Paris Le Plus Grand Bistrot showcased the following qualities in their bistros:
- Enhance French culinary know-how; embody bistronomy
- Offer a fairly priced menu
- Prioritise direct sourcing of high quality products
- Embody the identify of their locality
- Put the emphasis on a warm welcome, and the conviviality that is characteristic of Parisian bistros
- Offer a diverse wine list that complements the food
After the formal awards ceremony, we enjoyed a buffet with dishes created by many of the same chefs and their teams, sharing some of their signature dishes in miniature form.
Bistronomy – a portmanteau of bistro and gastronomy – represents the enjoyment of superbly cooked, high quality ingredients served in a friendly bistro environment. Classic French bistro fare has been revitalised, using some of the techniques and attention to detail of classic gastronomy, but it is served without all the pomp, circumstance and hefty price tags of the old school.
The word itself was coined back in the nineties by French journalist Sébastien Demorand in response to the intentions expressed by recognised founder of this culinary movement, chef Yves Camdeborde. The idea has been slowly but surely been gaining ground for 25 years, but it’s in the last few years that bistronomy has really come into its own, embraced wholeheartedly by the new generation of young French restaurateurs and chefs. Even the long-established doyens of the industry – who earned their reputations running high-end temples to traditional gastronomy – are now launching casual eateries where their food can enjoyed by a wider range of customers.
Of the 100 bistros awarded, many are the epitomy of modern dining – often tucked in to spaces that are too small for a classic restaurant, and with an altogether different vibe. Others have the more traditional trappings, but embody bistronomy by virtue of their menus – a step beyond the steak-frites of old.
Le Réfectoire – though inexplicably not included in the 100 – is just such a place. It’s a cosy and casual restaurant bar squeezed into a small unit within the Marché Saint Martin, one of Paris’ many neighbourhood food markets. In 2012 chef Valentine Davase launched her business in a food truck, one of the first in Paris – another trend that’s exploded in recent years. The success of the truck also lead Davase to launch a catering business and it was this which resulted in her finding and taking on a preparation kitchen space within the market. With space to spare, she opened a counter-style restaurant within the unit in 2015.
Davase’s menu pays homage to the traditional recipes that her grandmother passed on to her, not to mention the respect for good quality produce which she instilled in her granddaughter at a young age. However Le Réfectoire’s menu also reflects a more modern creativity not to mention influences from Davase’s training at the Paris Ritz.
The menu is short and sweet with two choices each for starter and main and one dessert. For two courses, it’s 16 Euros, for the full three courses 20 Euros – quite a steal if you ask me!
Our lunch started with charcuterie and rillettes served with crusty brown bread. My starter of salmon tartar was the winning dish of the meal for me, served with a scattering of crunchy hazelnuts and the most surprising and delightful hazelnut foam. For my main I chose the duck breast, which came with polenta (I’d have preferred the potatoes listed on the board menu), mango, rocket and balsamic. Afterwards, a fondant chocolate cake.
Service (from the lovely Lilou) was charming and attentive without any of the haughtiness that I remember from many of the old-style bistros I visited in days gone by, and of course the food was delicious.
Another favourite from my visit was Anicia, the restaurant of François Gagnaire. Gagnaire ran a michelin-starred restaurant many years before deciding to open a different type of restaurant entirely, and in Paris this time. Here he shares his very novel take on cooking, drawing on both the produce and cuisine of his home region, the Haute-Loire. While the cooking is far more innovative and unusual than most Parisian bistros, the setting is very much bistro casual, without the starchy tablecloths and silver service of his
Our dishes here include slices of radish hung on a mini washing line and served with butter and salt. After that a little “Pot de Fleurs du Velay” plant of cocoa and mushroom “soil” over a Puy lentil base then a gorgeous beef tartare and salad. Next, my favourite – a main of perfectly cooked gilt-head bream (dorade in French) with wild garlic leaves, mushrooms and mixed vegetables, each element tasting intensely of itself in the most wonderful way. To end, a creme brulee featuring more of those Puy lentils, served with a perfect warm honey madeleine. And then a box of little sweet treats – financiers, chocolate nougat and pate de fruit over a bed of cacao nibs.
The prices at Anicia are quite a bit higher than Le Réfectoire – and reflect the space, the more elevated style of cooking and the reputation and training of the chef – but at 59 Euros for a five course menu (94 Euros with matching wines) they are still what I’d consider reasonable for cooking of this calibre and inventiveness.
Revisiting Paris after so many years feels like rediscovering an old friend, one that’s had a bit of a shake down as she moved into the new century – a new style, an altogether more grown up pleasure in eating out, and a new confidence! Definitely time to plan my next trip, and I won’t be leaving it 16 years this time!
Check out this 3 day Paris itinerary, these tips for a first visit to Paris, and these suggestions for some great day trips from Paris.
Kavey Eats visited Paris courtesy of the Paris Convention & Visitors Bureau and Atout France with the help of Travel Insight.
Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!61 Comments to "Bistronomie | Paris Bistros in the Twenty Teens"
Hi Kavy, great article! You might be interested in Lindsey Tramuta’s new book, “The New Paris”. Lindsey has some interesting insights into how several aspects of Paris culture are evolving.
Thanks so much for this tip Katharine, will seek out the book!
I love Paris and ir would be great to go back with a list of places to try. It was a bit hit or miss on my last 3 visits.
Yes, I would say the last couple of times I went back before the long absence, it was harder to find great places, we ended up feeling let down by a couple that were clearly just offering up any old crap to tourists. But certainly two of the three places we went to on this trip were fantastically good and I’d feel more confident about seeking out the newer casual places like Le Refectoire ahead of my next trip.
I love the story behind this post! Paris looks absolutely amazing. Thank you for sharing!
Thanks Luci, it was a bit indulgent taking that trip down memory lane before getting down to sharing all about this trip, but I enjoyed writing it!
Absolutely gorgeous photos! The last time I went to Paris, I was only three years old. Would love to go back someday and eat my way through the city.
Oh yes, you must go back as an adult and experience Paris again for yourself! Eat your way through the food markets as well as these lovely bistros!
We were in Paris two years ago and made it our mission to eat in as many bistros as we could. After reading your piece, I see that I’ve missed plenty — and I have no choice but to return. Kudos to you on learning French, btw. I never did, but my brother and mother are fluent. I am jealous.
I was lucky that my first French language teacher in school was French, and I have that ear for mimicking as well, which made it easier to get the accent right. My vocabulary these days is woefully shrunk as is my memory of grammar and tenses but I loved babbling away again on this trip, inaccurate though it was, it did the job of communicating!
Your photos are beautiful, and not only are they beautiful, but they have made me really miss Paris. I haven’t been in 5 years and I must go back soon.
Aaw, thanks Dannii, I really felt such a rush of love for the city being back after so long, made me determined to book a trip for Pete and I soon.
What a gorgeous post, I haven’t been to Paris in over 10 years, I need to make reservations asap!
Ahaah, yes time to revisit!
I have never been to Paris….but from what you say it sounds wonderful. FOOD FOOD FOOD to die for. I think I would need to bring my stretchy pants for sure.
It is one of the world’s great cities!
I’d love to go to Paris. Not just for the food, but I’ll admit that does play a big part. I’d love to taste authentic baked Camembert. The salmon tartare with hazelnuts sounds amazing!
I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered baked camembert in Paris, but I’ve certainly had some great dishes!
Oh Paris! What a exquisite destination for the belly, but also the eyes! Some of the best food I’ve ever had was out there. Nothing like a nice Rillette and some fresh baguette! and don’t start me on the cheeses… Je vais prendre en note ton restaurant pour l’essayer la prochaine fois que je passe par là. En te souhaitant plusieurs autres visites dans la ville Lumière!
Aaw, what a lovely comment, and merci pour vos gentils voeux, I do hope you are able to visit these two lovely bistros on your next visit!
I have never actually visited Paris! I would love to go, especially for the food!
It’s a great city, the food is a definitely part of the attraction.
Paris is such a fabulous city and known for its gastronomy. Your photos have made me want to return!
Thanks, that’s a lovely compliment. Hope you get back there soon.
Oh wow!! I go there for the food. I would love to see Paris when Julia Child was there. The history, food, and beauty…
Yes, there’s so much history, so much culture and art, great architecture, all the usual aspects of a capital city, and then there’s the food too!
Ugh – you’re making me jealous. I lived in Paris for a semester in grad school and it was heaven. I would love to move back. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed their bistros!
Aaw, what a great experience that must have been!
Beautiful and descriptive post. I’m a total foodie and France is the epitome of culinary greatness, so this is just wonderful to read about. I have been to Paris a few times, but as a proper tourist so never really got down to exploring the heart of the city. Someday I hope to really appreciate it’s culinary offerings in much detail.
More and more I love to explore the food scene as a different route into understanding the culture and people of a place.
I used to live and work in Paris and loved going to the fancy bistros. So much on offer on the menu. Love reading this informative post and loving the photos. 🙂
It’s one of the lovely pleasures of Paris isn’t it?
That is so funny about your parents expecting you to be able to speak just after a few months, but how amazing that your love for the language just grew and grew. The French definitely know about food, and have some of the best cuisines if you ask me. You are making me want to return!
Yeah, more my dad really. Don’t worry though, I wasn’t too scarred by it! A wonderful cuisine indeed.
Amazing post! I love how you described Paris at the beginning. I feel exactly the same. I first visited Paris few years ago and since then kept coming back more and more. Paris always felt like a foreign city but at the same time I felt like I belong there..and everyhting is so familiar and nice. I’d love to try our these places nex time in Paris.Thanks 🙂
Sounds like you have a really personal connection with Paris – some places really hit us like that don’t they? Hope you make it back there soon.
When we visited Paris we were on a budget so we spent our money on the main attractions rather than gastronomy – but that looks like it was mistake. I’d love to go back and gorge myself in all these fabulous restaurants!
I think a lot of Paris is free, or not too expensive, though of course you’ll have to pay for some things – going up Eiffel or entering museums… but so much of the charm is in walking around and seeing, and against that, yes spend your money on food. There are many affordable ones, not just the pricy places!
I feel a bit jealous that you’ve been to Paris so many times…I’ve visited the city only once and really really want to go back again 🙂
I am visiting the city once again after so many years must’ve been fun and emotional too. Clearly you had a great time and I am sure too that you will be back in less than 16 years 🙂
It is so easy from England, remember that we can just hop over on a short flight or the Eurostar. The train is really convenient because I live half an hour from King’s Cross where the London terminus is!
What a lovely post to read! I can totally identify with you, Paris used to be like a second home for me, before the kids came along. I’ll have to bookmark this for the next visit.
Oh how lovely, I hope you make it back soon!
I love reading about travel and all the discoveries that go along with it!
Thanks, glad you enjoyed.
These experiences all sound wonderful. What an incredible experience to be invited to share!
Yeah, really great opportunity.
I love bistronomy… the idea that they are taking that cuisine seriously without being stuffy about it! Those meals look wonderful.
Yes, you nailed it, that’s what I love too.
I’ve always wanted to visit Paris and your article just made me want to go even more!
Hope you can make it soon!
It think it’s great fun to try and order from a menu in a foreign language. You could just point and guess and take pot luck. Or you could try sign language! Paris is such a lovely city but it is surprising how many people do speak English.
Menus in Paris don’t tend to have photographs on so nothing to point at, but to be honest, you could get buy with a translation phone app or an old fashioned guide book with phrases section. And yes, many people do speak English, as it’s a huge tourist destination, but you will certainly encounter places where staff are reluctant to do so, and using a country’s own language is always more polite, in my opinion!
Paris is one of the top destinations in the world for a reason! And people should really experience it at least once or several times! LOL. They will fall in love to know that there’s more to it than the Eiffel Tower!
Absolutely agree, there’s a lot to explore and enjoy in Paris, beyond the Eiffel Tower – though I do love how it pops into view around so many corners!
I want to visit Paris! I promised myself to explore more than Eiffel Tower when I get there! And this post is making me crazy! You are so descriptive I crave for Paris more! Haha. Thank you!
Thank you, hope you enjoy Paris!
I wish I could write even half as good as you do! What a beautifully written post, I enjoyed every delicious morsel of it!
Tosh, I love your writing, your blog, your creativity. But I’m glad you enjoyed the post!
One of my favourite things to do in Paris is to find a new bistro – or a new ‘old’ bistro. I’m looking forward to my God daughter being there for a few months – and planning to explore a bit more so I will check this out closer to the time.
Ooh wonderful, hope this helps you find some good places!