France is a place of superlatives. It’s a country that is surrounded by cliché, but somehow still manages to defy expectation. It has glorious rivers, mountains, and forests, but it also contains some of the most well-known city streets on the planet. France is both ordinary and extraordinary, in a way that has to be experienced to be believed.
After two of the worst terrorist attacks in recent history, it is the indomitable spirit of the French that continues to impress. Within days of each attack, they were back out on their terraces, drinking wine and eating the best food that the world has to offer. In fact, food is a great way to gain an understanding of this defiant nation; like their cuisine, the French may give the illusion of delicacy and fragility, but their true flavor will surprise you.
This guide to five of the best dining experiences in France will help you decide where to start your culinary adventure.
As far as French restaurants go, you’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic place than the lavish Le Meurice. This gorgeous dining room has been heavily renovated over the last few years, but a lot of work has been put into preserving that distinct Gallic aesthetic. It is a beautiful place to eat, with a mosaic floor, stunning chandeliers, and a pleasant view of the public gardens. Make no mistake, this is old fashioned dining, but without the outdated service.
The setting may be formal, but the atmosphere is surprisingly warm. Head chef, Yannic Alleno, is the proud owner of three Michelin stars and his creative dishes are enriched by an intimate knowledge of classic, vintage methods. The spit roasted pigeon, marinated in red wine, and served with red cabbage is a particular favorite here. You can, of course, dive into a hearty bowl of snails too, if they take your fancy.
Now, it’s clear that haute cuisine is not for everybody. However, it’s something that many French restaurants specialize in and no culinary experience here would be complete without it. While the prices at L’Astrance are certainly nothing to be scoffed at, they come with a guarantee of quality; one that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. This little restaurant is cozy, warm, and friendly. It also serves unbelievable food.
The chef, Pascal Barbot, was taught by legendary cook Alain Passard. He also spent some time as the private chef for the head of the French Pacific Fleet, so he has the right credentials. A few years, he made the news for serving veg exclusive tasting menus and it is this playfulness that comes through in his food. The menus at L’Astrance are never the same for long, but past diners have been enthralled by the turbot with spinach and sea urchins.
This is an interesting prospect; an American cooking celebrated, award winning French food, in the heart of Paris. Chef Daniel Rose was born in Chicago, but destined to end up somewhere very different. In 2010, he moved into a 17th century house and transformed it into restaurant Spring. Since then, he’s been welcoming intrepid diners and enthusiastic foodies with a vibrant Basque inspired menu.
Popular dishes include the country trout with avocado and the grilled New Caledonian prawns. As Spring is so highly regarded, it can be tricky to land yourself a reservation here. The waiting list is usually quite daunting, even during low points in the season. However, the wine bar downstairs (Buvette) doesn’t require a reservation and it serves a limited selection of hot and cold tasting menus. If you don’t wait to wait, but are keen to try Spring, this is the way to do it.
In many ways, Les Tablettes is a bit of a rebellion against the trendy, faux casual vibe that has swept across France over the last five years. The prices are high, the décor is something special, and the atmosphere is unapologetically swanky. If you want to sample the finest French cuisine, in an authentic French environment, this could be the right place for you. It is elegant and high class, without being drab or boring; it does have some quirky touches.
The head chef at Les Tablettes is Jean Louis Nomico. He’s a big name in France, because he trained with respected chef Alain Ducasse and formerly worked at high society establishment, Lasserre. There is a distinctly rustic flavor to his dishes, which might be explained by the fact that Nomico is a country boy. For a real treat, try the spectacular veal sweetbreads or the earthy squid and artichoke barigoule.
Ze Kitchen Galerie
This trendy eatery is intentionally minimalistic and clean. It is surrounded by unassuming art galleries and an attempt has clearly been made to mimic their unpretentious vibe. The result is an atmosphere that often feels serious, but mostly unintimidating. The white floors and steel furniture are, thankfully, not indicative of an absence of warmth. And, if you’re bold enough to step through the doors of Ze Kitchen Galerie, you’ll be treated to something special.
At this restaurant, classic French cuisine is blended with Asian fusion. The head chef, William Ledeuil, has an unabashed obsession with the continent and has filled his menu with oriental flavours and ingredients. For example, there’s the curious, but very popular, grilled monkfish with a Thai seasoned sauce vierge. Or, the Sardinian pasta with a Thai herb pesto. It’s definitely European food, but there are more than a few surprises at Ze Kitchen Galerie.
Selecting the Right French Restaurant for You
All five of the restaurants outlined above have fully responsive websites, so it should be easy to find and plan your next culinary experience. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, there are also plenty of guides and review websites that can help you compare prices, menus, décor, service, and location.
You may even be able to make a reservation online, but do be aware that the exclusivity of many French restaurants means that you may have to call establishments directly. There is no guarantee of a reservation at restaurants with long waiting lists, but one of the best things about France is that there is certainly no lack of great places to eat.