French chefs are looking again at how to build on their country's culinary traditions, absorbing ideas from around the world while retaining the integrity of their cuisine. There's a new spirit of imagination and focus.
Gains in the kitchen have been matched by advances in the dining room: Service is better than I have known it in more than 40 years of visits to Paris. You don't need to speak French to be well received. Even in restaurants without English menus, there is a desire to communicate and share (and you can leave the translation to your phone).
But you do need to know where to go. The tourist joints are no better than in other cities. Indeed, they are worse because they have no excuse. And the top-end restaurants are prohibitively expensive.
I asked some of France's most celebrated chefs - culinary masters weighed down with Michelin stars and other accolades - for pointers on casual places to eat great food at reasonable prices. They named 21 bistrots and brasseries that alone justify a trip to a city that has found its mojo.
Once again I love Paris.
This charming restaurant in Saint-Germain-des-Près was founded by a woman, Marthe Allard, in 1932. These days it is owned by Alain Ducasse, and the kitchen is headed by another woman, Laëtitia Rouabah. "It's a beautiful bistrot, a bit old-fashioned and really charming," says chef Helene Darroze of Helene Darroze. "Laëtitia's food is amazing." Jean-Francois Piege of Le Grand Restaurant agrees. "I love the atmosphere and the location, and the pâté en croute is simply the best," he says. If you are on a budget, the lunch menu is 34 euros ($38); a la carte prices are high, with mains starting at 34 euros for ox cheek and carrots.
41, rue Saint-André des Arts, 75006; +33 1 58 00 23 42
L’As du Fallafel
This tiny Kosher restaurant in Le Marais is a destination for lovers of Middle Eastern cuisine and has attracted attention around the world. There are often long queues outside. "I started going long ago, when I was a young man," says Thierry Marx of Sur Mesure par Thierry Marx at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. "It is the best falafel in Paris."
34 rue des Rosiers, 75004; +33 1 48 87 63 60
This is a contemporary brasserie by Alain Ducasse at a new development, the Canopée in Forum des Halles. It's large with an industrial design that won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I loved it. One wall is given over to a large board - looking like an old railway departure sign - whose letters clatter into place to tell you about soufflés that are about to come from the oven. The lobster bisque version (22 euros) is epic. Champeaux opened on April 11, and this recommendation is mine alone.
La Canopée, Forum des Halles, Port Rambuteau, 75001; +33 1 53 45 84 50
This bistrot in the 11th arrondissement is a favorite of Yannick Alleno, the celebrated chef whose restaurants include Alléno Paris at Pavillon Ledoyen. "You can eat very well here and the place is very lively and friendly," he says. "The décor is typical French bistrot style, with traditional furniture, but the food is lighter and full of flavor. There's also a great wine list. Among the dishes you must try are the Soufflé au Grand Marnier. "
44 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, 75011; +33 1 43 57 16 35
Chef Thierry Blanqui is a veteran of grand restaurants such at Tour d'Argent and Pavillon Ledoyen. At this restaurant, he serves traditional cuisine inspired by his origins in Auvergne at affordable prices. The menu is 32 euros for three courses at lunchtime and 36 euros for dinner, with tasting menus at 45 euros and 55 euros. Dishes may include poached hake, lemon juice and wild rice. "His cooking reflects his personality and the times," says Christian le Squer of Le Cinq. "He uses high-quality produce, but not always the most expensive. "
68 rue Vasco de Gama, 75015; +33 1 48 56 82 49
Chez L'Ami Louis
This small bistrot in the Third arrondissement is always crowded and popular with tourists, but that's no reason not to like it. "It's an institution," Piege says. "They serve the best roast chicken and fries. I know all the team and they are very kind." I couldn't get a table, so I'll have to take chef's word.
32 rue du Vertbois, 75003; +33 1 48 87 77 48
This neighborhood bistrot in the 11th arrondissement has fans around the world, including the TV chef Anthony Bourdain. "It's very classic, very traditional - just very good food," says Claude Bosi of Hibiscus in London. Jean-Francois Piege agrees: "They serve the best steak au poivre in Paris."
18 rue Paul Bert, 75011; +33 1 43 72 24 01
This neighborhood bistrot near the Bourse seats only about 20 diners and is owned by chef Daniel Rose and his wife, Marie-Aude. "They serve a great veal pot au feu and many bistrot classics that are made with great ingredients," says Gregory Marchand of Frenchie. "Their wine list is strong, too."
12 rue Vivienne, 75002; +33 1 42 60 08 83
Chef Yves Camdeborde's bistrot in Saint Germain is popular with Parisians and tourists alike. Even a dish as simple as a black pudding terrine with potato salad (12 euros) is rich and beautifully made, while the wine list is accessible and reasonably priced. "Yves is one of my best friends," Piege says. "I always love to go to his restaurant because it is so good and the wine list is amazing."
5 Carrefour de l'Odéon, 75006; +33 1 44 27 07 97
"This place is close to my restaurant in the Sixth," Helene Darroze says. "It's one of four opened by Christian Etchebest, a chef from southwest France. He's very well-known and he is a good guy. He cooks very well in a simple style."
79 rue du Cherche-Midi, 75006; +33 1 43 27 70 06
This, the only Italian restaurant on the list, was opened in 1978 by brothers who wanted to share the tastes of their childhood in Molise, in central Italy. The menu is seasonal and the prices are reasonable. "The food is wonderful," Thierry Marx says.
22 rue du Cherche-Midi, 75006; +33 1 45 48 27 44
This Montparnasse seafood restaurant traces its history to 1898 and has been a gathering place for artists and intellectuals for more than a century. "This is very Parisian and I like it a lot, says Pierre Gagnaire of the three-Michelin-star Pierre Gagnaire. "I've been going there for about 30 years. It's welcoming and the food is simple, not pretentious. The staff are nice." Michel Roux Sr. agrees. "This place is known for its beautiful seafood," says Roux, who held three stars at The Waterside Inn before handing on the restaurant to his son, Alain.
108 bd du Montparnasse, 75014; +33 1 43 35 25 81
This cluttered restaurant in a flea market is known for its lively atmosphere, loud music and kitsch décor, rather than its food. "The food isn't very good," says Thierry Marx, even as he enthusiastically recommends Chez Louisiette. "You go there for beer with sausages and chips. It's my kind of place. It's a lot of fun."
136 avenue Michelet, 93400 Saint-Ouen; +33 1 40 12 10 14
This bistrot (which in times gone by was a gathering place for the clowns of the Cirque d'Hiver) has attracted a lot of attention since being taken over by the team behind Saturne wine bar and restaurant. "Xavier Lacaud in the front of house and Sota Atsumi in the kitchen are a great team," Frenchie's Marchand says. "They serve great natural wine and tasty bistronomy food."
114 rue Amelot, 75011; +33 1 43 55 87 35
This seafood restaurant on the rue de Seine is one of my favorites in Paris, with a great choice of more than a dozen types of oyster along with inexpensive wines. (The waiter recommended a fine Muscadet at 21 euros a bottle.) Huguette looks like a tourist joint, with seats along the street and staff dressed in striped tops. But it is so good, I would travel to Paris for lunch to eat here. "This is authentic and very French," Gagnaire says. "The shellfish and the oysters are really fresh. The French fries and the apple tart are good, too!"
81 rue de Seine, 75006; +33 1 43 25 00 28
This chicken restaurant in the tourist heart of Montmartre is unassuming, yet it belongs to three-Michelin-star chef Antoine Westermann, and the standards are sky high. "This is the best chicken money can buy," says Pierre Koffmann of Koffmann's, who held three stars at La Tante Claire in London. "It reminds you of what chicken should taste like. I love the simplicity and I love the focus." The star is Bresse chicken with fries, macaroni cheese or salad, at 98 euros for two to four people.
98 rue Lepic, 75018; +33 1 42 59 82 89
This restaurant in the First arrondissement describes itself as a gastronomic bistrot. Chef Tomy Gousset - a veteran of Taillevent and Le Meurice - serves just five starters, five mains and five desserts. Prices start at 20 euros for a main and a dessert. "It's very simple, but very honest food," says Claude Bosi. "The wine list is particularly good, and there's a great atmosphere."
5 rue Mondétour, 75001; +33 1 40 26 47 81
This restaurant inside Les Puces, an antiques market in the north of Paris, is designed by Philippe Starck and is predictably stylish, with bare brick walls and an open kitchen. What is less expected is the friendliness and warmth of the service. It's the pick of Helene Darroze. "The food is simple but it is a very popular place and always crowded," she says. (Thierry Marx isn't so sure. "It's too chic," he says.) I loved it. The sardinettes served in a tin were beautifully sweet, and I have never seen shepherd's pie on a Paris menu before. It's lovely to sit outside on a warm day and enjoy the pitchers of cocktails and the reasonably priced wine list.
106 rue des Rosiers, 93400 Saint-Ouen; +33 1 49 51 70 00
Daily dishes are listed on a blackboard at this unfussy 17th arrondissement bistrot of French chef Ludovic Dubois, who returned to Paris after 13 years in Spain. There are Catalan influences at work in the cooking of this protégé of Michel Rostang, who is a fan: "It's a real Parisian bistrot: Every dish is mouth-watering."
10 rue de Chéroy, 75017; +33 1 42 93 10 11
This bistrot in the south of Paris serves simple, well-prepared food at very reasonable prices. A dish of pork terrine is placed at the center of the table before you even order. The set-price menu is 37 euros for three courses, including options such as a starter of seafood risotto and a main of roast duck breast with black pepper and candied turnips. "This is traditional bourgeois cuisine at its very best," Pierre Koffmann says. "The ambience is fantastic: It is very busy and very French."
49 avenue Jean Moulin, 75014; + 33 1 45 45 68 58
This bistrot in the 17th has a contemporary minimalist look, while Christophe Saintagne's cooking is modern and ambitious. The short menu features creative dishes such as Cochon fermier en promenade à Utah beach, featuring pork belly and boudin noir with edible sand with seafood (24 euros). It's a favourite of Alain Ducasse. "If I say that Papillon is a Parisian absolute must-go venue, it’s not because Christophe worked with me for more than 15 years," Ducasse says. "His cuisine is altogether contemporary and elegant, with a touch of humor that makes it an exciting experience. An example? The 'Free-range Pig Visiting Utah Beach,' pork from the South-west prepared with oysters and whelks from Normandy, Christophe’s native region." Michel Rostang is another fan. "Papillon is both chic and classic, with refined plates and flavors," he says.
8 rue Meissonier, 75017; +33 1 56 79 81 88