Saturday, March 1, 2008

Out and About in Paris

Everyone has an opinion about Paris. Most people love Paris (we did too), but nearly everyone we talked to offered at least a few words of warning in advance. Some of these we’ve heard for years:
(1) Parisians are notoriously rude;
(2) Paris is dirty, busy, fast-paced, and riddled with pigeons;
(3) Traffic in Paris is crazy and drivers try to run you down;
(4) It is hard to walk down the street without tripping over a mime, a poodle, or something left behind by the poodle.

Maggie dans Le Métro

It turns out that most of these are not true, at least in our limited experience. On the rudeness scale, Londoners way outdo Parisians - it isn’t even close. People on narrow Parisian sidewalks will make room for you as you walk by, and no one is running and shoving in the Metro stations. Cars will stop for you when you cross the street in Paris; in London, drivers will accelerate just for the glee they get from watching you run in fear. Paris, in terms of European cities, was not especially dirty or pigeon-covered. Perhaps during the summer, when it gets overrun by tourists, this may change, but after seeing Venice in the Summer, where you have to wade through drifts of pigeons to cross a plaza, I doubt it could be too bad. We did see some poodles (and lots of other dogs), and there is an alarming amount of dog poo to avoid. While we saw no mimes (alas), we did at least see one living statue.

Andy tipping the living statue after she was heckled by a passerby

Another thing we heard from several people before we went was a warning about the food: good food is really hard to find in Paris and most food is expensive and bad. On Sundays, this was very true since all of the local spots close down and you’re mostly left with touristy or chain options that you can otherwise avoid. In fact, the only time we encountered the notorious Parisian attitude was from a waiter at a semi-phony cafe we were forced to eat at on Sunday; he half-heartedly pretended that he couldn’t understand our very clearly spoken orders, forcing us to point at the menu. Don’t eat at T.G.I. Vendredi’s. But on other days of the week we really had no problem finding good food (finding light food proved to be the biggest challenge).

Our amazing lunch at Le Comptoir in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Yes, that is a slab of butter on top of the cheese.

It does help to do a little research on the web in advance to see what real people are recommending on sites like ChowHound, although this can sometimes lead to more confusion because hyper-opinionated e-people often strongly disagree. Most tourist guidebooks will be of little help with food; they can sometimes be helpful for finding the super expensive destination restaurants, but will never be very helpful for finding the small local spots that tourists like us really want to find. The problem is, naturally, related to Heisenberg’s important but lesser-known Bistro Uncertainty Principle: once Lonely Planet or some other guide company lists a small local restaurant in their book, the small local restaurant ceases to exist as it once was and starts to suck. Heisenberg probably said it more elegantly.

Caught eating Nerds sur une Corde

Hotel concierges are also mostly useless sources of restaurant advice since they often assume you want something touristy, unless you somehow manage to convince them otherwise. Thanks to a well meaning but very misguided bit of concierge advice, we were directed into a Waikiki-esque tourist trap area in the Latin Quarter full of glaring neon lights and aggressive restaurant hawkers. We escaped as quickly as possible, averting our eyes from the hideous spectacle - Maggie later referred to this experience as our “hero’s journey out of hell”.

So tourists are generally left to their own devices to find the little local restaurants. Apart from hunting on the internet for secret hints from other travelers, there are some general rules one should follow that served us well in Paris:
(1) Avoid restaurants on busy commercial streets like you avoid someone with pink-eye;
(2) Several blocks away from busy commercial streets, where rents become a bit more affordable, you are highly likely to find some good food;
(3) Also avoid corner restaurants and restaurants with amazing views - these places tend to try to use their location to distract from their mediocre food;
(4) Beware any restaurant that has English translations, especially on the outside of the building;
(5) When in doubt, ask a cabby;
(6) Do as locals do, order local specialties even if they sound strange;
(7) Don’t eat a hamburger or hotdog anywhere outside the US - it just isn’t worth the risk.

A quiet street in Saint-Germain-de-Prés

Following these rules, we had some really great food in Paris. Now we have to eat fruit and fiber for a month to recover from the rich food, but it was worth it.

Stay tuned for more pictures and a second Paris post by Maggie...

1 comment:

RWAppleWannabe said...

Le Comptoir and the Joel Robuchon Atelier are fantastic choices - I hope you enjoyed both! :) Although, given how much press Le Comptoir gets, I worry about the Heisenberg Bistro Principle you just articulated.

Looking forward to hearing about the rest of your Paris trip!