Fionn Davenport: Paris without the heart attack bills
Do as the Parisians do
Fionn Davenport slips past the tourist traps into a city of delights jealously guarded by its citizens
Two friends of mine who are a couple just returned from a weekend in Paris. She had never been before, so she and her boyfriend spent the weekend doing the Parisian basics: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, a wander around Montmartre. Between museums and landmarks they walked, soaking up the romance. “It was fabulous,” he said to me, “but it’s so expensive.”
That Paris is pricey is one of those immutable travel truths, like New Yorkers are brusque and you can get great deals in duty-free. And Paris isn’t just expensive, it’s obnoxiously so, with an especially cruel kind of price gouging that exploits a weakness for beautiful moments.
My friends, like so many of the 70 million-odd visitors that ooh and aah their way through Paris every year, spent their money on €10 beers in the Belle Époque cafes along the Boulevard St-Germain and in the kerb-side restaurants of the Champs Élysées, because a mediocre platter of moules-frites just tastes better if you can eat them within sight of the Arc de Triomphe.
They’re not wrong, of course, and the price you pay for so much residual glamour is often worth every cent. But while forking out a small fortune for six oysters at the outrageously ornate Café de l’Opéra is a memorable experience, it’s not an especially Parisian one, in as much as you won’t find any locals slurping shellfish at the surrounding tables.
Parisians are somewhere else, enjoying a city they jealously guard as their own and defending it from tourist intruders with unruffled hauteur and French-only menus. Parisians don’t linger on the Champs Élysées or take their morning café crème on the Place Vendôme, but they’re never far away.
Place des Vosges in the Marais is one of Europe’s most beautiful squares, laid out in the first years of the 17th century and once home to Cardinal Richelieu and Victor Hugo. Along its arcaded sides are cafes and restaurants that almost exclusively cater to tourists – bland, overpriced food and insultingly small beers. On a small street just north of the square is Chez Janou (2 Rue Roger Verlomme), a terrific bistro with a menu full of authentic Provençale dishes (all around €15) that is always packed with locals – you’ll need to dust off your school French but it’s worth the effort.
To the east, just beyond the Place de la Bastille, is Au Vieux Chêne (7 Rue du Dahomey), an old-fashioned restaurant with a zinc bar and a mouth-watering three-course evening menu for €28. Nearby, L’Ebauchoir (43 Rue de Citeaux) is marginally more expensive, but the food is sublime. And the waiters speak English.
In these restaurants the house wines are always good. That’s not always the case in restaurants with menus in six different languages and indifferent waiters who’ve perfected the art of avoiding your eye until it’s time to hand you the bill.