paris brasserie photo

Photo by innacoz

The most important tip I can give you on France  local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting France, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.

What to Eat in France

With its international reputation for fine dining, few people would be surprised to hear that French cuisine can certainly be very good. Unfortunately, it can also be quite disappointing; many restaurants serve very ordinary fare, and some in touristy areas are rip-offs.

Finding the right restaurant is therefore very important – try asking locals, hotel staff or even browsing restaurant guides for recommendations as simply walking in off the street can be a hit and miss affair. There are many places to try French food in France, from three-star Michelin restaurants to French “brasseries” or “bistros” that you can find at almost every corner, especially in big cities. These usually offer a relatively consistent and virtually standardised menu of relatively inexpensive cuisine.

Money savings tip: try to eat where the locals do for the best chance of a memorable meal. Most small cities or even villages have local restaurants which are sometimes listed in the most reliable guides.

There are also specific local restaurants, like “bouchons lyonnais” in Lyons, “crêperies” in Brittany (or in the Montparnasse area of Paris), etc. Chinese, Vietnamese, even Thai eateries are readily available in Paris, either as regular restaurants or “traiteurs” (fast-food). They are not so common, and are more expensive, in smaller French cities. Many places have “Italian” restaurants though these are often little more than unimaginative pizza and pasta parlors.

You will also find North African (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) as well as Greek and Lebanese food. The ubiquitous hamburger eateries (US original or their French copies) are also available; note that McDonalds is more upmarket in France than in the US. In France, taxes (7 per cent of the total in restaurants) and service (usually 15 per cent) are always included in the bill, so anything patrons add to the bill amount is an “extra-tip”. French people usually leave one or two coins if they were happy with the service.

Fixed price menus seldom include beverages. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water (Évian, Thonon) or fizzy water (Badoit, Perrier), at a premium; ask for a carafe d’eau for tap water, which is free and safe to drink. Water never comes with ice in it unless so requested (and water with ice may not be available). As in other countries, restaurants tend to make a large profit off beverages. Expect wine to cost much more than it would in a supermarket. Ordering is made either from fixed price menus (prix fixe) or à la carte. A typical fixed price menu will comprise: appetizer, called entrées or hors d’œuvres main dish, called plat dessert (dessert) or cheese (fromage) Sometimes, restaurants offer the option to take only two of three steps, at a reduced price. Coffee is always served as a final step (though it may be followed by liquors). A request for coffee during the meal will be considered strange.

Not all restaurants are open for lunch and dinner, nor are they open all year around. It is therefore advisable to check carefully the opening times and days. A restaurant open for lunch will usually start service at noon and accept patrons until 13:30. Dinner begins at around 19:30 and patrons are accepted until 21:30. Restaurants with longer service hours are usually found only in the larger cities and in the downtown area. Finding a restaurant open on Saturday and especially Sunday can be a challenge unless you stay close to the tourist areas.

In a reasonable number of restaurants, especially outside tourist areas, a booking is compulsory and people may be turned away without one, even if the restaurant is clearly not filled to capacity. For this reason, it can be worthwhile to research potential eateries in advance and make the necessary reservations to avoid disappointment, especially if the restaurant you’re considering is specially advised in guide books. A lunch or dinner for two on the “menu” including wine and coffee will cost you (as of 2004) €70 to €100 in a listed restaurant in Paris. The same with beer in a local “bistro” or a “crêperie” around €50. A lunch or dinner for one person in a decent Chinese restaurant in Paris can cost as little as €8 if one looks carefully.

Outside of Paris and the main cities, prices are not always lower but the menu will include a fourth course, usually cheese. As everywhere beware of the tourist traps which are numerous around the heavy travelled spots and may offer a nice view but not much to remember in your plate.

Bread

All white bread variants keep for only a short time and must be eaten the same day. Hence bakers bake at least twice a day. The famous baguette: a long, thin loaf Variants of the baguette : la ficelle (even thinner), la flûte Pain de campagne or Pain complet: made from whole grain which keeps relatively well. Pastries Pastries are a large part of French cooking. Hotel breakfasts tend to be light, consisting of tartines (pieces of bread with butter or jam) or the famous croissants and pains au chocolat, not dissimilar to a chocolate filled croissant (but square rather than crescent shaped).

Pastries can be found in a pâtisserie but also in most boulangeries. Regional dishes Every French region has dishes all its own. These dishes follow the resources (game, fish, agriculture, etc) of the region, the vegetables (cabbage, turnip, endives, etc) which they grow there. Here is a small list of regional dishes which you can find easily in France.

Generally each region has a unique and widespread dish (usually because it was poor people’s food): Cassoulet (in south west) : Beans, duck, pork & sausages Choucroute, or sauerkraut (in Alsace) : stripped fermented cabbage + pork Fondue Savoyarde (central Alps) : Melted/hot cheese with alcohol Fondue Bourguignonne (in Burgundy) : Pieces of beef (in boiled oil), usually served with a selection of various sauces.

Raclette (central Alps) : melted cheese & potatoes/meat Pot-au-feu boiled beef with vegetables Boeuf Bourguignon (Burgundy) : slow cooked beef with gravy Gratin dauphinois (Rhone-Alpes) : oven roasted slices of potatoes Aligot (Auvergne) : melted cheese mixed with a puree of potatoes

Bouillabaisse (fish + saffron) (Marseille and French Riviera). Don’t be fooled. A real bouillabaisse is a really expensive dish due to the amount of fresh fish it requires. Be prepared to pay at least €30/persons. If you find restaurants claiming serving bouillabaisse for something like €15/persons, you’ll get a very poor quality.

Tartiflette (Savoie) Reblochon cheese, potatoes and pork or bacon.

Confit de Canard (Landes) : Duck Confit, consists of legs and wings bathing in grease. That grease is actually very healthy and, with red wine, is one of the identified sources of the so-called “French Paradox” (eat richly, live long).

Foie Gras (Landes) : The liver of a duck or goose. Although usually quite expensive, foie gras can be found in supermarkets for a lower price (because of their purchasing power) around the holiday season. It is the time of year when most of foie gras is consumed in France. It goes very well with Champagne.

Cooking and drinking is a notable part of the French culture, take time to eat and discover new dishes… Unusual foods if you are served escargots or snails, you will usually also get a slim and specialised fork to eat them with. Contrary to stereotype, snails and frog legs are quite infrequent foods in France, with many French people enjoying neither, or sometimes never having even tasted them. Quality restaurants sometimes have them on their menu: if you’re curious about trying new foods, go ahead. Frogs’ legs have a very fine and delicate taste with flesh that is not unlike chicken. They are often served in a garlic dressing and are no weirder to eat than, say, crab. Most of the taste of Bourgogne snails (escargots de bourgogne) comes from the generous amount of butter, garlic and parsley in which they are cooked. They have a very particular spongy-leathery texture that is the characteristic that is liked by people who like snails.

Catalan style snails (“cargols”) are made a completely different way, and taste much weirder. Let us also cite: Rillettes sarthoises also known as Rillettes du Mans. A sort of potted meat, made from finely shredded and spiced pork. A delicious speciality of the Sarthe area in the north of the Pays de la Loire and not to be confused with rillettes from other areas, which are more like a rough pate. Beef bone marrow (os à moelle). Generally served in small quantities, with a large side. So go ahead: If you don’t like it, you’ll have something else to eat in your plate.

Veal sweetbread (ris de Veau), is a very fine (and generally expensive) delicacy, often served with morels, or in more elaborates dishes like “bouchees a la reine”. Beef bowels (tripes) is served either “A la mode de Caen” (with a white wine sauce, named after the town in Normandy) or “A la catalane” (with a slightly spiced tomato sauce) Andouillettes are sausages made from tripe, a speciality of Lyon Tricandilles are seasoned and grilled pork tripe from the Bordeaux region Beef tongue (langue de bœuf) and beef nose(museau) and Veal head (tête de veau) are generally eaten cold (but thoroughly cooked!) as an appetizer. Oysters (Huîtres) are most commonly served raw in a half shell. They are often graded by size, No1 being the largest (and most expensive).

Oursins (sea urchins)

For those who like concentrated iodine. Steak tartare a big patty of ground beef cured in acid as opposed to cooked, frequently served with a raw egg. Good steak tartare will be prepared to order at your table. A similar dish is boeuf carpaccio, which is thin slices or strips of raw steak drizzled with olive oil and herbs. Cervelle (pronounced ser-VELL), lamb brain. Cheese France is certainly THE country of cheese, with nearly 400 different kinds. Indeed, former president General Charles De Gaulle was quoted as saying “How can you govern a country which has 365 varieties of cheese?”. Here is a far from exhaustive list of what one can find: Bleu des Causses Livarot Roquefort Bleu du Vercors Morbier Saint Nectaire Boulette d’Avesnes Maroilles Salers Brie de Meaux Munster Sainte Maure de Touraine Brie de Melun Murol Selles-sur-Cher Broccio Neufchâtel Saint Marcellin Camembert Ossau-Iraty Sainte Maure de Touraine Cantal Pelardon Tomme de chèvre Chaource Pérail Tomme des Cévennes Comté Picodon Valençay .

Dietary restrictions

Vegetarianism is not as uncommon as it used to be, especially in larger cities. Still, very few restaurants offer vegetarian menus, thus if you ask for something vegetarian the only things they may have available are salad and vegetable side dishes. There may still be confusions between vegetarianism and pesce/pollotarianism. Vegetarian/organic food restaurants are starting to appear. However, “traditional” French restaurants may not have anything vegetarian on the menu, so you may have to pick something “à la carte”, which is usually more expensive. Veganism is still very uncommon and it may be difficult to find vegan eateries. Breakfast Breakfast in France isn’t the most important meal of the day and is usually very light. The most typical breakfast consists of a coffee and a croissant or some other “viennoiserie”, but since it implies going to the baker’s store early in the morning to buy fresh croissant, it’s typically reserved for somewhat special occasions. On normal days most people have a beverage (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice) and either toasts (“tartines” made of baguette or toast bread with butter and jam/honey/Nutella) that can be dipped in the hot beverage, or cereals with milk. People who eat healthy may go for fruits and yoghurt. As a general rule, the french breakfast is mostly sweet, but everything changes and you can have salty breakfasts everywhere today.

wine france photo

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

What to Drink in France

Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, the Loire Valley… France is the home of wine. It can be found cheaply just about anywhere. Beer (lager) is also extremely popular, in particular in northern France, where “Biere de Garde” can be found. The alcohol purchase age was recently raised to 18 for all drinks, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, laws against drunk driving are strictly enforced, with stiff penalties. Wine and liquors may be purchased from supermarkets, or from specialized stores such as the Nicolas chain. Nicolas offers good advice on what to buy (specify the kind of wine and the price range you desire). In general, only French wines are available unless a foreign wine is a “specialty” with no equivalent in France (such as port), and they are classified by region of origin, not by grape. Never drink alcoholic beverages (especially red wine or strong alcohol such as cognac) directly from a 70 cl bottle. Such behaviour is generally associated with bums and drunkards (though if you are surrounded by college students, you may be OK). Drinking beer from a 25 to 50cl can or bottle is ok. Prices of food and beverages will vary on whether they’re served to you at the bar or sitting at a table – the same cup of espresso might cost €0.50 more if served at a table than at the bar, and €0.50 more again if served out on the terrace. Really, you’re not paying so much for the beverage as for the table spot. Do consider the bar, though – while you will have to stand, café bars are often where a great deal of public discourse and interaction happens. In any event, cafés are required by law to post their prices somewhere in the establishment, usually either in the window or on the wall by the bar.

Note also that cafés in touristy areas, especially in Paris, tend to serve very expensive food of rather average quality. Unless you are dying of hunger or thirst, avoid the places that have menus in multiple languages or are near heavily-trafficked attractions. Instead, consider buying snacks and beverages from a grocery store and enjoying them in a nearby park. There are a couple of mixed drinks which seem to be more or less unique to France, and nearby francophone countries. Panaché is a mix of beer and lemonade, basically a beer shandy. (Same as “Radler” in Central Europe.)

Monaco is a Panaché with some grenadine syrup added. Kir is a pleasant aperitif of white wine (in theory, Bourgogne Aligoté) or, less frequently, of champagne (then named kir royal and about twice the price of regular kir) and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or peche (peach), or mûre (blackberry). Pastis is an anise-based (licorice-flavored) spirit, similar in taste to Sambuca or Ouzo, that is served with a few lumps of sugar and a small pitcher of cold water to dilute the liquor. It is traditionally enjoyed on very hot days, and as such is more popular in the south of the country but available more or less everywhere. There is a variety of bottled water, including: Évian, Thonon, Contrex, Volvic: mineral water Perrier: fizzy water Badoit: slightly fizzy and salty water.

Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.