If you were to gather into a single list all of the Paris restaurants that Americans are considering before visiting this year there would be so much overlap it would likely contain no more than 20 different addresses.
That’s quite a small number considering the breadth of the Paris restaurant scene.
Imagine, you spend countless hours compiling names from newspapers, magazines and blogs, questioning friends and colleagues about their recent trip to Paris, then cross-checking with guidebooks and Tripadvisor. You’ve finally drawn up a selection of a dozen restaurants intended to be a reflection of your personality, taste and budget, yet it’s nearly the same as that of every other list-making American visiting Paris. Unbeknownst to you, you have compiled the current American Paris Restaurant List.
I know this to be true because I receive dozens such lists each year from travelers seeking my help in whittling it down to a few choice selections and I notice that about 70% of every list is the same. High-end travelers will add a few more stellar restaurants (always the same few) and budget travelers will add a few more cheap eats (always the same few) but the mid-list is largely the same, give or take a few selections from American Paris Restaurant Lists of years past.
This is not to say that the selections on The List are bad or that you will not enjoy a meal there (if you’ve reserved well in advance). But I’d like you to broaden your sense of worthy restaurants in the great if battered food city of Paris.
Why is everyone’s list be so similar?
As list-carriers are well aware, the American Paris Restaurant List isn’t about high gastronomy as might be ranked by Michelin stars but about the promise of an exceptional meal or atmosphere or character in other categories of restaurant, often in the upper mid-price / lower high-price range.
Though some outstanding selections will earn a spot on The List in a given year, what especially gets a restaurant onto it is its buzz, or the echo of its buzz of years past. The buzz generally starts off when a few major publications or journalists known for their food writing applaud a champion. Other journalists, travel writers and bloggers, some knowledgeable, some not, then echo that applause. From higher up on the bleachers then comes the loud roar of approval from your close and trusted friends on Tripadvisor. Superlatives get abused along the way, and soon a restaurant appears in your research to be unique and in a class of its own—incontournable, to use the French adjective that describes something that can’t be overlooked.
The passage of a celebrity may push a decent if unexceptional restaurant onto The List (for a while there everyone’s list suddenly included the restaurant where the Obamas ate even though it had been around for years). Meanwhile, far too many travelers are taking as gospel the restaurants listed under such clickable titles such as “Top 5 Bistros in Paris,” “10 Must-Eats in Paris,” “Where to Find the Best [Name Dish] in Paris” or “10 Great Paris Restaurants that Food Writers Keep to Themselves,” even though those restaurants may have been compiled by list-makers unlikely to have extensive direct knowledge of the Paris food scene. Put these all together and The American Paris Restaurant List is born.
Travelers wishing to know which restaurants and wine bars currently have the loudest buzz and the largest English-speaking clientele are therefore well served by The American Paris Restaurant List. (I insist on the Americanness of the list because other foreign visitors to Paris have their national lists as well.)
Well, some on The List may indeed be excellent choices in their category, one or two may be truly unique or have something exceptional to offer, and others may be quite decent dining options. But the Paris restaurant-scape is too vast to limit yourselves to the same handful of choices as everyone else… and then to feel disappointed when you can’t get a reservation at one of them.
Furthermore, by virtue of being on The List those restaurants require reservations further in advance than what most Parisians would consider reasonable. (Anything more than 72 hours is unreasonable from where I sit.)
Cynics will say that what many list-carrying travelers really want is to be able to tell friends back home that that they ate at one of the year’s “it” restaurants in Paris. While that may be true for some travelers, I believe that most list carriers fall into three other categories:
1. Foodies and gastronomes who are truly curious to discover first-hand what makes the (American) headlines, whether or not it scores them points with friends back home.
2. Novelty seekers. (Novelty seekers are, however, hereby warned that the American Paris Restaurant List contains a heavy dose of old news from the point of view of hipsters, gastronomes and neighborhood explorers living in Paris).
3. Visitors looking for a memorable lunching or dining experience who don’t know where else to turn than to the consensus recommendations represented by The List.
To all of those I say: Don’t throw away The List, but do take it as just one piece of the large and personal puzzle of your enjoyment of the Paris restaurant adventure.
I sympathize with the dilemma that visitors from afar have in selecting restaurants in Paris, particularly for dinner. And I understand the concern of those who don’t want to miss out on a meal at a hot property. As I say, The List does indeed contain many worthy selections, so enjoy the research if that whets your appetite—after all, part of the fun of this trip is the planning.
Over-planning can, however, be counterproductive; a bit of serendipity will actually enhance your enjoyment of the Paris restaurant adventure. Fretting about not having a reservation for every evening is unnecessary. For all the advice I give throughout the year, travelers, whether list-carriers or not, will often write to me after their trip to tell me about some great little restaurant they discovered (through a knowledgeable friend, on their own, from a blog, perhaps through me) that was not on The List. That, it turns out, is what most of us truly want: the memorable restaurant that we entered without great expectations, the one that we didn’t reserve more than a day in advance, the eatery that was not extensively described, decorticated and photographed for us in advance, “the nice local/little bistro” that wasn’t even on The List. (“The nice local/little bistro” is actually the type of restaurant that nearly every traveler, whether upscale, downscale or in between, asks me to recommend.)
A list beyond The List
It would be unfair of me to cast doubt upon The List without adding some suggestions to broaden it. I’ve therefore asked six Paris-based French and American foodies, gastronomes and food writers—Alexander Lobrano, Michel Tanguy, Corinne LaBalme, Allison Zinder, Alain Neyman and Randy Diaz—to suggest eateries that they’ve enjoyed recently that may not be on the current buzz list. To their 15 suggestions I’ve added 10 of my own.
You’ll find all of them in Part 2 of 25 Paris Restaurants: A List Beyond The List.
© 2014, Gary Lee Kraut