10 Tips for Picking a Paris Restaurant

Paris Restaurant

All photos in this post by Anne Elder.

Whether you live in Paris or you’re just visiting, chances are you spend a lot of time thinking, reading, talking, and fretting about restaurants.

It’s entirely natural. Paris is an international capital of good food and gastronomy (the birthplace of it, even) so you want to make every meal count, yet you know its 40,000 restaurants are not created equal.

This is fertile ground for FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and its sneaky cousin, FOPTWR (Fear Of Picking The Wrong Restaurant).

So before you make yourself crazy, let me offer you my Ten Paris Restaurant Tips.

Tip #1: Be clear on your wants and needs

This is the most basic thing, but many people skip that part.

Before you go down the rabbit hole of searching for “Best Restaurants in Paris”, take a moment to list (in your mind or on paper) the features you’re looking for. How many people are you eating with and what kind of diners are they? What style of cuisine are you into? What kind of ambiance do you want to spend the night in? What price level do you want to go for? Any food preferences or dietary constraints?

Keep all of those at the forefront of your mind during your search, so you can swiftly brush aside anything that looks kinda cool but isn’t the focus du jour. A huge time saver.

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Tip #2: Follow the locals

It is generally more reliable to get recommendations from people who actually live in the city, and can put a restaurant, chef, cuisine, or trend in the context of many more dining experiences. This is not to dismiss the reports of short-term visitors; I myself like to write about my forays in other cities, but I don’t claim expertise and expect my readers to double-check against local sources.

Take the time to identify a few locals (native or not) whose voice and opinions resonate with you, whose dining temperament seems to align with yours, and follow their restaurant adventures. It can be bloggers, magazine columnists, or collective websites; what matters is that there be a consistent viewpoint from one review to the next.

I like to follow friends such as Caroline Mignot, Lindsey Tramuta (author of The New Paris!), and Aaron Ayscough. I get the weekly review from Le Fooding and the My Little Paris newsletter. I use the website Paris by Mouth and keep an eye on Esterelle Payany’s reviews in Télérama and François-Régis Gaudry’s blog at L’Express (he has a TV show on Paris Première and a radio show on France Inter if you can’t get enough of him). I don’t read everything they write (hello, overwhelm!), but when I need fresh recommendations, these are my go-to’s. (For content written in French, Google Translate is your friend!)

I have no use for crowd-sourced review websites: without knowing the people writing and their background, the litany of random opinions is meaningless to me.

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Paris Restaurant

Tip #3: If it sounds too good to be true…

Paris is not a cheap city, and generally speaking, the good places aren’t either. Fresh ingredients cooked from scratch, skilled staff, and a pleasant décor you want to sit in, all cost money that the customer has to pay for.

That’s not to say all expensive restaurants are good. Or that you can’t find excellent food in simple, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Or that you can’t be smart about it and go to the fancy places at lunch on weekdays to get the formule déjeuner. I only suggest that you get a realistic idea of what it costs to run a restaurant in a city like Paris, and judge prices accordingly.

Depending on your budget, it is perhaps better to eat out less frequently, and have memorable experiences when you do. Paris has many options for non-restaurant meals that won’t make you feel cheap or deprived (I should write a post about those, no?).

Tip #4: Know your arrondissements

Paris is a city with two banks (I am Team Right Bank all the way), twenty arrondissements, and many micro-neighborhoods with different atmospheres, personalities, and business costs for restaurateurs. As you research restaurants or hear about places, make a mental note of the areas where they’re located, and try to build an awareness of their particular vibe and style over time. Then you’ll know where to look when you’re seeking that particular vibe or style.

This is also useful if you’re planning to schlep out to the other side of the city to try a new restaurant. If you have a sense of the neighborhood and what else is out there, you can plan your entire evening around it — maybe relax at a local coffee shop in late afternoon, and grab a pre- or post-dinner drink at a cocktail or wine bar close by.

Tip #5: Ask around

If you’re eager to discover new spots, make it a habit to ask people where they like to eat: friends and coworkers, but also the woman who runs that good wine shop, the guy who makes those cool lamps, your hair stylist and your butcher. People love to talk about they favorite restaurants, and it’s a good way to expand your list beyond the neighborhood where you live or you’re staying.

Write it down — you think you’ll remember but you won’t — and take it with a grain of salt. I am endlessly interested in people’s restaurant choices, but I don’t follow them blindly: I put them in the context of (what I perceive to be) that person’s tastes and background, and do a little research to back up the recommendation.

Paris Restaurant

Tip #6: Instagram it out

Once you’ve identified a restaurant that looks like what you’re looking for, try searching for pictures of it on Instagram to confirm it’s your jam.

You can search by Instagram location, variations of the name as a hashtag (e.g. #belordinaire and #lebelordinaire), and look at the official account if there is one. Parisians love to Instagram their restaurant outings, so if you find nothing, or very little, it can be a warning sign — unless the place is brand-new or truly below-the-radar, but those gems don’t stay hidden very long.

Related: 12 Instagram Accounts for Paris Lovers.

Tip #7: Trust your gut

Sometimes you hear about a place over and over again, people rave about it, the chef is a media darling, but for some reason you’re not that drawn to it. That is absolutely fine! No need to explore your reasons or push yourself to go because the New York Times says you simply must. Just like with people, there needs to be chemistry between you and a restaurant; if it’s not there, don’t force it. Plenty more fish in that sea.

Tip #8: Book your table

Wandering around at sunset and just happening upon a quaint little restaurant with the perfect table waiting for you… mostly happens in movies. Paris restaurants are typically small, good restaurants are typically in high demand, and you won’t get far without a reservation.

Depending on the night of the week and the popularity of the restaurant, you’ll have to book your table weeks in advance, or a few days, or sometimes just the day of. In all cases, I recommend you make it a habit to call ahead: not only will you avoid being turned away if the restaurant is full, but you also get better service if they’re expecting you.

Some places don’t take reservations at all. Instead of feeling personally slighted, keep them in mind for those nights when you haven’t made any arrangements. Show up early and take advantage of the wait to catch up with your friends.

Paris Restaurant

Tip #9: Keep a list

Whenever you spend time doing research, when you hear about a new place that you want to try, or someone recommends a favorite spot, keep a note of it. It will save you so much angst next time you want to surprise your special someone, or you’re tasked with choosing the perfect restaurant for so-and-so’s birthday (because you are that person, right?).

It’s also nice to have a shortlist of crowd-pleasing, all-purpose favorites to call upon for last-minute plans, and also to avoid drawing a complete blank when other people ask you for your favorites (see Tip #5).

I am offering you the template I use to keep track of my own favorite restaurants and the ones I want to try. You can access it here as a read-only Google spreadsheet. Hit File > Make a copy… to copy it to your own drive.

Tip #10: Opt out of the rat-staurant race

Unless reviewing restaurant is your bread and butter, having a meal at a restaurant should be more about the actual experience you have at the restaurant than what you make it mean about yourself, or how you plan to portray it later.

Do a little self-check from time to time and make sure you don’t invest too much (ideally: none) of your self-worth in how in-the-know you are about the Paris food scene, how quickly you rush to the newest restaurant, and how eager you are to note in conversation that you knew about it before Le Fooding even did (and actually, you’re the one who tipped them off).

And hey, there is a lot of charm in the early-day excitement of a restaurant that has just opened, but often times there are kinks to iron out. Most places find their groove a few weeks after that, so the late bird gets a better-cooked worm.

Bonus tip for advanced diners: Avoid Saturday nights!

If you have flexibility, you’ll typically have a better dining experience on a weeknight. Saturdays are the busiest, so restaurants are more intent on turning tables and the staff is under more pressure. The ambiance will be more relaxed during the week, and it will be easier to build a rapport with the team; some chefs have even told me that they perceive the weeknight crowd as more savvy. (This is probably a chicken-and-egg situation: if they have more time to chat with their diners, they have a better chance of discovering said savviness.)

Join the conversation!

What’s been your experience picking out restaurants to go to in Paris? How much hand-wringing is usually involved? Do you have your own go-to list? And do you get anguish attacks when you see all the cool restaurants other people seem to be going to? Any tips of your own to add?

Paris Restaurant

All photos in this post by Anne Elder.

  • Taste of France

    These are very unusual tips, and they show a lot of insight. You are so right! If you’re speaking to visitors/travelers/tourists, the stakes are high–they might have only a handful of meals over a stay of a few days, and they want to maximize their experience. If the food itself is most important, then have your main meal at noon, when menus are less expensive and you can upgrade to a finer restaurant. If a scene is most important, well, those happen at night.
    Reserving requires a commitment that can be difficult when traveling but it pays off.

    • Absolutely! Great tips.

      Also: if you’ve made reservations you can’t honor, please cancel them!

  • When traveling to a new area for a limited about of time, I rely on the Michelin Guide, especially the Bib Gourmand ratings. I realize that there are great restaurants not in the Guide but if you are only in Paris for 5 nights you don’t want a bad meal, no offensive to Instagram or Yelp but I prefer professional reviews that are consistently applied across the cuisine style. I see too many tourists walking the streets looking at menus on the front door, with no idea of what is really being put on the table. I never want to do that again.

    There are some people, like you that I follow, who I have come to begrudgingly trust for recommendations but it takes time to build up that confidence – not going to waste 20% of my dinners on a poor recommendation.

    If you rented a flat with small kitchen area then taking lunch at a good restaurant can be followed by purchasing great prepared food, wine, cheese and bread at one of the market streets (rue Cler, etc.) for a meal in the flat or a picnic at the Jardin du Luxembourg.

    • Thank you for sharing your strategy, James!

    • Kathy Harrison

      The Bib Gourmand listings have definitely steered me to some great places.

  • Alecta

    I am completely random about it. I had researched a couple of places before my last trip. My arrival dinner was at 1900 Montparnasse. I had the fancy menu and was delighted. I loved the Alsacian restaurant near my studio. Adored the wee wine bar I found. Those last saw me twice. And Coqielicot for breakfast, sadly only once. I had a few disappointments, but that’s part of the adventure.

    • Love your mindset, Alecta! Are you like this in life in general? Recipe for happiness I think. :)

  • Dave Reeder

    I have two key rules. Most importantly, avoid anywhere with a menu in French and English. The food may be okay, but you don’t want to spend the evening listening to a large party of Americans at the next table who think Paris is “so cute”, do you? Second rule: mix and match. I’ve been to Paris a couple of time a year for the past two decades so, by now, I have identified certain go-to places that I build my stay around – these range from the pricey (Pierre Gagnaire, Anne-Sophie Pic and Thierry Marx) to the reasonable neighbourhood places, such as Le Ballon de Ternes in the 10eme. Before I visit, I draw up a single sheet of paper with each day, lunch and dinner, then start to fill in the blanks, leaving spaces for simple snacks in my hotel room on a couple of evenings – this list will be 80% places I know and can rely on and 20% new, with the latter amenablke to change if I come across somewhere else that looks interesting. A good on-line guide to new and interesting places is lefooding.com/en

    • Absolutely! Le Fooding is in my go-to list as well.

      Thank you for sharing how you approach your stays, Dave.

  • Paul Eggermann

    Great advice. We have visited Paris annually for the last 20 years and have our favorite neighborhoods where we have gotten to know the local people and found many great little places to eat fine meals. I am an amateur chef and generally make my way into the kitchen to talk with the chef. This often results in a little extra service! We always reserve well in advance, often calling from the States to cover the first week. I have even traded recipes with a few chefs. We NEVER go out without a destination that we know about and have reservations.

    • That sounds like a great approach, Paul, and I’m sure you have many lasting memories of those meals.

  • Janet Campbell

    I like David Leibovitz’s recommendations too.

  • rachelsloan79

    A list full of solid common sense – and I particularly agree with no. 2, my go-to sources are you, David Lebovitz and a Parisienne friend who lives in London but goes back regularly enough to be up on the latest gems. (Also agree that Yelp and its ilk are to be avoided!) I only have two tips to add:
    -best to steer clear of places on the big boulevards and go for the side streets and
    -don’t feel that because you’re in Paris, you have to eat French food at every meal. (This is definitely not a slam on French cuisine!) Coming from the UK I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to have an Indian meal in Paris, but I’ve had wonderful North African, Israeli, Cambodian, Senegalese, Japanese and Vietnamese food there over the years… variety is the spice of life, after all!

  • Annabel Smyth

    My main experience of Paris restaurants goes back over 40 years now – back then, there were loads of little Vietnamese restaurants opened by (I imagine) refugees from the Vietnam War, and very good most of them were, too. We also had our “go-to” places – a friend and I loved a very cheap place in the Latin quarter that specialised in jacket potatoes and served the most delicious Rosé de Béarn wine (I gather this was probably produced by a relative of the proprietors, as it was not, and is not, available commercially). With other friends, we went elsewhere – I remember one place where we almost always ordered snails…. I suspect one of us would discover a place, and recommend it, and it would go from there. For Brits in the early 1970s, eating out was still rather a new experience, and you expected restaurants to serve delicious food – it was liberating to have tried a local Chinese restaurant and been able to pronounce the food “mediocre”!

    Ridiculous as it may sound now, we also went to McDonald’s, which was brand new, exciting and different – strange and rather tasty American food!

    These days, we tend to browse the menu, either on-line or outside the place, and if it is within our budget and is not echoingly empty, we give it a go. And some of the chains are not at all bad, either – most of them are mediocre, but not all! I avoid them when possible, but when in a hurry…. they’ll do!

  • Annabel Smyth

    P.S. I’ll never forget my first-ever meal in a Paris restaurant. I was about 12, on a tour with two cousins and a friend of theirs (I think the tour was organised by the Women’s Institute, and we were very much the youngest – I know my grandmother treated us all to the trip). Anyway, we found this place on the recommendation of the tour guide, and decided to go for the gourmet menu, just because. So the waiters made a huge fuss of us, and when my cousin – always (and still) more extravert than I am – asked for “Just one snail, to try”, they produced it!

  • Great tips! We plan one fantastic “special” meal in Paris each time, (our “tradition” has become lunch at Le Grand Véfour ! ), but for the rest we depend on our mood and as you said, the recommendations of locals. I love your recommendations in “Clotilde’s Edible Adventures in Paris” Whenever we were at a loss, I pulled out that book and you never steered us wrong! The last time we were there, however, we did find ourselves wandering around one night, without a reservation and without a clue, and ended up at a very nice Indian/Pakistani restaurant near the place we stayed in the 17th (which is now our fave part of Paris) called “Jardin du Kashmir.” They were so nice to us and the food was lovely. There are so many great places to eat in Paris, it astounds me every time we go there. In the 4th, we found a place “au coin de la rue” near the apartment we rented several years ago that was so charming that we went back again 2 years later…it hadn’t changed :-)

  • Enjoyable, head nodding read. Best advice: dive deep into your arrondissement. Recent gems from the 4e and close: le Grand Coeur, Bench (kosher), Au Passage.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, David, and thank you for sharing your favorites!

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