Classic French Restaurants: The Best Ones in Paris
By Paige Donner
Paris Local Expert
Classic French menus are practically pre-ordained to include the standard fare of onion soup, steak tartare, snails and frogs' legs not to mention duck, rabbit and soufflé. Although these selections can vary according to the region that the classic French restaurant represents. If it’s Burgundian cuisine, you can count on the snails, for a taste of Bordeaux, try the duck at Le Petit Bordelais. A menu based around the French culinary capital of Lyon will include fresh game meats, fowl and the always delightful roast chicken.
We tend to romanticize the inclusion of frogs' legs and escargots (snails) on a menu and call it French. But for visitors to France these seem to be the classic dishes that make us feel like we’ve tried the local cuisine. So, you’ll find the iconic L’Escargot on this list. As tribute to Lyon, I’ve included Aux Lyonnais. More precisely this is considered a bistro, but its roast chicken with mushrooms, tomatoes and onions is something to celebrate. Steak-frites is another mainstay on a classic French menu and you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere which does it better, or more copiously, than Chez Denise. For those of us who appreciate fine or gourmet classic French, the ones in the city hailed by food critics and chefs alike include Laurent and Drouant. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive but one that made it, as much for its classic location as its hearty, traditional cuisine is Le Café du Commerce.
10 La Tour de Montlhéry - Chez Denise
Besides serving hot, tempting, overflowing plates of food until 5 a.m., Chez Denise is most well known for its hot, tempting, overflowing plates of French traditional food. The proper name is what you see written here above but everyone just refers to this red-checked tablecloth mainstay as Chez Denise. The fare here appeals to those who like to chomp into true classics, such as grilled marrow bones. All the while rubbing shoulders -- and elbows and knees -- with your fellow diners invariably sitting altogether much too closely to you. But since this is a favorite of the late night after club and post-dancing crowds, by that time of day (er, night) people tend to be much friendlier anyway. (01 42 36 21 82)
Drouant is one of the gilded anchors of Parisian dining establishments. Its history dates back a century and its cultural significance is tremendous, as it is the seat of the Prix Goncourt, the prestigious French literary award. Hence the upstairs dining room named Salon Goncourt; There is even one named after Colette, who presided over the jury for many years. Never mind all that, though. Because when a delightful meal is in order, this instantly should be one of the places you think of in Paris. The location is just a few minutes' walk from Opéra or Palais-Royal and yet its tucked-away little Square removes you from the city's bustle. Alsatian Chef Antoine Westermann is one of France's best. So whether you order the veal cutlet, the roast chicken or the pollock served with braised, roasted tomatoes, you can be certain all will be well. (01 42 65 15 16)
The Avenue Gabriel is the small street that fronts between the American and British Embassies. This is where you will find Laurent, the quiet and classy 1-Michelin starred dining establishment that counts Presidents, Ambassadors and the elite of international business among its regular clientele. Chef Alain Pégouret creates dishes that marry flavors and colors in perfect harmony. Ever imaginative, he comes up with 30 new dishes each year, following the seasons. A perennial on the menu is his medley of Roots Vegetables, so colorful that it appears as a painter's palette. The terrace is the true gem of the restaurant and at once offers soothing seclusion and the feeling that you are ensconced somewhere off in a private villa in the French countryside. This oasis was restored by Hittorff in 1842, at the same time as he was commissioned by King Louis Philippe to design the Champs-Elysées. (01 42 25 00 39)
7 Le Petit Bordelais
In the perfect little Eiffel Tower neighborhood of rue St. Dominique sits this comfortably wonderful neighborhood restaurant, Le Petit Bordelais. The Chef-Owner, Philippe Pentecôte, is originally from Bordeaux -- St. Emilion to be exact -- hence the name of his restaurant. The interior of all deep red and burnt orange velvet-upholstered high-backed chairs and banquet seating instantly invites you to settle in and prepare yourself for a superb meal. And a superb meal is what you will enjoy here. The menu is presented in both French and English which makes choosing between Sea Bass served with crispy seasoned skin coupled with tender white flesh garnished with roasted pine and hazel nuts or the Duck which goes so well with Bordeaux wines, a breeze. At least, no translation is required. With your coffee come the traditional Bordelais cannelés, also house made. Even in Bordeaux you will be hardpressed to find better. (01 45 51 46 93)
6 Le Soufflé
What could be more classically French than a soufflé ? In this cosy little restaurant just off the Place de la Concorde, you can indulge in up to 20 different kinds of soufflés. The list includes savory as well as sweet. For the savory soufflé try the Henri IV, a soufflé served with roast chicken and mushroom gravy. For dessert the chocolate soufflé comes with rich, thick, hot chocolate sauce, served right at your table. This is a family friendly restaurant and English is spoken here. There are two seatings, 7pm and 9pm. The menu includes an all-soufflé choice of appetizer and main, such as: a cheese (Swiss or Comté) soufflé followed, as a main dish, by a beef bourgignon soufflé. Their traditional menu includes duck in stewed fresh peaches or salmon served with a mini spinach soufflé. The restaurant is always full so make reservations in advance. (0142 60 27 19)
5 Aux Lyonnais
Like with anything that Alain Ducasse takes over, this, too is once again a great Parisian establishment. This exemplary French traditional bistro dates back to the 1890s when Les Halles was still the bustling fresh market center of Paris. And since for many French, Lyon is not just home to Bocuse but also to what is best in French cuisine, an eatery devoted to traditional Lyonnais dishes merits not just loyalty but true appreciation. You will find a modern twist to many of the dishes, including even the roast chicken. Still, the classic Lyonnais appetizer of baked eggs with crawfish is something not to miss, especially with Ducasse's personal twist on the dish.
4 Café du Commerce
This three-level restaurant is tucked away in the working-class neighborhood just West of the Ecole Militaire. That makes it within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower. The spaciousness of this plant-filled shrine to French classic fare is surprising once you enter as the narrow hallway entranceway from the sidewalk hints nothing of this. Most native Parisians you speak to have memories of dinners or Sunday lunches here en famille (meaning big, long, family meals with grandma, grandpa, aunties and uncles and of course the cousins). The French tend to know what's good, especially when it comes to food and they also tend to have a nose for a good bargain. Here you will find both -- good food at good prices. On the menu are the staples of roast chicken, steak-frites and even boudin. Lunch will cost you about 20 Euro per person, including a glass of table wine and coffee with your meal. (01 45 75 03 27)
3 Bistrot du Sommelier
Even though this traditional French restaurant has bistrot in its name, I would be remiss not to include it on this list. The owner of this venerable favorite among the wine trade was named the world's best sommelier in the early 90s. This is one of the pioneers who developed a menu around wine pairings, rather than wine pairings around his menu. There's a difference. Example : If you order the Menu Chardonnay you'll be delighted with two wines selected by Philippe Faure-Brac (the aforementioned sommelier-restaurateur) that go superbly with the main dish and appetizer or main dish and dessert of your lunch. The Menu Millisimé is available for either lunch or dinner and comes with wine pairings that are this famous French sommelier's faves. This tasting menu runs you 118 euro per person -- and for the wines poured, you're assured to drink your money's worth. Closed weekends. (01 42 65 24 85)
2 Ambassade d'Auvergne
This is one of those places where your French friends take you when they want to share a warm, traditional meal with you. Everything served here is a specialty of the Auvergne and Aveyron regions, two areas that the French tend to romantice for the purity of its country way of life. Whether that's just a tale or not, the aligot that they serve here is not to be missed. That's the specialty dish from this region that is mashed potatoes slow blended with melted-gooey cheese and garlic. If you have never had this you will think you have died and gone to heaven. Especially when it's cold outside and you're feeling like a stick-to-your-ribs meal is the thing that will set the world right again. Everything else on the menu, steaks, sausages, pork belly, are perfect accompaniments to those cheesy, melty mashed potatoes. (01 42 72 31 22)
This venerable institution has been around since 1832 and has lived through epochs during which rue Montorgueil was the center of the civilized Parisian world. But it wasn't until 1919 when the same owner of the famous La Tour d'Argent took the reins of this establishment that its reputation was catapulted into the lofty heights of French culinary institutions. Rue Montorgueil is still a center but now mostly for shoppers and food lovers and its proximity to Les Halles renders it justifiably convenient. True to its name, you must try the snails. And here you have the choice of escargots prepared with the classic garlic parsley butter but also with curry, roquefort, truffles or Burgundian foie gras. It's also famous for its roast Gâtinais duck laced in orange sauce and the chocolate-mint soufflé. The celebrated who have come before you include Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust and Salvador Dali. (01 42 36 83 51)
About Paige Donner
Paige is a transplanted Parisian. She first arrived as a young bride in the early 90s to live in Paris, having uprooted herself from her native California. Since then it has been an on again, off again love affair for her with the City of Lights, one that has grown fonder over time. Paige hosts World of Wine for World Radio Paris. When discovering a new wine region, her dog accompanies her as the little canine has proved to be the ideal vineyard companion. As a journalist, Paige has written for the NY Times, Variety, LA Times, Fodor's, Blackbook...
Read more about Paige Donner here.