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Parisians in wicker chairs quietly sip coffee on the dusty river bank. Meanwhile, at a nearby table, a family laughs out loud and orders pain au chocolat using English — tourists no doubt.
Increasingly, though, travelers desire to experience cities like a local, especially when it comes to dining, says Megan Ball, lead product manager for Avanti Destinations.
“There is a benefit in every city in the world of eating like a local to have a better feeling for a culture in that city — but especially in Paris where food is such a big part of daily life,” said Ingeborg Sanders, travel advisor and independent affiliate of Cadence Travel.
Following are a few ways to help clients taste Paris like a local.
Watch Where You’re EatingThe authentic Parisian dining experience begins with the arrondissement (neighborhood).
Le Marais is the perfect example of a “real” Parisian neighborhood, said Timothee Demeillers, general manager of Intrepid Travel’s Urban Adventures in Paris. Considered the heart of Paris’ Jewish and gay communities, Le Marais offers a rich atmosphere for tourists and locals alike. Also, famous chefs like to open shop in Le Marais, which Demeillers said is crammed with bars, restaurants and markets.
According to Sanders, the key to dining like a Parisian is pretty much common sense: surround yourself with the local people instead of tourists. Clients should avoid restaurants near tourist attractions and head a few blocks away to find cuisine cooked by the French.
And sometimes, a real dining experience means staying away from anything with a familiar name.
“If you go in the local neighborhoods, you might not get an English menu, so you have to be able to either speak some French or be a little bit adventurous and let your hands do some of the translating,” Sanders said.
A restaurant with a menu full of pictures is clearly not catering to a French audience, Avanti’s Ball said. Likewise, avoid cafes where an employee is standing outside to welcome in potential diners.
“When passing a cafe or bistro with outside seating or ducking inside a restaurant to consult a menu, listen to the people who are already sitting there,” Ball said. “Can you hear lots of conversations in French?”
Explore the MarketsAt an outdoor French market, breakfast finds could include natural pear juice, quiche Lorraine and Middle Eastern flatbread. Vendors also offer raw meats, seafood, wheels of savory cheese and crispy pastries.
Additionally, shopping at markets feels local because shoppers must interact with Parisian sellers.
Markets are the best way to grasp local trends and specialties, said Demeillers, whose Secret Paris Tour from Intrepid Urban Adventures takes clients to hidden streets and food shops.
“Nowhere else will you understand why we love fresh produce so much than in a Parisian market,” Demeillers said. “Actually, no one in Paris should buy their food somewhere other than in a market.”
In order to blend in with the shoppers, don’t bargain the price as you would at some street vendors in the U.S.
Demeillers suggests focusing on smaller stalls with seasonal produce. Start the conversation in French, and then ask sellers about the products because they are happy to make recommendations.
Unlike a clerk in a grocery store, the vendors are very passionate about their products, Demeillers said.
“Proper cheese shops and markets are definitely the best place to buy cheese, as it’s fresh, comes from smaller producers and tastes 100 times better than anywhere else,” he said.
Sanders likes markets because they serve authentic delicacies on the go. As long as the weather is clear, she tells clients to go to Marche des Enfants Rouges, which is one of the oldest markets in Paris, dating back to the 17th century. Have a picnic in a park with market finds, and be sure not to forget the wine, a fresh baguette, pates and French cheeses.
What to OrderThe highlight of a rainy French morning can be a fresh croissant and a steaming cafe au lait.
Even if clients stay at a hotel with breakfast included, Sanders recommends they choose to occasionally eat at a little boulangerie or cafe near the hotel. Coffee and pastries are staples of the Parisian breakfast.
“You can eat all the eggs and bacon when you come back [to the U.S.],” Sanders said.
In the evening, a popular dish is steak and frites (fries), Ball said. Her Paris hotel supplier recommended Le Relais de l’Entrecote, a 1959 bistro with three Paris locations.
“I myself had a terrific grilled steak with Bearnaise sauce at Brasserie Mollard,” Ball said.
Sanders tells clients to try entrecote (rib steak) with pommes frites (French fries), along with coquilles St. Jaques (scallops).
Another eating style is the fixed menu, which offers an entree and plat (appetizer and plate), or a plat and dessert for a set price. Set menus offer daily specials that range in price. Prix fixe menus can be substantial and a good value, such as an almond-crusted lamb, pomme frites and tiramisu framboise (raspberry) for about $16.
Of course, the Parisian experience doesn’t mean eating only French food, Ball said. Since Paris is an international city, natives are bound to taste many types of quality cuisine from around the world. Greek, Moroccan and Indian restaurants are highly recommended.
Etiquette S’il Vous PlaitBehavior plays a large role when fitting in at a French eatery.
First, eat the meal the way it is prepared. Customers can choose between a steak that’s “bleu” (blue, very rare) or “bien cuit,” (well done) but locals do not ask for ingredients or sides to be omitted or added, Ball said.
“Parisians don’t typically order bottled water,” Ball said. “They still don’t do ‘doggy bags,’ so don’t ask for any of your food to be wrapped up to go.”
Parisians also typically eat dinner later in France than Americans do back home. Starting around 8 p.m., French chatter begins to flow from most cafes, and the meal lasts until about 10 or 11 p.m. in the summer.
Last but not least: Look the part. Sanders said eating like a Parisian means no camera, fanny pack or backpack when going out for dinner. Don’t put ice in water, and don’t order soda —there’s wine, after all.