December 21, 2010

Lunch in Paris for 10 to 25 dollars?

Lunch in Paris for 10 to 25 dollars? Yes you can.
Some practical advice on how to have lunch in Paris without breaking the piggy bank.

Last month on the flight that was bringing me back home after 2 fine weeks in Paris, I could not help listening to an American couple in their fifties seated just behind me who exchanged impressions on their own trip to Paris with the young lady who was a student there and was heading home for Thanksgiving.
They were very excited about everything they had seen, but not to happy about the constant grey and often rainy weather they had endured. But their top recurrent complaint was about how restaurants, even Mc Donald’s, were expensive and that it was impossible to have a simple lunch without ruining their tight budget. They asked the girl I she managed to eat properly in Paris with a limited amount of money. Did she know cheap little places?
All the student could answer was that she had lunch everyday at the “restaurant universitaire “(university cafeteria) and that it was quite cheap. She mostly ate soups and sandwiches or carry-out Chinese food or pizza at night in her room while studying or watching TV with friends. And that too was affordable. Obviously she knew where to shop and was not a restaurant goer.
I was tempted to intervene in the conversation, remembering how many times Americans friends, or simple acquaintances had told me about their expensive lunches in Paris and how they wish they had received my advice on that topic before leaving for Paris. But I was tired and did not feel motivated enough to talk to these people.

Here are some comments I would have made and what I would have suggested, should they decide to return to Paris one of these days.

  1. Never choose a restaurant that is recommended by your hotel concierge or reception desk employee. Rather ask a local shopkeeper like a butcher, a baker, or a waiter in a café if they can suggest a decent and cheap restaurant for lunch that they patronize themselves.
  2. If you stay or visit in a district or neighborhood where there are lots of tourists, do not choose a restaurant on one of its main streets. Walk a few hundred yards in a back street and choose a small café-restaurant or a ‘’brasserie’’ where people who work nearby eat, and that has a menu posted on its window, that specify that they offer a ‘’plat du jour’’ or even better a ‘’formule’’ or a ‘’prix fixe menu special déjeuner’’. I’ll get back to that later.
  3. If you are intending to get back to your hotel after a busy morning visiting museums to take a short nap, stop by one of the many ‘’traiteurs’’ offering ‘’plats à emporter’’ (carry-out dishes) and buy yourself some nicely prepared French, Italian, North-African, or Asian dishes, or some cheese and charcuterie, a bottle of wine or of mineral water and have lunch in your room. You find such traiteurs, often also charcuteries, in most commercial and residential streets of Paris
If you go to a small bistro or café-restaurant or a large popular brasserie, remember 3 things before deciding that having lunch in Paris is expensive:
In Paris taxes (VAT: Value Added Taxes) are always included in the total written on your check. This is already a saving of 11% compared to what you pay in a restaurant in Chicago.
In Paris the tip is already included in the check. This also represents a saving of 18 to 20 % compared to what you would pay in a restaurant in Chicago.
All together when you compare the cost of your lunch in Paris and in Chicago you have to mentally calculate that 31% of that total cost should be deducted in Paris before translating Euros in dollars.
And wine, if you do not buy an expensive bottle but share a half-liter carafe of decent regional wine that most eateries in this category have on the menu, or a glass, is cheaper in Paris than in Chicago.
Avoid buying bottled brand-name mineral water. Restaurants make lots of profits out of this kind of water. Order a simple carafe of tap water that every restaurant is supposed to supply on request.

Lunching habits have changed a lot in Paris over the last 10 years

When I was in my teens, in the 50’s, everybody would go home for lunch. In those days, especially in provincial cities and small rural towns, families would share that most important meal of the day cooked all morning by the mother, often assisted by the grandma, and in richer more bourgeois families by the maid
I remember that when I lived in Paris in the sixties, and during my frequent trips on business or vacation there in the 70’s and 80’s, lunch was still the most important meal of the day. We took at least 1 hour break from work and went to a neighborhood café-restaurant or brasserie to have a relaxing lunch with co-workers. Or if I was on a business trip there lunch with managers or owners of companies I was having things to discuss would take a good 2 hours in a restaurant.
If I was going to meet with friends on a more social occasion we would go to a comfortable traditional bistro with good regional food and wines.
In any case, even employees in downtown Paris, unless they had a “cantine” (cafeteria) in their company or government building, would take a long break for lunch.
Only people who were always on the run, or short of money, would eat a sandwich or eat a quick omelet washed down with a beer or a glass of wine standing at the “comptoir” of a café.
When you got home at night dinner was simpler that it used to be in provincial or rural families. A simple soup, cold ham and charcuterie platter or perhaps a small grilled steak, a salad, a piece of cheese with baguette bought freshly baked in the afternoon on the way home, and a fruit.
But nowadays people, especially the younger generation of Parisians, have a busy life and are less interested in spending too much time and money for lunch in a restaurant. Also they do not have time to wait for a table since they want to spend their lunch break time to do errands or walk or just read a book sitting on a bench in a park

In fact a study released not too long ago by France 5, a TV station, said that 22% of French active people skipped lunch regularly, and 40% of the French active population under age 24 (42% in Paris) did not have any kind of lunch.
The same study said that 35 minutes was the average time a Parisian spent at the table for lunch.
22% of active French people preferred buying a sandwich. That explains the growing success of “sandwicheries” ( sandwich shops) and “croissanteries” where you can order, or sit down and eat it on site, tasty cold and hot sandwiches, elaborate salads, soups, and pastries, fresh juices, coffee, and even beer and sometimes wine.
Only 9% of active Parisians had lunch in a restaurant.
20% brought a home-prepared lunch and ate it at their desk.
The average cost of a quick lunch for a Parisian is around 13 dollars.
Besides many Parisians still smoke and since it is now forbidden to smoke in public places, including restaurants, they prefer café-restaurants that have a ‘’terrasse’’ (terrace or sidewalk seating).
So now a majority of restaurants in various districts of Paris, especially those frequented by local workers, shoppers and tourists, offer sidewalk dining all year long since this terraces are often partially covered with an awning and equipped with heaters.

Last month in Paris in the street (Rue du Commerce in the 15th arrondissement) where I always stay when in Paris, the weather was grey, rainy, and not too warm, But the terraces of the 2 major café-restaurants in my section of the street, ‘’A La Tour Eiffel’’ and ‘’ le Commerce Café’’ (not to be mistaken for the Café du Commerce up the street) were totally full of people enjoying their lunch and smoking from Noon to 3:00 PM.

The restaurateurs have found this astute trick to compensate for the loss of smoking customers since January 2008 when the new law banning smoking in public places started to be strictly enforced. In restaurants smoking is allowed on sidewalk terraces if they are totally open.
Also the recession that hit France over the last 2 years and the fact that many shop keepers and restaurants owners used the occasion of the passage of the French Franc to the Euro to increase their prices some years back, have greatly affected the lunching habits of Parisians.
They started to limit themselves for lunch to a single ‘’ plat du jour’’ (special dish of the day) , or a grilled sandwich like a croque-monsieur, or a hamburger, a special salad, or an omelet, and a dessert paired with water, a beer or a coke, and an espresso coffee.
Nowadays however in more fancy restaurants patronized by business people, tourists, or people who want to have a special lunch with friends, or family, or to celebrate a special occasion, you would still find customers having a long leisurely 3 or 4 course lunch with wine.
And in specialized bistros and ethnic restaurants, regulars from the neighborhood, usually older than 45, still enjoy a traditional complete lunch pretty regularly. I belong to that category.
Also in most café-restaurants and brasseries you would be surprised by the fact that most people do not drink wine with their lunch anymore. Some though still drink beer, mostly à la pression
(On tap), and the majority drink half bottles of mineral water or tap water from a carafe. Young people love to drink pop (essentially cola) with their salads, sandwiches, Paninis, or Chinese dishes. 

Since Parisians do not want to eat elaborate lunches on a regular basis anymore, cafés and restaurant owners had to find ways to keep them coming at lunch time. The ‘’plat du jour’’ and the ‘’ formules’’ became the new popular lunch items which allow them to compete with the ubiquitous sandwich shops, and with the bakeries, charcuteries-traiteurs, which sell lots of carry-out dishes nowadays.

Once again, within the framework of the following series of advice and tips to find cheap ways to have lunch in Paris I will limit myself to small café-restaurants, ethnic restaurants, and brasseries. I’m not referring to relatively fancy bistros or full-menus restaurants.

For indications of prices I will use an arbitrary exchange rate of $1.30 for 1 Euro

1. Select a plat du jour, a drink, and an espresso.

The Plat du Jour has always existed in Paris restaurants since the mid-sixties. Sometimes I wondered if it was not invented for American tourists who have always resisted to the idea of eating a complete 3 course meal at lunch time and who were often upset when they went to a restaurant and wanted to order a simple salad or sandwich and a coke or a coffee by the negative and sometimes arrogant reaction of the waiter.
Nowadays, you would never find such a lack of interest to fulfill such a simple order in any Parisian neighborhood café or brasserie.
As I said earlier, in most cafés-restaurants located in working or popular districts you will find a posting for that Plat du Jour either painted in white on the windows, or written on a piece of cardboard or paper and affixed somewhere near the entrance.
It can be a regional traditional dish such as ‘’Parmentier’’ (baked mashed potatoes with meat), a ‘’Poulet basquaise’’ (chicken cooked in as sauce with peppers), Pavé de rumsteak–frites ( steak with French fries), Epaule d’agneau aux flageolets (roasted lamb shoulder with beans), Choucroute Garnie (Cooked sauerkraut with ham, pork belly and various types of sausage, Haddock pommes purée ( Filet of cod and mashed potatoes), or Petit Salé aux lentilles ( braised salt pork with baked lentils).
Or it can be a Pasta dish, or a Pizza, or a Meat dish in some kind of sauce such as a Boeuf Bourguignon, Veau Marengo, or Blanquette de Veau (2 types of veal stews)
These plats du jour always include a garnish of vegetable or starch and sometimes are served with a small plate of simple green lettuce on the side.
The price can vary from 11 to 15 euros ($14.30 to $19.50).
If you add 1 glass of wine or half bottle of mineral water ($ 3.20)

Examples of Plats du jour I’ve noticed while strolling the streets of Paris in November 2010:

Salmon à la Plancha 10.50 euros, Confit de Canard 11.00 euros, Entrecôte ( rib steak) in a black peppercorn and cream sauce 13.00 euros, Organic rotisserie chicken 11.50 euros in a bistro in the Passage des Panoramas , in the 2nd arrondissement. Near ‘’Les Grands Boulevards’’ and Opéra
Sauté de Veau beignets d’aubergines (Sautéed Veal with eggplant fritters) 8.50 euros in another small ethnic bistro in the same passage

Scaloppini à la crème avec pâtes fraiches (Veal Scaloppini in a cream sauce served with fresh pasta) 13.00 euros at Le Petit Mabillon in the 6th near Saint Germain des Prés
Carré d’agneau persillé Pommes grenaille, haricots verts ( Loin of lamb with new small potatoes and French green beans) 13.50 euros, Chicken Milanese Scaloppini with pasta 10.00 euros, at the Commerce Café, Rue du Commerce in the 15th
Hachis Parmentier and salade (Baked mashed potatoes with ground meat, with a green salad
11.00 euros at A La Tour Eiffel, Rue du Commerce in the 15th
Usually count 3.00 euros for a draft beer or half a liter of mineral water. And 1.80 euros for an espresso.
It brings the total check for a plat du jour+ a drink and a coffee to 17.30 euros = $ 22.50

2. Select a ‘’ Formule Déjeuner’’ a drink and a coffee (sometimes included in the price)

The Formule Déjeuner includes a main dish (plat du jour) + either an appetizer (hors d’oeuvre) or a dessert and most often a cup of espresso at the end of the meal.
You will find them in most cafés-restaurants and brasseries.
They are my favorite choice for lunch.

Some examples of formulas 

In the very old-fashioned décor of Le Bistrot Victoires 6 rue la Vrillière in the 1st arrondissement near Place des Victoires a major hub for clothes designers, you can enjoy a complete meal, based on traditional dishes, for around 14 euros.
Near the Chatelet, Au Vieux Comptoir, 17 Rue des Lavandières Sainte Opportune in the 1st, a charming simple bistro you can enjoy nicely prepared typical bistro dishes from a formule de déjeuner at 13 euros.
At the Bar des Variétés 12 Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd there is a very attractive formula at 9.90 euros that offers a small salad and a very good hamburger made of beef from Salers with potatoes sautéed in goose fat, or a Plat du jour. They serve very pleasant regional wines in small carafes.
After a visit at Beaubourg enjoy a traditional but creative choice of great meat-based (very good Parmentier de canard) dishes in the charming Tire Bouchon 22 Rue Tiquetonne in the 2nd. Very tasty formule at 11 euros...
In the 5th, not too far from Notre-Dame, at 8 Rue Thénard, Le Pré Verre this funny bistro’s chef is very creative with exotic spices. The formule at 13.50 euros includes a glass of wine and an espresso.
Also in the 5th at the heart of the Latin Quarter, near Boulevard Saint Michel, great formule at 15 euros including all you can eat salad, an d a delicious cheese or meat fondue , and a ‘’sucette’’ (lolypop) for dessert at Heureux Comme Alexandre. 24 Rue de la Parcheminerie in the 5th. Nice little wines in small carafes.
In the 6th at 5 Rue Princesse,near St Germain des Prés I found a very original and tasty formula at Bar à Soupes et Quenelles, where you can have a very tasty bowl (350 ml) of freshly made soup for 6.50 euros and a quenelle de brochet (pike dumpling) for 2.50 euros. Everything is made with top quality ingredients under the supervision of the famous Lyonnais traiteur Giraudet.

Also in the 6th, Fish La Boissonnerie, 69 Rue de Seine, a very lively English-speaking bistro, they offer very good dishes inspired by the cuisine of Languedoc and Southern France in their 12.50 euros formula. Their wine list offers Languedoc and Rhône wines by the glass.
At Au Pied de Fouet, 45 Rue de Babylon in the 7th, not far from the elegant clothing shops of the Rue de Sèvres, you can have a very satisfying lunch for less than 16 euros in this totally charming bistro that has been a constant favorite of several generations of Parisians.
In the 9th, I think it was in a small trattoria rue Condorcet, I spotted a mini-menu for 12.90 euros that included Mortadella or marinated mushrooms, then an Osso Bucco, and then a mousse au chocolat or a tarte du jour.

If you walk along the delightful Canal Saint Martin, stop for lunch at La Cantine de Quentin 52 Rue Bichat in the 10th where their formule at 15 euros includes good regional traditional dishes and great desserts.

In the 11th near La Bastille, the great wine bar Les Domaines qui Montent 136 Boulevard Voltaire has a 300 wines list and they sell them by the glass for a very modest price. But you can try them with very well prepared traditional comfort food dishes, charcuterie platters, and great regional cheeses. The formule costs 14.50 euros
In fact the 11th arrondissement, between Bastille and République is one of the richest, and one of my all-time favorites districts for traditional French bistros.
Among them a few have interesting ‘’formule du déjeuner’’ and good wines by the glass:
L’Ami Pierre 5 rue de la Main d’or with its formule at 14 Euros
Le Bar à Soupes 33 Rue de Charonne, Great soups around 10 euros
Le Clown Bar 114 Rue Amelot, Great murals and décor on an old circus theme. French country comfort food. Good wines. 14.00 euros
L’Estaminet, 116 Rue Oberkampf, Spectacular salads. !2.50 Euros
Le Repaire de Cartouche 8 Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire. Rustic decor and ambiance. Very good traditional country fare and great wine list.
In the 12th, I love Les Zygomates, a very cheerful bistro located in a former charcuterie. The lunch menu at 15 euros including café attracts a loyal crowd of regulars.
Near Montparnasse, 21 Rue d’Odessa, in the 14th at Les Produits du Sud-Ouest try a few samples of such tasty treats as pâté de canard, confit, and cassoulet. The formule is at 12.50 euros at lunchtime.
For 14.00 euros ($18.20) at Le Café du Commerce 74 Rue du Commerce in the 15th you have a choice of several main dish such as a Duck Leg with mild spices with parsleyed potatoes, or Fresh Raviolis stuffed with ricotta cheese and a mesclun of greens, or a beef steak with fresh cut fries and a sauce, and a selection of desserts such as a small profiterole, or petit pot de crème with dark chocolate, or a salad of fresh citrus fruits + an espresso coffee. The quality of their beef is quite good.
And do not forget the many good Vietnamese and North-African family-owned neighborhood restaurants where you can enjoy traditional specialties such as nems and lemongrass chicken or Couscous and Tajines for about 15 euros.
Paris-Hanoi 74 Rue de Charonne in the 11th Formule around 9.00 euros
Bonjour Vietnam , 6 Rue Thouin in the 5th. Menu at 12.00 Euros
Le Lotus Blanc, 45 Rue de Bourgogne in the 7th. Formule at 12.00 euros
L’Escale à Saigon, 41 Rue de la Tombe Issoire in the 14th Menu at 14.50 Euros
Chouchou, 63 Rue Rambuteau in the 4th. Complete menu, including a decent Moroccan chicken Tajine for 13.50 euros. Go very early to secure a table.
Founti Agadir. 117 Rue Monge in the fun Mouffetard district in the 5th. Another good place to try Moroccan specialties (Couscous, Tajines, Pastilla etc.) Formule at 12.50 Euros
L’Oasis 162 Rue de Grenelle in the 7th . Good Algerian family-style food. Around 12.00 Euros
La Baraka, 70 Rue Daguerre in the 14th. Another Algerian family-owned restaurant. Charming décor. Couscous. Formule 8.50 euros

And if you want to eat a complete à la carte meal 20 euros including wine and coffee, do not bypass good old Bouillon Chartier, 7 Rue du Faubourg Montmartre in the 9th. This big old-style brasserie is practically an historical monument and truly a unique experience. The décor is the same since the 19th century. Waiters still do not write down your order but write your check on a corner of your table white paper cover. You will probably be seated with other people if you are a party of only 2 people.
Anyway expect to pay 3.50 or 3.70 euros for an appetizer of frisée salad with warm bacon, or country pate, 8.70 Euros for roasted chicken with home-made fries, and 3.90 euros for a chocolate cake with cream sauce. A small carafe of red wine will cost you 2.50 euros and an espresso coffee 1.70 euros. Total for such a lunch: around 20 euros or 26 dollars. Do not expect high level cuisine, but you will feed yourself with traditional French dishes in a very lively and popular environment.
I was there in November for the first time since 1967 and it did not have changed a bit.

Walking around Paris, you will find dozens of similar deals in practically every neighborhood of Paris except perhaps in the 8th arrondissement near the Champs-Elysées and in most of the 16th

3. Find good sandwiches or ‘’tartines’’ in ‘’sandwicheries’’, bakeries, and sometimes charcuteries.

It is a Parisian tradition when you do not have time for a sit-down lunch to go to your neighborhood café and order a sandwich, a beer, and a coffee.
Most of the time it will be a ‘’jambon-beurre’’ meaning a quarter of a fresh baguette sliced length-wise , buttered, and garnished with a couple of slices of Jambon de Paris ( a mild pale pink-colored ham), or country pate, or cold sliced roast beef.
Or you may want to order an ‘’assiette anglaise’’, a plate of pâté, ham, roast beef, cornichons, perhaps half a boiled egg and a garnish of a few leaves of lettuce and tomatoes. A Croque-Monsieur , a grilled ham and cheese sandwich of soft bread with béchamel, is also a popular lunch dish.
You usually eat these standing at the ‘’comptoir’’...
The cost of such a lunch will usually be around 10 to 12 euros.

Some wine bars are well-known for the quality of their ‘’tartines’’, (open-face sandwiches made from country or rye bread). Their main ingredients can be artisan charcuterie items like country or raw hams, ‘’rillettes’’, terrines, pâtés, or dry sausage. It can also include good cheese such as Cantal, goat cheese, Comté, or Camembert au lait cru.
Usually the owners of such cafés are also well-known for their excellent regional wines coming from small wine makers.

Two of my favorites are:

La Taverne Henri IV, 13 place du Pont Neuf (on the Pont Neuf), at the tip of Ile de La Cité in the 1st
Average price per person for a plate of good ham and camembert with a glass of wine: 20 Euros
Try some ‘’tartines’’ and plates (planches) of good quality country and artisan hams, dry sausage, cheese etc. They also serve good Escargots (12 euros for a dozen). The Tartine Chaude des Alpilles (with basil, confit of tomatoes, eggplant, and grilled goat cheese) is a real delight at 9.00 euros
But you go there for fantastic regional wines from the Beaujolais or Loire Valley that you drink by the glass or in small carafes. 

Au Sauvignon, 80 Rue des Saints-Pères in the 7th near Saint-Germain des Prés
Average price per person with a glass of wine: 18 Euros They also have formules at 15 euros.
Very good ‘’ tartines’’ made with Pain Poilane, a well-known baker located one block away, and very tasty Cantal cheese, dry cured or raw ham, mountain air cured dry sausage, rillettes, country pâtés, etc. Excellent selection of white wines from the Loire Valley (Quincy, Sancerre), and reds from Bourgueil or Mennetou-Salon.

Cosi, 54 Rue de Seine, in the 6th
This cute little bar, where good opera music is always playing in the background, bakes its own bread and offers spectacular sandwiches, often in the Italian style. Good salads.
The owners also own Fish, across the street. Great wines by the glass and good Tiramisu. There is another room on the second floor.
Sandwiches around 7 or 8 euros. 

Try also some good ‘’sandwicheries’’. They usually offer all kinds of grilled and cold sandwiches, salads, and a few simple hot dishes, such as ‘’ tartiflette’’, desserts and drinks...

One of my favorite chains is La Croissanterie.
Created in 1977 in Paris as a purveyor of croissants and brioches, they expanded a lot in the 90`s and now offer complete dishes on one plate made of freshly ingredients prepared every day. They have now 180 restaurants all over Europe.
The one I go to is next to the Eglise Saint Germain des Prés on Blvd Saint Germain in the 6th.
It is a very attractive and clean operation with confortable tables and chairs inside and on the sidewalk terrace.
Good cold and hot sandwiches, pasta dishes, risotto, cold salmon plates, quiches, pastries. They offer mini-menus including a drink and a dessert priced between 5 and 9 euros.

Bon appétit à Paris.
All photos By Alain Maes


  1. What a wonderful guide to eating well and economically in Paris, Alain!

    One of our favorite lunch tricks is to share a sandwiche jambon from a bakery - under $2 euros per person, at least as of 2008. When we arrive in Paris, whether we are at a hotel or apartment, we buy a jar of mayo, some cornichons, aioli, and some cheese.

    Bonne Annee!


  2. Thanks Mimi,
    And may your 2011 year be better and more serene than the last one.
    Hope you will make it to Paris. or la Vallee du Lot, this year.
    All the best,

  3. Marcos10:42 PM

    I have no words to express how grateful I am. Thank you for sharing this !

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