The cliche is that it's impossible to get a bad meal in Paris. Well, you can get a meal that isn't bad, but isn't so great either, and you can overpay. What is impossible-- is to avoid people giving you advice on where to eat in Paris. So here's my advice.
Dining high: Taillevent is listed first in Zagat's Top Food category for Paris restaurants and first in their Most Popular category. But Taillevent, traditionally a three star restaurant in the Michelin Guide, has been demoted to two stars by Michelin. The two guides are hardly mirror images of each other and it is the more populist Zagat that holds the luxurious restaurant in higher regard. Rating madness aside, if you're willing to spend the money for the pleasures of haute cuisine, go to Taillevent for lunch.
The estimable food writer, Jeffrey Steingarten, once passed that on to me-- for dining in a haute cuisine Paris restaurant, if the money and the atmosphere for a non-French speaking person seems like it will be intimidating, choose the less pressured lunch environment instead of dinner.
Taillevent offers an 80 Euro lunch. I realize that's already serious money, but we are on the high end here. Lunch consists of a starter, main course, cheese course, and dessert. The portions are substantial. They're not skimping for lunch. The food is superb. Recently, I had mushroom ravioli to start-- never had anything like it. Then duck breast re-imagined. It was like duck steak. Never had anything like that, as well. Wonderful cheese. And dessert on the I-really-shouldn't-have-this-at-lunch-but-I'm-in-Paris level and it was outstanding.
My group of five ordered a bottle of champagne to begin. We were celebrating. We had come to Paris for the opening of the French language stage adaptation of my novel, "Kramer vs. Kramer." We ordered a second bottle of wine for the meal, and the tally-- lunch, two bottles, additional tip, was about $130 a person, more than is probably decent, but this is indeed Paris haute cuisine and nowhere near the amounts people pay for dinner at these cathedrals of dining. It seems slightly insane to say it, lunch at Taillevent is a good value.
Dining at the low end: On this trip I flirted with an idea that you can eat well on vacation in Paris and never once order cooked food. That would be budget Paris. Bread and cheese. Sandwiches and more sandwiches. The bread is so great, the ingredients so fresh. It's a thought.
A realistic strategy for saving money while eating well in Paris is to do a variation on the previous thought and simply have sandwiches for some of your lunches. We had a beautiful lunch sitting by the fountain in the plaza at The Louvre, eating sandwiches from the museum cafe. And I had a great sandwich-- can a sandwich be great? This was, smoked salmon, at Café des Musées, a first rate bistro near The Picasso Museum. Of course, it's not only the bread that makes the sandwiches in Paris so special, they put that excellent French butter on the sandwiches, and in this case, sea salt on the smoked salmon. My friends ordered delicious bistro food there while I was in some other zone-- it troubles me a little to say it, but I have to-- a smoked salmon zone beyond Sable's, beyond Barney Greengrass, beyond Zabar's, beyond Russ & Daughters, with my sandwich at Café des Musées.
Dining in the middle: The middle is any of the innumerable bistros of Paris which America's imitation bistros are based on. I've been emphasizing lunch here. A lovely bistro for dinner is Maison du Jardin near the Luxembourg Gardens. And you could do an entire bistro dinner highlight reel off Le Comptoir du Relais, as it's listed in Zagat, Le Comptoir as it's called in Michelin, located a few steps from Saint-Germain.
It's the restaurant scene of restaurant scenes, people in a straggly line on the sidewalk waiting to get in, the overflow drinking wine and eating in the adjacent hors d'oeuvres bar, also waiting to get in, everyone in a mad flight pattern orchestrated by the restaurant manager. They take reservations on a restricted basis which contributes to the mayhem, and it's been copiously publicized. Anthony Bourdain featured the place on a Paris segment of his television show. Zagat gives it a food rating of 26. The highest possible is 28.
Here's the crazy thing. One minute you're not much more than a bum waiting on the sidewalk, being told by the manager to back up, move away from the entrance. But then you're in and you've gone from bum to family. They embrace you, what can we do for you, what can we bring you? The food is terrific. The chicken is comparable to the chicken at Chez l'Amis Louis without the attitude and without the tariff. Outside, people are standing in line as you were. Want to linger over dessert and coffee? No problem. It's your table. You earned it. Comptoir is the kind of place that makes you feel this is what you came to Paris for.
I'm over the top about New York, always was, always will be. In the novel, "Kramer vs. Kramer," and now, delightfully, in the French adaptation, there's actually a reference to the Football Giants. But whatever your budget, they've got some city for eating, that place, Paris.