French Chefs Are Breathing New Life into Traditional Meals in Paris

Alex Cretey Systermans

All across Paris, ambitious restaurateurs are doing what was once almost unthinkable: reinventing the classic bistro experience by offering fresh takes on traditional fare (served with a smile).

As the former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times and a resident of the city for 17 years, I’m asked every few weeks by friends, family members, coworkers, even perfect strangers for advice on where to eat in Paris. What I usually don’t tell them about is the small bistro near my apartment that I call my cantine, my regular neighborhood place to eat. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in Paris because, for me, le bon accueil—the warm welcome—is as important as what’s on the plate. And this place makes me feel at home.

I am greeted by name when I arrive and am never rushed through the courses and out the door. Rather, I enjoy easy conversation with the team, even the chef when activity in the kitchen slows down. The French call such verbal exchange partage—sharing—and it can make all the difference in a dining experience. The bistro serves nothing fancy, just four starters, four main courses, and four desserts. But everything, from a thick slice of rare calf’s liver with potato purée to a whole sole meunière with a green salad, is made with the freshest of ingredients and a good amount of culinary care.


Alex Cretey Systermans

One reason I haven’t told people about my bistro is that I’m afraid it will become famous and I’ll never get a table there again. Another reason is that for so long, the most reliably rewarding meals in Paris were to be found in the most reliable places: classic restaurants and bistros serving excellent versions of traditional French cuisine. Think blanquette de veau, with its heavy cream sauce, or warm tarte Tatin with vanilla ice cream.

But now something has changed. Those kinds of bistros are getting harder to find, or they’re beginning to show their age. Young Parisians want American-style brunch, hamburger joints, sushi chains, vegetarian cafés, and all manner of the internationalized cuisine that globalism has ushered in. Yet these shifts have also created opportunities for chefs, both up-and-coming and long established, to experiment. Many are opening small but ambitious bistros in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, like my corner of South Pigalle. Others are immigrant chefs adding a new palette of flavors and techniques—including Italians, who have finally brought al dente pasta to Paris. Still others are breathing life into old favorites. The result is that there are more exciting and surprising dining experiences to have in Paris than I have seen in years.

One of the most welcome changes is that young female chefs are breaking into what was once an all-male club. Julia Sedefdjian, now 24, made a name for herself three years ago as the youngest chef in France to helm a Michelin-starred restaurant (Les Fables de La Fontaine). She now is the chef at Baieta, a casual place with minimalist decor and a Mediterranean touch that opened two years ago in the Fifth Arrondissement. Her version of pissaladière, the black olive, anchovy, and sautéed onion tart of Nice, is not only pleasingly familiar but also somehow a breath of fresh air. A starter of egg yolk in a crunchy sphere served on raw and smoked haddock and poached leeks followed by caramelized, ginger-glazed pork breast with puréed celeriac and peanuts shows a mastery of creating new flavors.

Hers is the kind of neo-bistro that has become a new standard for Paris: low-key spots where inventive chefs mix and match European culinary influences—and win Michelin stars in the process. At L’Arcane in Montmartre, you put yourself entirely in the hands of Swiss chef Laurent Magnin and his wife, Sophie. There is no menu, and each meal is a wonderful surprise. Out comes a succession of exceedingly refined dishes, like a checkerboard of chèvre panna cotta and green basil sorbet squares, or grilled veal with eggplant and candied tomatoes. “I prepare everything at the last possible minute before serving,” says Laurent. “I take a no-waste approach. The refrigerator is empty every night and full again the next morning.”


Alex Cretey Systermans

Similar creativity is on display at Bruno Verjus’s Table. Verjus studied to be a medical doctor, headed a company, did commentary on France Culture radio, and created a food blog before he opened Table in 2013. Despite this lack of formal culinary training, Table received a Michelin star in 2018. I had lunch there one day with a friend who had known Verjus for more than 25 years. We sat at the long counter facing the open kitchen so we could watch the team at work. My favorites were the sautéed chanterelles with guinea-fowl-egg yolk and roast pigeon with crumbled pistachios. We finished with simple but decadent sautéed apricots with Greek honey and toasted-brioche ice cream.

The “neo” part of these neo-bistros doesn’t mean that they’re reinventing the wheel. At Vantre, off the Place de la République, the decor— marble-topped tables, unvarnished hardwood floor— is reminiscent of any number of plat-du-jour spots in the city. But there’s a reason Beyoncé and Jay-Z chose to eat here. Chef Iacopo Chomel’s menu stands out not for culinary pyrotechnics but rather for the excellence of its ingredients and the confident simplicity of their preparation. (The gnocchi in sage butter are the best I’ve had, maybe ever.) Just as impressive is the swoon-worthy wine list, established by Marco Pelletier, formerly of Le Bristol.

Alongside the upstart chefs working off the beaten track, some of the city’s culinary institutions and most famous restaurateurs are continuing to up their games. Le Train Bleu, the Belle Epoque dining room in the Gare de Lyon, is a Paris fantasy in real life and arguably the most beautiful restaurant in all of Paris. Renovated and reopened last year by Michel Rostang, of the Michelin two-star Maison Rostang, Le Train Bleu shows itself off with magnificent artwork, gilded plasterwork, and crystal chandeliers. The ceilings of the two main dining rooms depict landscapes of the French countryside where trains from the Gare de Lyon are destined.

Rostang has installed a gifted new chef who has preserved the classics, like a roasted gigot of lamb with potato gratin and luxurious grilled turbot in beurre blanc, with baby spinach and the creamiest of mashed potatoes.

Recently a friend and I treated ourselves to a 21⁄2-hour lunch. I started with a Lyonnais specialty, quenelles de brochet, islands of baked pike mousseline floating in a coral-pink Newburg sauce, served bubbling hot in an iron casserole. I’m not a big red-meat eater, but one of Le Train Bleu’s signature dishes is a melt-in-your-mouth beef fillet au sautoir, set aflame tableside. (Flambéing food is one of the restaurant’s rituals.) How could I resist?

My dining partner chose the pâté en croûte with a tangy red-onion compote and a steak tartare made with fine Salers beef and served with crispy, hand-cut fried potatoes and a mesclun salad. Paris was seized by a heat wave, but he insisted we indulge in dessert: an enormous baba au rhum with whipped cream and profiteroles with the deepest brown-black chocolate sauce. Our waiter, Pierre-Michaël Thoreau, is also an actor, and he recited Baudelaire poems to us as we ate. Just as romantic a dining encounter comes on the Seine, where Alain Ducasse, the restaurateur with the most Michelin stars to his name, launched a floating, 130-seat gastronomic restaurant, Ducasse sur Seine, last fall. The custom-made glass-sided boat takes diners upand downstream from its berth on the Right Bank across from the Eiffel Tower. It may sound like a tourist trap, but it’s not. The fouror five-course dinner is prepared on board with typical Ducasse excellence: wild mushroom amuse-bouche; smoked eel with watercress, sea potatoes, and a dollop of gold caviar; blue lobster with spinach and chanterelles. Enjoying such a meal while gliding past one of the most beautiful riverbanks in the world is a rare treat.

My all-time favorite splurge-worthy restaurant in Paris is Guy Savoy in the Monnaie de Paris. Its virtuosic cuisine—you must try the artichoke soup with black truffles and Parmesan and a buttered brioche once in your life—and impeccable service have earned the restaurant three stars and a hallowed status among gastronomes, but Chef Guy treats it like it’s a warm and cozy bistro. He absolutely cannot stay in the kitchen. He revels in schmoozing, hugging, and taking photos with his guests.


Alex Cretey Systermans

I find a similar bonhomie, in a decidedly less formal setting, at La Forge, on Rue Pascal: With orchids and white tablecloths on the tables and its home-style cuisine from the French southwest, this off-the-beaten-track establishment in the Fifth Arrondissement is run by chef Jean-François Le Guillou, who may just be the nicest restaurateur in Paris. You can’t go wrong with the salmon tartare or the duck confit with garlicky potatoes cooked in goose fat—and Le Guillou has the enthusiastic regulars to prove it. “It’s like participatory theater,” he says. “The diners are part of the show.”

When I really crave the feeling of belonging, I head not to a French restaurant but to Osteria Ferrara, on a small street in an out-of-the-way part of the 11th Arrondissement. There, Fabrizio Ferrara seduces me with the taste of Sicily: octopus rice salad; pasta with a sauce of fresh sardines, pine nuts, juniper berries, and fennel; raviolis and risottos; and, on special occasions, cannoli with bits of chocolate and preserved fruits. What I really go for is Ferrara’s caponata, which fuses the freshest eggplant, tomatoes, and green olives into a sensuous velvet. But he adds a twist: The celery is only lightly sautéed and added at the end, so it stays crispy. Yes, I am in Paris at the Osteria, but if I close my eyes, I could be in the basement kitchen of my home in Buffalo, where my grandfather Gaetano cooked caponata with the eggplant and tomatoes he grew in the backyard.

I suppose I should be as generous as my favorite Paris chefs are with me. So I’ll tell you the name of my neighborhood cantine: Les Canailles. When Yann Le Pevedic, one of the owners, answers the phone to take your reservation, tell him that I sent you. Just don’t tell any of your friends about the place.

Paris Dining Cheat Sheet

Where to find the best versions of classic dishes—and a few other useful tips.

Blanquette de veau: The best one is served in a copper pot at Chez Monsieur, in the Eighth Arrondissement.

Stuffed cabbage: Find it at Le Quincy, in the 12th, which is cash-only.

Wild hare à la royale: Order it during game season in the fall at Drouant, in the Second.

Escargots and lamb with lingot beans: My favorites are both at Sébillon, right outside Paris in Neuillysur-Seine.

Steak tartare: The version at La Rotonde, in the Sixth, is perfect. 105 Blvd. du Montparnasse; 33-1/43-26-48-26

Cassoulet: You can’t go wrong at Au Trou Gascon, in the 12th.

Tarte Tatin: My go-to is at the Berthillon salon de thé, on the Ile St.-Louis. 

Dining alone I send solo travelers to Astair, in the covered Passage des Panoramas near the Bourse, for hearty comfort cuisine like boudin noir and a convivial atmosphere at its wraparound bar.

No reservations: Many neo-bistros don’t accept advance bookings, and some don’t even have phone numbers. Go at 6:45. Since Parisians tend to dine no earlier than eight, you’ll usually get a table.

Sunday nights: most good places are closed on Sunday nights, but La Rôtisserie d’Argent, on the Left Bank near Notre-Dame, is not. It captures the feel of a traditional brasserie, with red-and-white checked tablecloths and spit-roasted meats. Try the roast duckling for two.

Good museum restaurants: The Musée des Arts Décoratifs, an arm of the Louvre, has a restaurant named Loulou, after Loulou de la Falaise. It’s open until 2 a.m. and has a terrace facing the Tuileries. Its sister museum near the Parc Monceau, the Musée Nissim de Camondo, has a lovely spot, Le Camondo, with an adjoining cobblestoned terrace.