One of my favourite casual places to go on the left bank is Le Petit Prince de Paris, a comfortable and lively restaurant not far from Pantheon. The menu is sort of updated classic French; nothing too inventive, but not dull either. And achievable, with good ingredients and appropriate attention from the kitchen. But I like the place most because it has a good buzz. It's been a sort of gay restaurant for 20 years; nothing overt, not in a gay neighbourhood, but popular with young Parisian men. Lately it's been featured in a lot of food guides (including Zagat) so it gets a much broader mix of people. But it remains festive and comfortable and a place I'm happy to know and go back to.
My friend Richard booked us into this restaurant near Madeleine the other day. He knew it in its previous incarnation as a Burgundian brasserie, complete with cheap brass plaques commemorating regulars' favourite tables. It's morphed into Chez Cécile now, a comfortable restaurant with an ambitious chef. I'm writing this too far after the meal to remember details, but there were a lot of touches of inventiveness on the menu that worked. Meat flavoured with smoked hay. Ravioli with coconut milk and vanilla. Etc. New cooking, not hidebound French tradition, and it worked. We'll be back.
If you look in any guidebook for "authentic Paris bistro" you're likely to be sent to Benoit. It's been in Paris forever, was a favourite of politiians, bought by Alain Ducasse' prestigious company, and has even gotten a star from Michelin. But is it that good? Not really.
I've been twice in two separate years now and to be honest, the place suffers too much under the weight of its reputation. The clientele is 90% tourists, sapping the will and joy out of the staff there. The menu is classic bistro, which is to say a bit hackneyed. Everything is prepared well enough but nothing is particularly good. Nothing is bad either, and the service is very good. It's just uninspiring.
Paris is so full of honest and earnest places that there's no need to go to someone just making the motions. If you're looking for a good traditional meal in Paris and you're not sure how to find a place, by all means go to Benoit. It's certainly good. But if you want something interesting save the evening for somewhere new.
Ken pulled a real gem out of Zagat last weekend; Le Caveau du Palais. Everyone wants to eat at a bistro when they visit Paris, but the truth is most "bistros" are crappy French short order restaurants with the exact same menu. Duck confit. Steak with shallots. Broiled bass. Steak tartare. Roasted chicken.
The difference with Le Caveau is it's very very good. The food is prepared with great care and excellent ingredients. The terrine du porc was homemade, they just brought out a big casserole and said "cut yourself as much as you want". My duck confit was one of the best I've had in a very long time, with fanastically garlicky and leathery pommes sarladaise. Ken's chicken breast with cream sauce and morels was perfect as well. Good wine list, too.
It's rare to find a simple bistro that does so well. Benoit is where most people will be sent, and you'll do OK, but Le Caveau felt more like the real thing to me. The location is phenomenal as well, in the middle of the touristy Cité island but in a quiet corner on a handsome square. It felt like the kind of place where all the Parisian ministers go for lunch. On a Saturday night it was very quiet.
As pleasant as my apartment is, I live in the middle of tourist hell just behind Notre Dame. So I'm generally suspcious of the restaurants a short walk from my place. But there are a few gems here, including Le Brasserie de l'Île St. Louis. It's a 135+ year old Alsatian brasserie right on the island, just to the left from the bridge from Cité. And it's a lovely casual little brasserie, lots of hearty portions of sauerkraut and cured pork and the like. Lunch today was some lovely slices of roast veal served alongside cauliflower au gratin. Nothing subtle, but made with care, cheap, and delicious.
Several times I've heard American friends complain about how when they go to a restaurant, they're stuck in a corner with the other Americans in "the bad room". I've had it happen to me too, but I've learned that it's not really hostility at all, it's the restaurant trying to make me comfortable.
Foremost, the non-smoking room is often the American room. French people don't seem to ask for l'espace non-fumeur very often, so the folks who want to eat their meal without smelling noxious smoke often end up being Americans. And secondarily, good restaurants often have one waiter who speaks the best English; you'll be assigned to his room as a matter of course. No insult intended, they're just trying to make you (and themselves) happy.
So go with it. And when the table next to you starts bleating loudly about their diets and stock portfolios, enjoy the pleasure that they can overhear you commenting nastily about them.