Paris is still very much Europe’s cool kid: enticing in an international crowd yet refusing to change for any tourist. They don’t do compromise, unnecessary niceties or British sarcasm but they do pack a punch of charm and culinary class (more of which later!) The proud Parisian- with their colour coordinated neck scarf and trench coat- can seem a little intimidating when placed next to your practical waterproof and ‘first-day-at-school’ style backpack. There’s so much sophistication and sass that you might wonder whether Paris has any space for trivial delight and silly sentiment. Is it all pretension and poise or does Paris have an unappreciated playful side?
Famed for its 2-hour lunch breaks, bread baskets and cheese boards, Paris is a place where fine food isn’t considered a luxury but a necessity. They have a fabulous attitude to food that involves eating everything as long as it’s fresh, flavoursome and with friends. Apparently the secret to the French paradox (dieting on dairy and wine and staying slim) is savouring food: taking time to enjoy each and every flavour. That and filling up on smaller portions, beautifully presented and suitably sized.
(Egg Maynaise Paris style at Café de l'Époque)
Messing with the menu is still considered a faux pas. It’s a cultural characteristic I’ve grown to know and love because ultimately it makes meal times so much easier: chefs cut out the conundrum of too much choice by creating several statement dishes (usually 5-8 starters/mains) designed to be eaten and enjoyed as is. An allergy is another thing but fussy eaters are unfavourable in France. Vegetarian options are a rarity in certain restaurants (although you’ll usually find one fish option if you’re a pescatarian) so your best bet is to check the menu and if you really must, ring ahead: the chef might not be pleased but at least he’ll be prepared! Even though the concept of vegetarianism seems strange and unfamiliar to many, Paris has started play its part with an exciting offering of boutique restaurants, cafes and bakeries- some even verging on Vegan! We were shocked to stumble across Cloud Cakes a small coffee shop in the 2nd arrondissement selling vegan croissants, cakes and lattes! Momarte’s Marcelle- a modern, clean-living café- also offers a selection of almond milk lattes, avocado-and-something brunches and coconut based cakes.
Paris is rich in Michelin star restaurants. But what if you’re looking for something a little less fancy and accepting of your trainers? You want to fill up on fine flavours but without blowing your budget in one evening? Your best bet is to seek out the up and coming restaurants who might be nurturing Paris’ next Raymond Blanc (celebrity chef and restaurateur) or Anne-Sophie Pic (the fourth woman in the world to attain three Michelin stars). A perfect example is Le Coupe Gorge, a small, unassuming restaurant off a side street in the Le Marais region. Its simple shop front and upstairs seating arrangement might suggest an empty establishment to passers-by. But go up the winding stairs and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find a small- but always fully booked- dining room. The food was fabulous and far better than the price we paid (proving that what you pay isn’t always what you get!) and the talented and gracious chef took the time to ask us about our meal. You can pay for professional but you can't buy personal and polite and they really are the makers of a marvellous meal!
Another gem in the heart of the Marais region is L’Ange 20, a typical French bistro serving up a real taste of Paris. It’s clearly a hit because it was booked up solid but thankfully we managed to bag a 7pm cancellation on our second night. I had the most delicious main course: cod fillet served on risotto with lobster foam…and I’m still dreaming about it now! Considering the quality of food and the service €19 for a main really was a bargain.
The most unexpected- and probably the best- food find during our stay came in the form of gluten-free focaccia. Set in the trendy area of Oberkampf, Chambelland bakes some of the best focaccia bread I have ever had (and the bakery is entirely gluten free!) Served plain, topped with herbs or in dessert form, it is the perfect place to stop off for a snack, sandwich or- as we did- supplies for a picnic in the park.
For entertainment, Paris has many brilliant- but busy- attractions. If it’s your first or second time in the French capital then there are some obvious sights to see and things to do. There are many blogs and travel guides documenting the ins and outs of these so for the purposes of uncovering ‘play’ in Paris, I have chosen to omit these attractions, partly because I don’t find queuing pleasant or playful but also because I want to show you something new: you know about the Eiffel tower but have you heard about the city centre caves?
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is one of Paris’ most popular parks because of its panoramic views over the city. The park is home to waterfalls, temples, vertical cliffs and caves and is located right in the heart of North-Eastern Paris. It’s also a great place to uncover Paris’ abandoned railway line: The Petite Ceinture. This little known belt of railway runs for almost 20miles, encircling the old city walls as they stood during the reign of Napoleon III. This near-forgotten railroad is now a bohemian playground and makes for a stunning stroll (although is technically illegal, so if you’d rather play by the rules the park makes offers a great viewing platform).
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont also backs onto Belleville, Paris’ hipster hangout and the old haunt of iconic cabaret singer Edith Piaf. You can easily lose a few hours exploring its vintage shops, street art, markets and coffee roasters.
One of the best ways of exploring the city (although I’d say any city) is by foot, because you’ll stumble across parts of Paris you’d never know existed had you stayed on the Big Bus Tour. On one day we walked nearly 16km and saw so many sides to Paris: The Rue de Seine and surrounding streets which are host to the highest concentration of art galleries and antique dealers in the world; the alleyways of Monmartre lined with fashion boutique, jewellers and apparently the best baguette in Paris (Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses); nap time in Nelson Mandela Park; coffee overlooking Canal Saint-Martin at a delightful lock near the Place de Stalingrad; Al fresco dining in Les Halles- perfect to watch the world go by!
I was delighted to see signs of the Parisian stereotype (beret wearing with baguette in hand) but that really is just one snippet of this diverse and dynamic city. Whilst they do have some almost compulsory cultural customs (e.g. fresh bread!) the city is somehow managing to seamlessly blend the old with the new, fusing flavours and fashions and finding a happy medium between frogs legs and Kentucky Fried Chicken!
So yes- play is well and truly on the menu!
Where we ate:
Café de l'Époque
2 Rue du Bouloi, 75001 Paris
6 Rue Mandar, 75002 Paris
22 Rue Montmartre, 75001 Paris
Le Coupe Gorge:
2 Rue de la Coutellerie, 75004 Paris
Restaurant L'Ange 20:
44 Rue des Tournelles, 75004 Paris
14 Rue Ternaux, 75011 Paris
Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses:
38 Rue des Abbesses, 75018 Paris
Where we went:
1 rue Botzaris 75019 Paris
Nearest Subway: Buttes-Chaumont
Bus Lines: 26, 60, 75
Rue de Seine:
Located in the 6th Arrondissement of Paris
Located in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris
1 Rue Pierre Lescot, 75001 Paris
The canal can be accessed from the following Métro stations:
Stalingrad, République, Goncourt, Jaurès, Oberkampf,Richard-Lenoir, Bastille, and Quai de la Rapée.